“On the creative side of it, everyone wanted to bring something new to the story,” film screenwriter Greg Russo tells The Washington Post. “At no point in time did we want to remake the older films or to retell a story that has been told a bunch before. Part of that was giving us the freedom to bring in a new perspective and angle to the story that hasn’t been done before.
Russo said as a writer, he felt like that was one of his biggest responsibilities. He also saw it as his duty to not fundamentally change the backstories of known characters.
“I needed a new character to help bring that in, because all of the preexisting characters have all these loaded backstories where it would make it much more difficult for me to bring in anything new unless I changed those characters, which I didn’t want to do,” Russo said. “I didn’t want to alter anyone to fit my view, which I’ve seen happen with other adaptations.”
Russo said his other challenge was to make sure this new character, Cole, a struggling mixed martial arts competitor, fits neatly into the wacky, dimension- and time-spanning lore of the original fighting games. True to his word, the film does wrap a neat, narrative question mark around Cole’s existence that may be enough of a carrot to lead “Kombat” fans to the end of the story.
But there’s really one actor and character that very nearly becomes the beating, bloody heart of the movie: Australian actor Josh Lawson’s Kano. Of the large cast, Lawson has the most extensive background in comedy, known for his appearances on Australian improvised comedy show “Thank God You’re Here.” His acting chops were put to full use in his performance as Kano.
In the games and the original movies, Kano has always been portrayed as a thieving, conniving villain, and little else (besides a mortal rival for Kombatant Sonya Blade). In this film, he is the engine that keeps the story moving, as he steals every scene he’s in and gets the biggest laughs. And like Cole, he is the audience’s other surrogate in understanding “Mortal Kombat’s” bizarre, violent, supernatural world, and the beings that live in it, including the thunder god Raiden.
“The point of view Kano brings to the story is probably a lot of the audience,” Russo said. “He consistently, as the British would say, takes the piss out of it all. He brings attention to the self awareness that ‘Mortal Kombat’ as a series is so lovingly famous for. So whenever things are ridiculous, like Liu Kang showing up to throw fireballs, Kano harps on the fact, and then immediately wonders, ‘Wait do I get superpowers too?’”
The video game franchise has always poked fun at itself and the many storytelling genres it lampoons. It’s a series that created the “Friendship” and “Babality” finishing moves, cheeky features that ensure the games never take themselves too seriously, and a reminder that these fighters are all cartoon caricatures. Josh Lawson’s Kano can’t help but see it all and laugh too.
Kano wasn’t always Australian. But the original 1995 movie starred the late Trevor Goddard, who chewed the scenery with his vulgar Australian portrayal, and the games retconned the character to be Australian. So the character and Lawson needed to contend with that legacy.
Russo said the hardest character to write was the main antagonist of the movie and the series, the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa was the other standout, role-defining performance of the original movie. His sneering portrayal of Shang Tsung was so memorable, the games once again retrofitted his reptilian sliminess to match that performance.
“The way that he talks and emotes can so easily fall into too much camp,” Russo said. “He’s a very over the top character, so when you write him, you always put restraint into your voice so he doesn’t come across as too operatic and mustache twirling.”
The film is pretty heavy on the fan service. In the trailer, Kano holds a beating heart of a beast and cackles to himself “Kano wins!” like he’s the announcer for the video game. Russo said his original script actually packed in more references for the fans.
“There’s probably at least 25 percent more fan service in the original script,” Russo said. “I tried to put in a lot of stuff that people loved, but we also want to bring in new fans too. That’s the purpose of these movies, right, to introduce these characters and stories to a different audience. We have the possibility to bring in new fans, and we wanted to make sure we were extending that invitation.”
If you can’t already tell, the film has plenty of one liners and cheesy action movie tropes. It’s all in service of the spirit of the original games, which modeled its characters off Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme films.
“The worst thing you could do to Mortal Kombat is overwrite it,” Russo said. “It revels in its campiness. It’s a great and important part of the Mortal Kombat DNA.”