In case you missed the news, Ken Tanchroen – best (only?) known as the director of the Fame remake you already forgot about – has won the job of rebooting Mortal Kombat for Warner Bros. on the strength of his “accidentally leaked” (suuuuure it was…) fan film MK: Rebirth and its subsequent spinoff webseries, which reimagined the absurdly violent horror/fantasy/martial-arts franchise with gritty realism (Reptile is just a serial-killer with a skin condition, Baraka is just a guy with an extreme body-mod fetish, etc.).
I’ll be blunt: I wasn’t a fan, at all, of Rebirth. The entire gritty reboot trend inspires in me nothing but loathing and contempt, and the “Legacy” follow-up shorts weren’t much better – never rising above the level of a Syfy Channel feature. Tanchroen, to be sure, has some basic fundamental filmmaking chops, but I’m not particularly faithful that this project can turn out as anything but a misfire.
Of course, no one from Warner is going to come beating down my door for advice, but, if they had, I probably could’ve saved them from taking a $200+ million bath this past summer. The director’s own description of his vision (he wants a “realistic and gritty” movie without “crazy spurting pools of blood” – exactly what one thinks of when regarding a game about magical ninjas pulling each other’s spines out, right?) indicates that he and I seem to simply see Mortal Kombat in different ways. I see it as Mortal Kombat and he sees it as a direct-to-DVD Lionsgate movie, apparently.
But just as a thought-experiment/column-fodder, here’s what I’d probably have offered up if someone had asked me. Anyone from Warner Bros. reading this is welcome to consider these freebies, because that’s just how swell of a guy I am.
Go Back to the Game
For a change, I can actually make most of my argument in plainly financial terms: Warner Bros? You JUST released a Mortal Kombat game that embraced the series’ fistfight-in-a-Halloween-Store aesthetic with an enthusiasm that bordered on the absurd: Color-coded ninjas, robots, interdimensional aliens, literal demons from Hell, four-armed tiger-men, cackling “Oriental” supervillians straight out of Fu-Manchu and fighters spilling gallons of blood somehow released under high-pressure. It is now the biggest-selling product in the series’ history. That should tell you something.
The “story mode” and character-interactions of this game were ridiculous, high-camp kung-fu schlock… but it’s the ridiculous, high-camp kung-fu schlock Mortal Kombat fans have been mainlining for years and are clearly begging for.
Shoot for an “R”
This will probably happen anyway, but it still needs to be hammered home: The main problem people had with the original MK movies wasn’t their silly scripts and questionable acting – people were expecting that. The problem was that someone decided to make a game whose principle unique feature was its over-the-top levels of gore. If you get nothing else right, every fight scene in a Mortal Kombat movie should end up looking like an explosion at the ketchup factory.
And it isn’t like there’s no precedent for this – the Resident Evil movies continue to rake in the dough with R ratings. 300, which frequently looks more like Mortal Kombat than Mortal Kombat, was a phenomenon despite its R-rating. The only reason to not make this an R is if you wind up spending too much on it. Incidentally …
Don’t Spend Too Much on This
There is no earthly reason to make Mortal Kombat as a $100 million epic. It’s about a fighting tournament. That means one-on-one single-location fight scenes for the most part with maybe a big all-out brawl towards the end. A good deal of your characters wear full face masks or are freakish monsters, which means you don’t need to cast expensive “name” actors to play them – though, since this is a martial arts film, you should probably be ignoring “name” stars in general and think about hiring martial artists. Speaking of which …
Know Your Roots
The fighting tournament subgenre of martial arts movies endures because it’s damn near the most perfect build-your-own-action-movie kit ever designed. Just draft up a roster of unusual characters and set up their various relationships and personalities, and the “tournament” takes care of the rest. You’re free to focus on the inter-character drama and the overall big story because there’s no reason to waste time contriving convoluted reasons for action scenes to happen – it’s a fighting tournament! If it’s been too long since you had a fight scene, you can just bang the gong and have one!
Films (and games) in this genre all descend from the iconic Hong Kong film, Master of The Flying Guillotine. Watch it, and understand what you must do.
Hollywood, let me tell you a story: Far, far away, across the wide blue sea in the place where the sun wakes from its nightly naps, there are magical places with names like “Hong Kong,” “Thailand” and “Japan.” And in these magical places they have movie industries much like your own,except that theirs are filled with directors, stuntpeople and even actors who make hundreds of movies in this very genre every month for much, much, much less money than you can conceive of. Just think about that.
Hell, you might even consider dropping the fan-film wunderkind you’ve tapped to direct it and consider hiring a seasoned professional from one of these national cinemas who’d probably be willing to work for a similar price and turn out as-good or even better a product with far greater efficiency. Kazuaki Kiriya, Riyuhei Kitamura or Andrew Lau could pick this stuff up no sweat – hell, Takeshi Miike could probably knock Mortal Kombat out over a weekend and still blow your mind with it.
Heck, you could think even think really outside the box and look to India – y’know, that economically-booming country whose national film industry rakes in billions and is bursting at the seams with talented young professionals turning out visually stunning work to rival your own? Perhaps you’ve seen some bits of Endhiran?
Go Bloody, Go Big
Death and violence are serious stuff. Mortal Kombat, however, should never be serious but should always be violent. How do you thread that needle? Easy: Nothing exceeds like excess.
Here’s a basic formula: Ever seen someone get a paper cut in a movie? It’s cringe-inducing. Tiny little cut, tiny little bit of blood, yegh! Now, remember the last time you saw a torrent of blood come blasting out of a severed head or a huge gunshot? Chances are you weren’t cringing – you were probably smiling, maybe even laughing, at the very least engaged. Why? Because going far enough over-the-top makes gruesome horror fun.
The guys in a Mortal Kombat movie should be spilling blood like a Mortal Kombat game – that means everyone is basically a big walking balloon ready to splatter buckets, rivers, oceans of blood (the bright-red stagey-fakey kind, too, not the realistic black, oily kind) with every successful punch. No little nicks and scratches, that stuff kills the mood. Need some recent cinematic reference? Machete. Punisher: WarZone. Planet Terror. Pirhana 3D.
Embrace That You Are Making Junk
Let’s talk turkey, Warner Bros. It turned out to be a very good financial and creative decision for you to let Christopher Nolan take a hyper-realistic “What if this was the real world?” approach to Batman. This has convinced you, and a lot of other people in your industry, that such an approach is the way to go for other moribund genre properties. This is erroneous, a blight on the medium, and sadly seems to have informed your choice of direction for Mortal Kombat.
Here’s the problem: Mortal Kombat is not Batman. You’re never going to turn Mortal Kombat into a serious, somber meditation on broad political/social issues with richly-textured character dynamics. Batman, stripped to its basic DNA, actually is about crime and law and the morality thereof. Mortal Kombat, stripped to its basic DNA, is about magical ninjas, busty lady soldiers, monsters from heavy metal album covers and dopplegangers for characters from Big Trouble in Little China ripping each other’s guts out. Some things are what they are – Candyland is a fine board game, but Candyland will never be chess.
Mortal Kombat is junk. Sincere junk. Often well-made junk. Enduring junk. But still junk. Silly, goofy, schlocky, cheesy, id-of-a-hyperractive-12-year-old junk. Even among fighting games, if Street Fighter is the Mona Lisa, Mortal Kombat is a blacklight painting of a goblin sitting on a pile of skulls. Don’t run from it – embrace it. Make it a goal. Make something people will remember, even if it’s with a semi-ironic eyeroll.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.