Mortal Kombat first look: Inside the R-rated reboot, fatalities and all

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Nick Romano
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New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

This month, EW is offering exclusive looks at more than two dozen of 2021's most anticipated movies. Check out more of our preview here.

When you think of Mortal Kombat, you think of blood. Buckets of it. That kind of gruesome splatter that comes from "kali ma shakti de"-ing an opponent in a savage fight to the death. But blood, as director Simon McQuoid thought of it for the upcoming video-game-inspired movie reboot, has many meanings. "Blood represents family," he tells EW. "Blood represents a connection. Blood represents who we are. Without getting too overcomplicated, what we did is use blood executionally." And it starts flowing right from the get-go.

If this new take on Mortal Kombat, revealed in EW's exclusive first-look photos, is a "blood universe," then McQuoid says the kunai blade lies at its center. It's the signature weapon of fan-favorite game character Hanzo Hasashi, a.k.a. Scorpion, played by The Wolverine and The Twilight Samurai star Hiroyuki Sanada. "We did a bit of research and the kunai is actually an ancient Japanese gardening tool," the director explains. "So, one of the earliest shots in the movie is the kunai blade being used as a gardening tool by Hanzo's wife."

Mark Rogers/New Line/Warner Bros.

Mortal Kombat, produced by Todd Garner and Aquaman's James Wan, begins with a crucial piece of lore from the original games: the blood feud between the clans of Hanzo and Bi-Han (Warrior's Joe Taslim). The 10-minute opening sequence kicks off in feudal Japan, long before these fighters wielded supernatural abilities as Scorpion and Sub-Zero, and it ends in "a pretty nasty hand-to-hand combat" between the two, McQuoid says. It's why the first-time feature filmmaker cast Sanada and Taslim, two actors known for their martial arts prowess. "[Hanzo's] the leader of a ninja clan and he's strong, but also… at the beginning, he's a peaceful family man," Sanada says. "It is like a family drama with excitingly brutal fighting. That's the image of this movie for me," he adds.

The story of Bi-Han and Hanzo "needed to be told within the fight," McQuoid says. "There are some great camera moves to give it a bit of dynamism, that make it really enjoyable. We needed it to be really elemental and really brutal. It's not a shiny film… I wanted the dirt and the grime to come through."

That brutality carries over to the present, where we meet Cole Young, a wholly new character to the Mortal Kombat world played by actor and martial artist Lewis Tan (Wu Assassins, Into the Badlands), someone who prides himself on performing his own stunts despite the aches and pains that come along the way from training.

Mark Rogers/New Line/Warner Bros.

"When we first meet Cole, he's in a really bad spot," Tan says. "He's down on his luck. He's kind of a washed-up MMA fighter who used to be a champion, who used to believe in himself, who used to have a lot of hope in his career. And it's all gone down the drain. It's a very interesting place for a hero to start, and I think that, along the journey of Mortal Kombat and Cole discovering where he comes from, you're introduced to all these other iconic characters and elements that everybody loves so dearly."

Cole knows nothing of his heritage aside from the mysterious birthmark on his chest — in the shape of the Mortal Kombat symbol. Tan remains mum on how this birthmark connects to the character's origins but agrees "it's a unique symbol" that "will eventually tie into the journey that he's going on." It remains the only clue Cole has when the sinister sorcerer and emperor of the realm Outworld, Shang Tsung (Skyscraper's Chin Han), sends Sub-Zero, now with his cryomancy powers, to hunt him down.

New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Major Jackson "Jax" Briggs (Supergirl's Mehcad Brooks), a special forces major who bears the same mark as Cole, urges him to seek out Sonya Blade (The Meg's Jessica McNamee). She ferries him onward to the next leg of the journey, to the thunderous Elder God known as Lord Raiden (Thor's Tadanobu Asano), who grants sanctuary at his temple to all those with the mark. There, Cole encounters even more recognizable characters from the Mortal Kombat games — Liu Kang (Power Rangers' Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (actor and stuntman Max Huang), and Kano (Superstore's Josh Lawson) — as they all train for a high-stakes tournament to defeat the invading enemies from Outworld.

New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Tan is familiar with the idea of legacy. His father, Philip Tan, a national champion martial artist, began his film career on Tim Burton's Batman and he progressed to fight choreographer, stunt coordinator, and second unit director. Tan has fond memories of rolling around the stunt mats on movie sets as a kid. Mortal Kombat now marks the actor's first leading role in a high-profile feature from the studio that launched his father's career. Tan also realizes the legacy of the original games.

"I've been playing the game since I was a kid," he says. "For lack of a better way to describe it, you don't want to mess it up because it's so iconic. You want to bring something new to the table that people haven't seen before, but at the same time, really respect and pay homage to these legendary worlds that were already created."

Cole is certainly something fans haven't seen before. While many gamers can call out the unique fight moves of familiar names, like the daggers of Mileena (played by actress Sisi Stringer), Tan used his own experience to develop a fresh style for Cole. He pulled from UFC fighter Jorge Masvidal for that "salt-of-the-earth grit," while also tapping into muay Thai (a.k.a. Thai kickboxing), judo, jujitsu, and "MMA roots."

Mark Rogers/New Line/Warner Bros.

"I wanted to make sure that everyone respected the material, the lore of Mortal Kombat, the fans and the love they have for this. Everyone was clear on it," McQuoid says of developing the reboot. Respect for the material also meant leaning into what makes Mortal Kombat so popular after all these years. Blood has a lot to do with that.

As a joke, McQuoid told stunt coordinator Kyle Gardiner to craft "the best fight sequences ever done in a movie ever." In reality, these action pieces are some of the highest-rated elements of the movie to come out of early test screenings, according to McQuoid and Tan. "We need to be smart about how we go about [the fights]," the director notes, "and there are times, you'll see when you see the movie, when it's just, 'F--- it! Let's have some fun.'"

McQuoid is still editing the film, but he already knows "it's definitely not gonna get a PG-13 rating."

"Out of context this quote might seem incendiary, it's not: The rules around ratings aren't what a lot of people think they are," he says. "It's amount of blood, it's amount of red, it's interpretation of how you go about it. We had a lot of discussions about getting the balance right so there was gore and there was blood and there were fatalities." He pauses to repeat what he just said. "And there is gore, blood, and fatalities."

New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Fatalities, as in the dramatic finishing moves from the games that often involve severing someone completely in half or ripping out someone's spine, will be realized for the first time in a Mortal Kombat movie. "There are some crazy fatalities," Tan confirms. "We've picked a couple of iconic ones. There's a lot of really cool signature moves that you'll see, a lot of Easter eggs that we snuck into the film, but there are some really badass fatalities that I can't wait to see on the big screen. They're brutal, man. They, they don't hold back." At the same time, McQuoid "didn't want to get into NC-17 territory." He notes, "It's amazing how quickly you can get there. It doesn't take much." At least, not for a Mortal Kombat movie.

The film is scheduled for a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max this April 16.

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