Mortal Marathon Part 1: Warrior Eternal

March 20th, 2011 by |

(Gavok note: In a month from this writing, the new Mortal Kombat game will be released to consoles. Everyone at 4thletter! who doesn’t matter is excited about it! I’ve always been a big fan of the series and its entertaining sense of crazy mythology. Over the next month, I intend to cover a few things that relate to the series, some more loosely than others. Meanwhile, Gabriel “TheJoker138” Coleman was inspired enough by my looks at the old MK comics to start up his own series of reviews. Not for the comics, but for the two Mortal Kombat television series and the movies. He needed a place to showcase them and I felt bad for denying the other 137 Jokers, so here we go. Oh, and he’s got a Twitter too.)

Mortal Kombat was huge in the 90’s. In the nearly 20 years since the first game in the series was released in arcades, it’s easy to forget that. Some readers may not have even been born yet in it’s heyday. But make no mistake, Mortal Kombat was one of the first video games to really hit the big time as far as multimedia blitzes go. In fact, it was able to accomplish a few things that even today’s biggest video games, such as Halo or the Call of Duty series, haven’t. Like those series there were action figures, a novel, t-shirts, and other such merchandise, but there were also movies and TV series. Sure, the first movie is a guilty pleasure, the second is awful, and neither of the series lasted longer than a season, but the fact remains that the MK brand was strong enough to justify their existence.

And that’s what I’m here to talk to you about today. In this series I plan on going through both films, and both TV series on an episode-by-episode basis. I’ll take a look at their similarities and differences to the games that inspired them, and review each movie, each episode, and each series as a whole.

The first of these to be released was the feature film in 1995. But that’s not where I’m going to start. Instead, we flash forward to 1998, and Mortal Kombat: Conquest. By this time the end of the Mortal Kombat boom was already almost over, and this series failure may have been the first real indicator of that. As I said, it only lasted a single season, and was largely ignored, even by fans. I will admit that when it first aired, I never even watched a full episode of it, and I was a pretty big MK fan. The only reason I even know it exists was due to the fact that it aired either right before or right after (I honestly can’t recall which, but if you told me I had to choose I’d pick before) WCW Monday Nitro on TNT, and was advertised pretty heavily on it.

The reason we’re going to start with this series instead of the first film is because, chronologically, it comes first. It takes place 500 years before the film (which I assume was set in 1995, meaning this takes place in 1495) and focuses on The Great Kung Lao, ancestor of the Kung Lao we all know from the games. In the canon of the games, he was killed by Goro in the tournament after Shang Tsung was dethroned as champion. If you’ve read Gavok’s short write up of weird things that the MK brand spawned, you know it doesn’t quite end that way for him in this series already, but we’ll get to that later. I should also mention that the first episode is actually a two-parter, and one that packs a ton of set up and action into it, at that, so this might take a while.

This starts off, like a lot of MK media, with a voice over by Raiden (played by Jeffrey Meek) that sets up the basic premise of the show, and of the MK tournament itself. During this, Kung Lao is shown practicing for his match against Shang Tsung, where he is the last Earthrealm fighter. Shang Tsung is also shown finishing the previous fight, where he dominates his opponent and steals his soul. Shao Kahn (also played by Meek) watches over this, pleased. Shang looks pretty close to his MK2 look (minus the silly Devo hat), as does Kahn. Kahn’s helmet looks kind of cheap, by the way, but still much, much better than he did in the second film.

The show also sets up a couple of locations here, using a mix of CGI and stock footage from the movies. Outworld is mainly CGI, with a couple shots from the movie of statues, and the Temple of the Order of Light is entirely stock footage for establishing shots. In fact, it seems to use the same three second clip every time for this, where you can pick out Liu Kang and Raiden standing between the towers of the temple, in the same spot, every single time. Even for night shots all they do is lower the brightness and put a blue filter on it.

Kung Lao enters the arena to fight Shang Tsung wearing an outfit that is very close to what his namesake in MK2 wears, right down to the hat. Unfortunately, he throws the hat down seconds later, and I have a feeling that’s the last time it’s going to be brought up. There’s some brief dialogue between Shang and Kahn where it’s revealed that Shang is a bit too ambitious for the emperor’s liking, and has aspirations of ruling the realms himself. Kahn yells “fight!” to signal the beginning of the match, and we’re off.

Don’t get too used to that hat.

