'Mortal Kombat', as a video game series, has been around for a very long time; a multi-decade survival that's often required it to fall back on easy gimmicks to keep itself afloat. Back in 1992, the original fighting game had its violence and digitised human actors. Then the sequels got more violent. And then some of the entries in the middle were just as much about stupid gag modes as they were about the actual combat.
A funny thing happened when the developers at NetherRealm rebooted the series in 2011, though: 'Mortal Kombat' turned into a real, serious fighting game, one that knew exactly how not-seriously to take its convoluted, generation-spanning storyline. The story mode has the exact same narrative logic as an 80s or 90s porn movie - some people are hanging out in their temple or taking a walk near a gigantic bridge, they get to talking, and next thing you know...
The last three games in the series have had really fun stories. I mean, not like... literary masterpieces or anything, but stories that lean into the fun of the whole "ultra-violent kung fu movie with magical beings and demigods" angle. 'Mortal Kombat' became more than just "'Enter the Dragon' but with demons and shit." It became "'Star Wars' meets 'Enter the Dragon' but with demons and shit" - and it was awesome.
Unfortunately, outside of the medium of video games, 'Mortal Kombat' has found less luck. The 1995 'Mortal Kombat' movie has only two major redeeming qualities: it isn't 1997's 'Mortal Kombat: Annihilation', and it brought Oliver Adams' 'Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)' into our collective lives. A violence-free cartoon series, 'Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm', was also dire.
Directed by Ethan Spaulding (who co-directed 'Batman: Assault on Arkham') from a screenplay seemingly written on a napkin by Jeremy Adams, the animated film 'Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge' opens with the tragic backstory of the ninja master who would become the series' mascot, Scorpion (Patrick Seitz). Following a brutal prologue that briefly homages imagery from Sam Peckinpah's 'The Wild Bunch' (we watch a scorpion fighting ants as a tale is told) and Kenji Misumi's 'Lone Wolf & Cub' (a blood-soaked waterfall), the movie introduces all the other classic characters as they assemble for the eponymous martial arts tournament between Earthrealm and Outworld for the fate of both dimensions.
'MORTAL KOMBAT LEGENDS: SCORPION'S REVENGE' TRAILER
Ranked from least to most obnoxious, the core good guys are kung-fu warrior Liu Kang (Jordan Rodrigues, 'Lady Bird'), thunder god Raiden (Dave B. Mitchell, 'The Queen's Corgi'), movie star Johnny Cage (Joel McHale, 'The Happytime Murders'), and soldier Sonya Blade (Jennifer Carpenter, 'Dragged Across Concrete'). "I'm not interested," Sonya tells Johnny upon their first meeting, who creepily replies, "You will be. They always are." Their banter is truly the worst.
Meanwhile, Scorpion is rampaging through hell like 'Samurai Jack' until he encounters necromancer Quan Chi (Darin De Paul), prompting a scene that tips its hat to Ralph Bakshi's cult fantasy 'Fire & Ice' (this movie is fond of cool cinematic references that would likely fly over the head of its target audience). As the participants engage each other in escalating showdowns: Scorpion plots his own vengeance from beyond the grave against Sub-Zero (Steve Blum), the ice magic-wielding ninja responsible for the loss of his family.
One of the first, most striking things about this movie is how gruesomely violent its action sequences are. It takes a lot of visual cues from the games itself and the aforementioned far better films. For example, a scene where Jax gets his arms torn off by Goro is swiped from Yoshiaki Kawajiri's 'Ninja Scroll'. This is no Studio Ghibli cartoon intended for audiences of all ages. Rather, it is gory and unashamed of being unsavoury, relying on shock value for dramatic effect. This film knows its audience is here for the hard-hitting action the franchise is infamous for, and it certainly delivers, even if it means we have to see dozens of x-ray shots of skulls being crushed and tendons being snapped. 'Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge' exhausts its bag of tricks around 30 minutes into its running time but, like Johnny Cage unsuccessfully attempting to chat up Sonya Blade and avoid getting kicked in the family jewels, it ploughs on regardless.
Is this an animated film for adult fans who are recovering from a traumatic brain injury? Kid psychopaths? Extremely undemanding teenagers?
The second-most striking thing about this film is how awful everything else is.
Character designs are flat (Raiden's conical hat looks ... weird) and ugly (black bars appear on cheekbones and knuckles in lieu of shadows) and stiffly animated until the action scenes arrive - the quicker that everything moves, the silkier the animation becomes.
As you can imagine from a film based on a fighting game and titled 'Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge', the screenplay is not this film's strong suit. The story acts as an introduction to the 'Mortal Kombat' franchise for new viewers (serving the same purpose as the 90s prequel cartoon 'Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins'). The characters are secondary to the fights, with barely enough background provided for the various combatants and the nature of the tournament they are participating in. Johnny and Sonya receive the most time in the spotlight and get the closest to having character arcs. Many faces familiar to longtime fans of the franchise appear just long enough to grunt out a line of dialogue before being pounded into a slurry of blood and bone fragments.
On the subject of dialogue, did I mention that the playful banter between Sonya and Johnny is excruciating? "I'm going to use your ass as my own personal punching bag," Sonya promises an enemy, prompting Johnny to chime in with: "Ohhh, that's so hot." Later in the film, Sonya asks an opponent to respect her personal boundaries: "Fuckballs, no one touches me without permission." A romantic subplot between the two characters is Shakespearean in its tenderness, as Johnny confiders to another character: "Ya know, I guess I don't mind having my balls crushed ... by her, I mean!"
Ultimately, I was left wondering who the fuck this movie was targeted at. The violence and language are incredibly graphic, yet the insultingly basic plot, characterisation and dialogue are surely aimed at children. Is this an animated film for adult fans who are recovering from a traumatic brain injury? Kid psychopaths? Extremely undemanding teenagers?
If you're a fan of the video games, then stick to them - the visuals and narrative deliver a much higher level of sophistication than 'Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge'.