Since 2020’s Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge, a new animated film within this version of the MK universe has released each year. The first follow-up, Battle of the Realms (2021), is a direct sequel, carrying over the events of Scorpion’s Revenge and dealing with the repercussions. The third entry, Snow Blind (2022), takes place years after Realms, showing a desolate world coming to grips with the defeat of Outworld’s invasion. Rather than going forward, the fourth film, Cage Match, jumps backward to before the events of Scorpion’s Revenge and focuses on the man, the myth, the legend of the silver screen: Johnny Cage. Voiced once more by Joel McHale (Community), audiences are thrust into a full-on ‘80s motif of pastels, neons, shoulder pads, and mullets while Cage finds himself in over his head battling demons when all he wants to do is finish his latest project. Utilizing lore from a previous timeline in the games that’s going to delight fans of the series, Cage Match is full of little easter eggs and nods to those in the know. Thankfully, that’s not all it is, delivering a delightful mystery that starts soft and ends with a series of blood-soaked fatalities. As long as that’s all you’re looking for, you’re going to have a good time.
Johnny Cage has one day left to shoot on his latest project, but there’s a snag: his co-star, Jennifer (voiced by Jennifer Grey), is missing. Without her, they can’t finish, and, if they can’t finish, this film dies and, with it, the hopes of sending his career to the heights he’s dreamed of. Johnny figures he’ll just drop-in on Jennifer at her place to make sure she’s ok, expecting to find just another starlet basking in her own greatness, but, instead, stumbles his way into a fight between two ferocious fighters. Figuring one of them has to know where Jennifer is, Johnny gets involved, unintentionally setting into a motion exactly what shadow forces may require to bring about the end of everything.
First things first, if you’ve seen the trailer for Cage Match, temper your expectations for the feature as most of the violence is shown there. A good trailer leaves you wondering, raising expectations in a way that says, “if you like this, wait until you see what we left out.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case here as the bulk of Cage Match is setup upon setup with a few fights tossed in to keep things lively. Because the film is a prequel, there’s a requirement to establish the world as if no one is familiar with it, so there’s a lot of time spent in doing exactly that. Smartly, the script by Jeremy Adams (all three prior Legends releases) utilizes a voice-over (v/o) framing device to help cut through some of this while infusing Cage Match with a little mystery motif and comedy in the process. What does this mean? It means that with Johnny narrating how things go down, the story can stop whenever he wants like he’s Saved by the Bell‘s Zack Morris, leading to at least one great joke that highlights just how little Johnny thinks of his coworkers on set. But much like the lack of bloody action starts to get noticeable, the v/o aspect gets played out pretty quickly, often feeling like a cheat to the narrative to keep the run-time low versus telling an engaging story. Especially when Johnny gives his assistant Chuck Golden (Dusan Brown) his backstory, the audience gets a flashback inside of what’s essentially a flashback with even more narration. If this story involved Deadpool, he’d make a 16th wall break joke right about here.
The good news is that if all you’re looking for is to see a few of your favs throw down, perhaps never to appear in another film again (never mind, who am I kidding, all we need is a little magic or a time reset and they’ll be back), then you’re in luck. The staging of the fight sequences and action set pieces are intelligently choreographed to get the most bang for one’s buck. Plus, as the film wears its influences on its very high and pointy shoulder pads, if one is a fan of films like Lethal Weapon (1987) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986), one is going to be giggling away at the inclusions while reveling in the grotesque X-ray and other game-specific fatal references. Personally, what helped me enjoy this film despite its problems is how clearly inspired by Hong Kong cinema, like director Wei Tung’s Magic Cop (1990), it is, combining grounded consequences with Taoist-inspired mysticism. This means there’s enough humor to make one chuckle, violence that feels consequential, and just enough narrative to care in between the beatings.
There are two things in Cage Match that stand out, and not necessarily in the best way. The first being a very understandable reference to the origins of the first Mortal Kombat video game released in our reality. For those unaware, the abridged version is that game was originally supposed to be a Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport/Lionheart) video game, but he didn’t go for it so they pivoted, keeping the fighting aspect, continuing to craft a lore around the Hong Kong cinema they loved, but instead of JCVD, they created Johnny Cage. By making MK now a JC-inspired series is comical and worthy of a giggle, almost, though not quite coming full circle. (That would, in fact, go to 2023’s Mortal Kombat 1 which makes a playable JCVD skin for JC an option.) Instead, and I’m aware of how curmudgeonly this may sound, if Cage Match is a prequel to Scorpion’s Revenge and all the characters in it draw inspiration from Mortal Kombat (the game), we’ve now entered a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Again, I know this is very “old man yells at cloud,” but as good a joke as it is, it makes the very literal timeline go squiggly in a way that makes one think Lord Raiden got involved again and mucked things up again. The second ties in directly to this via the way Cage Match backs into Scorpion’s Revenge. Johnny’s always been a self-serving jackass who’s had to overcome this aspect of himself (somewhat) as a protector of Earthrealm, so I don’t necessarily expect him to *pay attention* to the video games based on his likeness, but the fact that he has this adventure and then, years later, the one with Mortal Kombat proper and doesn’t seem to recognize that he’s not on a movie set more quickly or draw a connection between the events is frustrating. Johnny’s not an idiot entirely, he’s just arrogant. One can still enjoy this adventure and, to me, the superior Scorpion’s Revenge, but the more aware one becomes and the more one thinks about these films, the less they track cohesively.
Even as a direct-to-video release, WB Animation is providing at least something for fans of MK and the Legends series to explore post-watch. The first is a feature-length commentary track from producers Rick Morales (Mortal Kombat Legends: Snow Blind) and Jim Krieg (Scooby-Doo! And Krypto, Too!) and screenwriter Adams. With this, you’ll get all the details on the ideation of the opening sequence, the production design, characters, and more. In the nearly 10-minute “What Would Johnny Cage Do?” featurette, you get to hear from actors McHale and Grey (Dirty Dancing), director Ethan Spaulding (Scorpion’s Revenge/Battle of the Realms), producer Krieg, and others about everything from the visual and narrative influences on this ‘80s-based adventure (costumes, production design & art direction, cars, etc.), and — fascinatingly — the connection between the lore of the previous MK timeline and this film. Specifically in these sequences, gameplay from Mortal Kombat 11 is shown, directly linking the Legends series to the pre-Mortal Kombat 1 (2023) timeline. For those in on the joke, there’s also a feature-film trailer for Johnny’s Ninja Mime — enjoy.
If you’ve made it this far, be aware that I know that Mortal Kombat is just a video game and it shouldn’t be taken so seriously. I also admit that as an animated feature, all Cage Match has to do is entertain, which it does. But we’re on the third timeline of Mortal Kombat games with the latest game being the second reset and the folks who’ve been playing the games know how to track it. Therefore one should expect a tad bit more care to be taken when constructing films around such a property whose fanbase is passionate and nerdy, not just for the depiction of violence but the rich characters. To that end, Cage Match entertains, delivering perhaps too few fights in favor of Cage-related nonsense, but lands when it needs to in a love letter to ‘80s action that Cage himself is based upon. To borrow a phrase from another of McHale’s projects, Cage Match is “meta meta,” and when it works, crowds are going to go wild.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Cage Match Special Features:
- Feature-length commentary track from producers Rick Morales and Jim Krieg and screenwriter Jeremy Adams
- What Would Johnny Cage Do? (9:55)
- Ninja Mime Trailer
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and digital October 17th, 2023.
For more information head to the official WB Animation Mortal Kombat Legends: Cage Match webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.