The fight itself here is pretty good, with some pretty tight choreography and decent camera work. It does rely a bit too much on quick cuts, as do all the fights in this episode, but with the possible exception of the last fight, it’s easily the strongest and most interesting to watch. It really helps that the whole episode seems to be moving at lighting pace so far, and the energy going into the fight is very high. It follows the standard pro-wrestling formula of the good guy starting strong, the tide of battle turning towards the bad guy, who gets close to victory (Kahn even yells “finish him!” it’s looking so bleak for Kung), and then the good guy makes a startling recovery and gets the win. The reason for this recovery is Kung has a vision of a half-naked blonde chick, with a lot of gratuitous cleavage shots. Get used to those, by the way, cause there’s going to be a lot of them.

Do get used to things like this.

So Kung Lao wins the fight, but refuses to finish Shang off, to show that people from Earthrealm aren’t murderers like Outworlders. Kahn has Shang drug away to be punished for his failure, and Shang tells Kung that he should have killed him when he had the chance. Kung and Raiden head back to Earthrealm, and the temple, where a much cheaper looking version of the celebration from the end of the first movie awaits them.

Kung Lao has started having visions of death, both of his fellow monks at the temple, and his own. He tells Raiden about them, who tells him that he is having them because he has yet to accept his destiny, which is to train other humans for the next tournament, as he’s the only one left alive who can. Kung doesn’t accept this, and storms off in a huff, saying he wants to write his own future. I’m sure this is going to work out just great for Kung, and nothing bad at all is going to happen because of his refusal to accept what fate has in store for him.

It then cuts to the city of Zhu Zin, which is rendered in CGI much like Outworld, and there are a lot of shots of women wandering around in skimpy outfits, including thongs and fishnet stockings, which I don’t think were really commonly worn out in public in the 1400’s, but oh well. Siro and Jen, the girl from Kung Lao’s vision, are both introduced here, and a bit of background is given on them. Jen is the daughter of the Baron, who runs the trading post in Zhu Zin along with seemingly being it’s de facto ruler, and Siro is her bodyguard. The Baron doesn’t want Jen and Kung Lao to be married, despite the fact that they are in love. This is the reason that Kung Lao doesn’t want to spend his time training other warriors to fight. Nothing too interesting here, as it’s all just set up, but I’m not bored yet.

The duo make their way to the temple, where they’re ambushed by a group of thieves who have disguised themselves as monks, and we get the second fight scene of the episode. This one is pretty boring compared to the first, and consists mainly of Siro beating up two of the masked thieves, and then finally their female leader, Taja (a pre-Terminator 3 Kristanna Loken). There’s lots of slow motion and quick cuts used here, and there’s never any real sense that Siro is in danger, even from Taja. He is about to run her through with her own blade when Kung Lao shows up and stops him from doing so on sacred ground. Kung and Jen then run off to be alone, where Jen shows off some of the martial arts moves she’s been practicing, and Kung tries to tell her about his visions. I say tries to because she cuts him off by guessing that he was having visions of them growing old together, and he doesn’t seem to have the heart to correct her.

Kung then makes his way to see the Baron, to ask for Jen’s hand in marriage. This guy is a total asshole. He doesn’t care about anything but money, going so far as to call his own daughter his property, and makes it clear that he is going to sell her for a profit, and throws Kung Lao out under the threat of death if he should ever return. The Baron also has Taja in chains, working as a servant girl. The actor playing the Baron uses a very William Shatneresque inflection on all of his lines, which just adds to my hatred of the character, because this guy is no William Shatner.

We get another scene of Raiden trying to tell Kung Lao that he needs to accept his destiny, or all that lies in front of him is betrayal and tragedy. He stubbornly refuses to listen, and storms off again, this time to try and get Jen and escape the city. At the gates he tries to convince a guard he is friendly with by the name of Takeda to let him in. Takeda refuses, and Kung knocks him out in one hit, and goes into the trading post to get Jen.

Meanwhile, back in Outworld, Shang Tsung is sentenced to work in the cobalt mines of Shokan, which are a concept taken from the deeper lore of the game, and I’m actually pretty surprised to even hear mentioned, let alone end up as a major location for the series. In the mines, Shang is confronted by a big bald guy, who taunts him about not having powers in the mine, and being just like everyone else. Shang promptly turns him to a pile of dust just by touching him, because as a human, his powers aren’t canceled out by the cobalt.

