There's arguably nothing more quintessentially 90's than Mortal Kombat. What started as a little video game developed by Ed Boon and John Tobias exploded in a comically gratuitous cloud of blood, guts and bones that changed the gaming industry forever, won a very public bout against censorship and had a hit movie almost as a matter of course. Now history seems to be repeating itself (or at least New Line Cinema hopes it is) with last year's release of the MK video game reboot and the new upcoming movie that hopes to capture the box office of the original without drawing any comparison to its extremely dated style. The funny part? It might not be half bad.
It's rather appropriate how the new MK movie got its legs. No, it didn't rip them off a competing movie concept to the approval of a deep-voiced announcer, but it did follow a path similar to its predecessor. When Paul W. S. Anderson sat in the director's chair for the original 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, he was a mostly unproven filmmaker helming a project that pretty much sold itself. The video game had been the center of both high sales and high controversy since 1992, but by that point it had already transitioned from the scrappy, envelope-pushing slice of pop culture from its origins to a cash cow institution. The censors lost, a successful sequel was on the shelf and a long line of future games would dot the next 15 years with varying levels of acclaim. That said, video game adaptations had yet to generate a real hit in the movie industry. Even beloved icons like Super Mario Brothers invited derision. Somehow, Anderson's Mortal Kombat was a blockbuster that brought home $100 million and even a little bit of critical support. It didn't age well, though. MK is far from a film classic and its sequel, Annihilation, was a bomb.
Nobody was really clamoring for another MK movie when Kevin Tancharoen took it upon himself to make a reboot happen by sheer gumption. He made a Youtube short as a proof of concept called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth. The man didn't even have the rights to the title or characters, but lucky for him the video game industry has a history of being gracious about fan films. Rebirth was such a success that Warner Brothers funded a 10-part Web series called Mortal Kombat: Legacy that generated enough buzz to get Tancharoen a feature-length film deal. It's set to hit theaters in 2013.
The interesting thing about the MK reboot, at least through the Web shorts, is that it's much more in the spirit of the original video games than the 1995 film. Anderson's movie rightly needed to capture the video game's primary audience, which just happened to be teenage boys. This means the ultra-violence of the game couldn't translate to film. In 1995, intensely violent movies just didn't play at the multiplex and video games were still a medium for kids. The movie that happened was a silly PG-13 adventure with sets that looked like cheap nightclubs and some seriously awful acting. Tancharoen's Web films are, by contrast, dark and over-the-top like the video games have always been. They're just as much of their time, though, with the requisite dark-and-gritty treatment that has made the likes of Batman successful. Still, the reboot got the greenlight by sticking to youth culture even though Mortal Kombat itself is older than a lot of the people who play the latest game. That's a hell of a way to legitimize a left-field cash-in.