There are a handful of video games who proved so resilient, they seemed to transcend their release date and extend into generations of play. We’re talking Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise, Sega’s Sonic, Capcom’s Street Fighter, and, the series that just won’t die, Midway’s Mortal Kombat. First released as a cabinet game in arcades in 1992, the side-scrolling fighter game made strong impressions over the competition for two distinct reasons: characters were digitized versions of real people and violence was amplified via blood, gore, and mutilating finishing moves. Despite much haranguing by the general public, Mortal Kombat has become an institution within the fighting game subgenre, having released 11 franchise games, three spin-offs, a short-lived television show, an online limited series, and two live-actions films. The latest effort comes courtesy of WB Animation in an adaption of the beloved MK characters through the lens of the series’s most deadly character, the ninja known as Scorpion. Written by Jeremy Adams (Supernatural/Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans) and directed by Ethan Spaulding (Batman: Assault on Arkham), the R-rated Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge offers a perspective previously unexamined in Mortal Kombat lore and all the bloody mayhem that will delight old fans, yet is approachable enough to lure in new ones.
Member of the Shirai Ryu Japanese ninja clan Hanzo Hasashi (voiced by Patrick Seitz) is slain during an attack by rival clan, the Lin Kuei, which leaves not only himself, but his entire family dead. Sent to the Netherrealm, he is resurrected as Scorpion, a being of immense strength, speed, and agility. On his quest to hunt down the leader of the attack, Sub-Zero (voiced by Steve Blum), he lands on an island owned by Shang Tsung (voiced by Artt Butler) who’s conducting a martial arts tournament with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance. With Earth’s heroes assembled by protector of Earthrealm, Lord Raiden (Dave B. Mitchell), the question isn’t will Scorpion fight, but for whom and for what.
Chances are, if you’re even remotely checking out this film, you’ve likely been screaming MORTAL KOOOMMMMBAT since 1992. Sure, you could be a fan of horrifying violence, mature animation, or just a fan of martial arts, but, most likely, it’s the first thing. To their credit, Adams and Spaulding do old fans proud with Scorpion’s Revenge, letting them know before the WB Animation logo disappears that this is a film for them. Then, just after a calm opening scene establishing the loving bond between Hanzo and his son finishes, as though we’d forgotten just what type of film we’re watching, Adams and Spaulding unleash a spectacle of violence that is bloody, macabre, yet just barely not gory (don’t worry, that comes later). Using animation, the crew are able to play with the visual language of the medium in ways that the games cannot. This translates to dramatic shifts in style as Hanzo goes from calm stillness to rampaging samurai warrior, communicated by way of elongated character designs to convey the building rage of Hanzo as he sweeps his blade across the screen, now awash in red. Though this sequence is singular in nature, this and others like it demonstrate a move away from the restrictions of the franchise as a side-scroller and really play with the environment and tone of the scene. Don’t fret, though, used delicately throughout are various incorporations of the x-ray vision modern fans of the franchise are familiar with. So if you ever saw those moves and thought, “that person’s dead!” clearly so did Adams when he wrote this script. This doesn’t even include the line-drops, sight gags (a poster for Ninja Mime), signature moves, and gallows humor longtime fans will recognize immediately.
In terms of story, Scorpion’s Revenge is a mixture of something new and something old. Anyone who’s played the games or seen the 1995 New Line Cinema release will know the beats of the film before you even begin. In many ways, Scorpion’s Revenge script from Adams just retreads the material with slightly different beats, even while I realize the ’95 film was borrowing from the deep mythology of the source material. This will feel a little like old hat at times, yet the film is somehow damn entertaining anyway. Part of this is in the shift in focus to Scorpion. Typically the stories focus on Raiden and/or his team of Earthrealm fighters lead by Liu Kang, voiced here by Jordan Rodrigues. Here, the narrative is shifted slightly so that while the events of the tournament take center-stage for the majority of the film, Scorpion is not just a tacked on additive to drive sales. Rather, audiences are treated to the never-before explored aspect of the events leading to Hanzo becoming Scorpion and what that journey means to the rest of characters. This helps keep things fresh, not to mention that it leads to a few unexpected moments that lead to literal gasps, followed by an “oh sh*t” as they happen. Like the source material, Scorpion’s Revenge doesn’t pull its punches, so even if you think you know what’s happening, it’ll still surprise you. Now, be advised that with the change in focus come other changes, too. The biggest one is that Johnny Cage, everyone’s favorite smug Hollywood action star, is more comic relief than capable fighter. He can throw down, for sure, but until then, he’s a doofus and that might rile up fans of the original roster character. Thankfully the voice work from Joel McHale (Community) makes Cage less stunted man-child and more oblivious to reality.
