How the Mortal Kombat movie balances ‘video game canon corny,’ legacy, and being grounded

The 2021 Mortal Kombat movie has a lot of baggage attached to it. The legacy of the famous 1995 film and successful game series loom in the background while the specter of the over-discussed video game movie curse hovers over above the entire project. And, to top it all off, it has to be a good movie in its own right (and it, for the most part, is). That’s a lot of pressure from a lot of different sources and the film grapples with those elements in a few ways.

Rated R for “Respect”

How the Mortal Kombat movie balances 'video game canon cheese,' legacy, and being grounded

Authenticity is one of the big sticking points for most licensed movies. Many of them suffer from their bizarre, inaccurate depictions of the worlds they’re attempting to portray, which has been a trend that’s started to reverse itself over the past few years. The R rating is the biggest example of the film’s commitment to the series signature violence and gore as something as important as a rating influences the entire project.

Jessica McNamee (Sonya Blade) applauded the R rating because it did “the film justice” and let them delve into the “really gory, bloody, gross side to Mortal Kombat” that the 1995 film couldn’t truly showcase. Josh Lawson, who plays the foul-mouth Kano, agreed that this rating was fundamental to its ability to accurately portray what makes Mortal Kombat Mortal Kombat.

“It brings a more accurate representation of what the game is,” he said. “I don’t think the fans would settle for less than that, nor should they. [To the characters] it brings the opportunity to represent those Fatalities. The Fatalities are such an iconic part of the game. Again, it’s all just trying to be as truthful and respectful and to the fans as possible and the elements of Fatalities and the R rating, they’re just inextricably linked. You have to do that in order to be a Mortal Kombat movie.”

There are few characters that represent that R rating more than Lawson’s Kano. He shoots lasers (that presumably have a meaty target), rips out a heart, and swears in all sorts of creative ways. Kano has always been the biggest human scumbag in all of Mortal Kombat, but he has rarely been afforded the opportunity to be this trashy. Trevor Goddard’s portrayal in the 1995 had to live within the PG-13 limits, which made it difficult to be a motherfucker when you can’t even say “motherfucker.” Lawson gets to curse it up as much as he wants, but he later had to pay the price for his cuss-laden improv.

“There’s quite a bit of swearing. [laughs] Every time you do a movie, you have to do a PG pass on it in post,” he explained. “There’s a version where you have to change all the swear words and I felt I was in there for a couple of days. I was like, ‘Oh shit, there are like 500 fucks in this thing? Oh my god.'”

Defining “video game canon corny”

How the Mortal Kombat movie balances 'video game canon cheese,' legacy, and being grounded

There were zero “fucks” in the 1995 movie, but still plenty of cheese. That movie heavily evoked the times and was full of cheesy one-liners that were equal parts cringeworthy and charming. The 2021 film is not too far off from Paul W.S. Anderson’s rendition in this regard. Kung Lao, after a particularly bloody fight, exclaims that he had a “flawless victory.” Kano similarly mutters to himself “Kano wins” after tearing out a heart. The movie is filled with these lines that are unnaturally ripped from the game.

It’s undeniably corny, but Mehcad Brooks — Jax in the film — has a different view and term for it.

“I respectfully take issue with the characterization that it is ‘cheesy’ and I say that with all of the love and respect that I can,” he said. “I think that these characters are grounded in reality and physics and the situation is really adventurous and fantastical. In that blend, there’s an interesting world you have to live in where you have to be big enough to be a video game character but at the same time you have to be believable to be a real person. I think everybody pulled that off. I like to think that if we have to go down that route, let’s say ‘video game canon corny.’ [laughs]”

“Video game canon corny” works because it somehow feels like a nod to how goofy Mortal Kombat is as well a possible tacit acknowledgement of the 1995 film that heavily trafficked in the series’ catch phrases. People don’t naturally say “Finish Him!” yet omitting this would probably make some fans angry. Lewis Tan, who plays newcomer Cole Young, seemed to know exactly what kind of weird Mortal Kombat was yet agreed with Brooks in how they were still grounded in some sort of reality.

“There are parts in the older movie and even in the game that are iconic in a way that’s hilarious and evokes that response where you go ‘Oh my god, that’s so funny,'” said Tan. “And I think I agree with what Mehcad is saying. We were trying to make this movie have a tone where there was a balance between having those amazing Mortal Kombat-feeling lines but then making them true to the character by making them feel real for the situation.”

Mortal Kombat is full of gods, sorcerers, sentient robots, winged vampires, and more otherworldly entities. It’s inherently larger than life in addition to being silly and incredibly violent. Juggling all of that is quite the task, but no other Mortal Kombat film has been so honest about all of those elements. And acknowledging that history is a good recipe for making an authentic movie that withstands the krushing blows of the harshest fans.