The bald guys female companion, who I thought was Jade due to her dressing in an all green outfit until I looked it up and found out she’s a new character named Vorpax, tries to seduce Shang, and gets pimp slapped to the ground for her efforts. She then gets serious, and proposes a deal: She’ll help Shang get revenge on Kung Lao if he helps her escape. With his hand around her throat, he proposes a counter offer of letting her live to see tomorrow if she helps him get his revenge. She promptly accepts.

Vorpax… You know what? That name is really, really dumb. I’m just going to call her Jade from now on, because there is no reason that they shouldn’t have named her that to begin with. So Jade leads Shang to a chamber where a cage hanging from the ceiling contains a black and yellow scorpion, which she explains is said to hold the spirit of a great warrior. Shang makes a deal with the warrior spirit, releasing it from it’s prison on the terms that it goes to Earthrealm and takes care of Kung Lao for him. The scorpion is transported out of it’s cage, and onto the passed out body of Takeda, who it takes possession of.

Upstairs, Kung Lao has reached Jen’s room, and big surprise, she’s half naked again, wearing nothing but underwear and a see through dress. Siro comes in, and momentarily tries to stop them, before letting them leave because he knows that’s what Jen wants. The couple retreat out the window, and Siro goes downstairs, to find that Takeda is nowhere to be found. If he had looked a bit harder, he would have seen Takeda was simply hiding in the shadows, which he emerges from with newly white eyes, and a brief overlay of a skull on his face. Takeda then jumps Kung and Jen as they’re on their way out of the building, slaps Jen (this is becoming a common theme) and so begins our third fight scene.

I’m not joking, there’s at least one shot like this every 15 minutes.

This one is better than the last, but still not as good as the first. There are some heavy illusions to Scorpion from the games, as Takeda yells “get over here!” in a fairly competent Ed Boon impression. There’s a lot of kicking during this fight.

Meanwhile, the Baron is in his office and is about to rape Taja, proving that this guy is pure scum, when Siro comes in and interrupts by telling him that his daughter has left with Kung Lao, and he allowed them to do so. The Baron is pissed, and seems to be close to killing Siro for it, when the sounds of the fight downstairs distracts him. He takes his other guards and rushes downstairs, where Kung is quickly overpowered and arrested. Siro is banished from the city, Kung Lao is sentenced to death, and Takeda is promoted to Siro’s old position of Jen’s bodyguard.

Down in the prison, Taja is having nightmares about nearly being killed and raped, both on the same day, which is understandable. At least I think it’s supposed to be on the same day, this show isn’t very good in showing the passage of time. Raiden appears to her in the guise of a thief who escaped while Kung Lao was being put in his cell, and manages to convince her to help free Kung before he can get his head chopped off. There’s also a brief scene with Siro out in the city, but I think it’s main purpose is to have more shots of scantily clad women.

Taja enlists the help of Jen to save Kung Lao, and they do so right before he’s about to be beheaded. There’s another fight scene here, with Taja fighting off guards while Kung Lao goes for round two with Takeda, who is getting more and more yellow on his previously all black costume every time he shows up. Taja’s side of the fight is pretty boring, but Kung vs. Takeda 2 is pretty good, with a lot of acrobatics and some cool stuff involving the multiple levels of the execution chamber.

Out in the woods, Raiden shows up in disguise as a beggar to talk to Siro, and convinces him into going back and helping Jen get away from her father, and doing his job as her guard to keep her safe. Raiden has his sense of humor from the first movie all through this, and while Meek is no Christopher Lambert, he’s miles ahead of James Remar, who played him in Annihilation. Meek is also entertaining as hell in his so far brief dual role as Shao Kahn, where he’s over the top almost to the point of comedy. If I didn’t know it was the same actor in both roles, I never would have been able to guess.

Kung and Taja are breaking back into the trading post to get Jen, and Taja tells a story about how one night, she sneaked out of her cell and into Jen’s room and tried on one of her silk gowns. I have no idea when this happened, because she seems to have been imprisoned her for about two days, but as I said, this show isn’t very good at establishing the passing of time. They meet up with Siro, and Kung Lao explains that the thief Taja met and the beggar Siro met were both Raiden, and neither of them believe him.

The trio get to Jen’s room, where she is tied up and gagged in her bed, and Takeda and the other guards are waiting. We get round three of Kung Lao vs. Takeda, which is brief and ends with Takeda trying to steal Kung’s soul for Shang Tsung. I’m not sure exactly how that is supposed to work, but I guess Shang gave him to the power to do it and relay the soul back to him. It doesn’t work out, as the Baron interrupts and gets stabbed by Takeda for his trouble. Takeda grabs Jen and jumps out the window, disappearing into the night. There’s a brief death scene with the Baron, where I guess we’re supposed to feel bad that he’s dead, but the guy was such an asshole through the whole episode that I’m happy to see him go.