Speaking of the voices, while they are not the most ethnically accurate, an aspect which leads to the more debased aspects of the game, several of the characters are performed by franchise members. Grey Griffin voices Kitana (Mortal Kombat X), Steve Blum voices Sub-Zero (Mortal Kombat X & 11), Fred Tatasciore is more of an Easter Egg as he voices Demon Torturer after voicing Torr and Tremor in Mortal Kombat X, Seitz is a long-time member of the community working as Scorpion as far back as 2008’s Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, Ike Amadi trades Shao Khan and Cyrax in Mortal Kombat 11 for Shao Khan, Mitchell trades Geras and Sektor in Mortal Kombat 11 for Raiden here, and voice actor extraordinaire Kevin Michael Richardson returns as Goro, a role he hasn’t had since ’95. In short, while Scorpion’s Revenge includes headliners like McHale and Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) to bring in the newbz or barely acquainted, the vocal cast is more than up to the task of bringing the characters to animated life as many have lived with them for more than a year or two. Even without knowing all of this, the vocal performances largely feel natural within this supernatural environment. In fact, in acknowledging that only three members of the voice cast are coming in new, it explains why McHale and Carpenter feel different than the rest. It’s not just that their characters are outsiders to the tournament, but that the actors haven’t lived with the roles as long.
Of the bonus features available for advance review, everything but the filmmaker commentary was checked out for your appraisal. In short, they good folks. Though each featurette is brief, the insight they offer is unique, rarely repeating, and typically bringing in someone who worked on that particular aspect. With contributions from Spaulding, Adams, series co-creator Ed Boon, character designer Steven Choi (Batman: Gotham By Gaslight), prop designer Cary Lockwood (Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans), a discussion on post production sound by Rob McIntyre, and more, the audience gets a nice deep dive into the mythological of the characters, the creation of the film, and the thought process resulting in a smooth blending of the two. Frankly, I never thought I would appreciate the creativity of foley work as much as I do after watching “The Savage Sound Design of Mortal Kombat Legends” wherein McIntyre explains the difference in noises used to approximate the sounds of rending flesh, spurting blood, and breaking bones. For instance, when familiar audiences see Jax without his cybernetic arms, they’ll know what’s up before it happens. However, as presented through the combination of clever foley work and the x-ray move, the creation of the Jax we know is gasp-inducing and deeply unsettling. Basically what Mortal Kombat’s been known for since ’92.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge is the next best effort from Warner Bros. Animation. They gave us Assault on Arkham, the perfect blueprint for the much-maligned live action Suicide Squad. They gave us Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, a bittersweet taste of what the live-action Green Lantern released in the same year could’ve been. Time and again the animated arm releases films that frequently trounce the live-action versions because they can do so much more within the medium and tell compelling character-driven stories. Scorpion’s Revenge follows this path as it gives us everything that the live-action films couldn’t quite live up to, all while surprising and entertaining audiences from beginning to end. Just like the DC animated films instill a desire to put on your best cosplay and read comics, Scorpion’s Revenge will make you want to boot up your console and join the fight to protect Earthrealm or carry the Outworld banner. Whichever way it goes with you, I got next.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge Special Features
- From Epic Game to Extreme Animation (4:52) – Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon and the filmmakers reveal the creative process behind adapting the best-selling game to an all-new animated film.
- The Weapons, Wardrobe and World of Mortal Kombat Legends (7:05) – The artists reveal the design challenges of animating the world of Mortal Kombat, from authentic armor to wildly imaginative weapons and fantasy settings.
- The Savage Sound Design of Mortal Kombat Legends (3:40) – This hard-hitting audio exploration reveals the art of designing the sonic language of the fight scenes.
- Mortal Kombatants (4:33) – Dive deep inside the cast of characters to reveal their unique abilities, signature moves and backstories.
- Filmmaker Commentary – Producer Rick Morales and screenwriter Jeremy Adams sit down for an insightful audio commentary that reveals the process of creating a compelling animated film based on one of today’s most popular fighting games.
Available on digital April 14th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD April 28th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.