Raiden meets up with the trio, and pulls Kung Lao aside to try and explain once more that he needs to fulfill his destiny. He seems to be making progress, but Kung still runs off to rescue Jen at the temple, where Takeda is holding her, in what is surely a trap. Siro and Taja go with him to help.

At the temple, Takeda brainwashes two of the monks to help him deal with Kung Lao when he arrives, which he does shortly thereafter. The two monks fight Siro and Taja, while Kung goes ahead to confront Takeda. The fight between Taja/Takeda and the monks is boring, and actually serves to do nothing but slow down the pace of the episode right at it’s climax.

Kung gets to Jen in the temple, and Takeda comes out, now in full Scorpion costume. He informs Kung that Takeda is no more, and now he is Scorpion. His voice is terrible, by the way, and changes every time he talks. At first he talks in a monotone that sounds like a voice over for the attract scene of a video game from the early 90’s, then when he yells “come here!” it’s a bad Ed Boon impression that is nowhere near the level of the “get over here!” from earlier, and then goes back into just sounding like Takeda. His spear is the one from the movie, that is a living entity itself that can chase it’s target around.

“I’m going to KEEL you Kuuung LAOW!”

This fight is easily the best since the first though, despite Scorpion’s voice issues. It helps having a character that is familiar in it, as opposed to nameless henchman. There is a lot of acrobatic stuff in this, especially from Scorpion who is always flipping or cartwheeling around. Jen tries to sneak up behind him and hit him with a candelabra, but he turns in time to blast her with a fireball, which is a move that Scorpion has never had in any of the games.

Siro and Taja arrive to find Jen on the ground, and Kung Lao kneeling over here. Siro offers to help Kung with his fight, but Kung insists he has to do it alone, and tells them to stay with Jen. From this point it’s pretty one sided, with Kung destroying Scorpion every step of the way. The ground then opens up to swallow Scorpion, who falls into a river of lava, before the crack closes itself. No one seems to find this odd at all, and Kung rushes back to Jen’s side. She dies in his arms, but not before giving him a mysterious key.

Raiden and Kung Lao have another talk the following day about his destiny, and it finally gets through to him. They figure out the key is for the trading post where the Baron and Jen used to live, which is now empty due to their deaths, and Kung decides to use it as his training facility for other warriors. Taja and Siro both join up with him, and they walk off into the sunset.

There’s one last scene with Shang Tsung and Not-Jade in the Cobalt mines, where she shows him a room full of other warriors that Shao Kahn has imprisoned there over the years. Shang decides to free them and build an army, which is where I’m guessing we’ll get our villains of the week from as the series continues.

As far as a pilot episode goes, this episode does pretty well. It has a lot of stuff to cram into it’s hour and twenty minute running time, and manages to juggle most of it without any one thing getting in the way of the other. The only exception with this is that there are too many fight scenes, which all last too long. Either two of them should have been cut, or all but the first and last should have been cut in half, because they drag. The music is another weak link. It’s all generic sounding techno, and none of it lives up to the main theme of the movie, which it is obviously trying to emulate.

The CGI for Outworld, Zhu Zin, and the final fight with Scorpion are all incredibly well done for a 90’s TV series that aired on TNT. None of it will fool you into thinking it’s real, but none of it hits Annihilation levels of fake either. The use of stock footage for the temple of light, on the other hand, is really repetitive, and really, really bad.

The acting is pretty solid, with the stand outs being Jeffery Meek in his dual roles as Raiden and Shao Kahn, and Bruce Locke as Shang Tsung. Locke, like Meek in his role as Kahn, plays the character just arch enough to border on being silly, which is the tone something like Mortal Kombat desperately needs, yet nothing but the first movie has ever gotten right.

I can’t end this before talking about the new origin for Scorpion here, which is the elephant in the room of this write up so far. It is nothing at all like the games. Either this is a different Scorpion, who just happens to have all the same abilities of the version from the game, or they retconned in this new origin to suit their needs. It’s weird, and may be a bit off putting to the hardcore fans of the games, but it’s not offensively bad either. The only part that comes off as ham-fisted is his soul being trapped inside a literal scorpion before Shang can release him.

Up next time- Episode 3: Cold Reality, featuring Sub Zero and the Lin Kuei.

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