A Truly Mortal Combat

Verisimilitude has a shorter reach than Scorpion’s Van Damme spear.

You’re pop-culture-savvy people, or else you wouldn’t be reading this site. So by now you’ve already seen the proof-of-concept trailer for Mortal Kombat: Rebirth starring Michael Jai White and Jeri Ryan.


What is this crazy thing?

In brief: director Kevin Tancharoen, in an effort to drum up interest for a reboot of the Mortal Kombat series, filmed this little short over two days. He didn’t have any studio backing and paid for it ($7500) out of pocket, with most of the crew and actors volunteering their time. (h/t Collider). As of this writing, there’s no word on whether any studio has bit on Tancharoen’s vision. But it’s certainly better than anything else we’ve seen in the Mortal Kombat series, right?


Mortal Kombat: Rebirth (MKR) joins the new tradition of rebooting franchises by making them grittier and more realistic. Christopher Nolan’s new Batman series is the boldest example. Gone is the Gothic architecture and Dutch tilts of Tim Burton and the deliberate camp of Joel Schumacher. Now, everything needs a real explanation. Note the effort the script devotes (in the voice of Morgan Freeman) to explaining the real-world science behind Batman’s armor, weapons, comms gear and Batmobile. Note the seedy appearance of Heath Ledger’s Joker: drooling, makeup smeared and seamed, killing with knives instead of poison gas. Christopher Nolan’s Batman has to live in the real world.

Other reboots in this same vein include the Bourne trilogy, the new James Bond series, and the Mission: Impossible franchise. While there are still gadgets, they’re always plausible gadgets. While there are stunts, they’re always credible stunts. Daniel Craig’s Bond will never drive a tractor-trailer on its two right wheels to evade a missile (see License to Kill). Jason Bourne’s watch does not have a laser in it.

Somewhere in the last twenty years, we decided that the pulp heroes of yesteryear needed to become the grim champions of today. What did it? The World Trade Center razing and the new War on Terror? That’s an easy culprit to blame. But it makes sense: America is still the powerhouse of producing pop culture. Events that shock America’s perception of itself would alter American pop culture output as well.

And this brings us to MKR.

In the video game “Mortal Kombat II,” Baraka is a snarling humanoid alien in samurai armor with claws coming out of his arms. In MKR, Baraka is a “failed plastic surgeon” who has surgically implanted blades in his body. Reptile was a hidden character in the original “Mortal Kombat,” a clone of Scorpion and Sub-Zero with a green outfit. In MKR, Reptile is a harlequin baby who survived to adulthood. Scorpion himself is a professional assassin. Everyone has a semi-plausible explanation for why they’re as weird as they are.

Now’s a good time to delve into the concept of verisimilitude as opposed to realism. To say something is “realistic” – a loaded word in itself – means that it could have come from real life. To say something has verisimilitude means that it appears that it could have come from real life. An explanation does not need to be plausible, but it needs to sound plausible, for it to have verisimilitude. It needs to stand up to casual regard, if not a concerted investigation.

Example: “Superman can fly” is fantastic. “Superman came from a planet with much higher gravity, so he can jump so far that it appears he can fly” has verisimilitude. The explanation does not stand up to more than five minutes of scrutiny (“so how does he hover, then?”). But for certain types of art, it’s important that the authors at least tried. Note that in Superman’s origins, the wow-science futurist 30s, the latter explanation was used. In later years, as science grew more threatening (pollution, atomic weapons, etc), Superman needed to be above that. His flight was retconned to “look, Superman can just fly, okay?”

The explanations for Baraka, Reptile and Scorpion all have verisimilitude. They may not be the most rigorous science – how likely is a harlequin baby to survive to adulthood? – but the authors tried. The fact that they tried indicates an attitude that prefers naturalism and plausibility. They’re helping us with the suspension of disbelief. They want us to believe that Jax, Sonya Blade and Sub-Zero inhabit the same world we do.

The problem: verisimilitude only goes so far.

I don’t intend to poke holes in the explanations that Tancharoen provided for Baraka, Reptile and Scorpion. Those we’ll leave alone. Rather, we need to consider the explanations he provided for the least supernatural elements of the short. In brief:

  1. “Johnny Cage. That’s right, the old action hero. After his movie career died, he needed work. We had him working for us undercover.” Because that’s who you want working undercover for you: a world-famous movie star. How long did he last? Three days? Two?
  2. The tournament that Shang Tsung is planning. If Shang Tsung is a mysterious underworld crime boss, why would he hold a high-profile martial arts tournament? Isn’t that just asking for more scrutiny into your affairs? That’s like Kim Jong-Il bidding to host the World Cup or Suge Knight opening his doors to MTV’s “Cribs.”
  3. Scorpion, apparently the best assassin for the deadliest criminal gang in Japan, kills people with a dart on a high-tension wire that he conceals in his sleeve. If you can smuggle a steel dart and twenty feet of wire past a metal detector or a pat-down, you can smuggle a gun in as well. But I guess a hallmark of assassination is being exotic.

MKR goes to great lengths to convince us it takes place in the real world. Then, with a straight face, it reminds us we’re watching a fantasy.


Would this be any less bizarre if it took place in Thailand?

This problem isn’t unique to MKR. Consider Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne ends up in a Chinese prison in his efforts to learn about martial arts and the criminal mind. He meets an ancient order of ninja assassins, which strains credulity but is plausible. Then we learn that this ancient order plans to poison Gotham City by introducing a rare flower to, then microwaving, its water supply. Huh?

The problem isn’t that Tancharoen is giving verisimilitude to a plausible story. The problem is he’s attempting to shepherd a fantastic story into the real world by grafting verisimilitude onto it. And like any transplant, there’s only so long before the body starts rejecting the newcomer.

Is this a bad thing? Not really. Am I disappointed in MKR? No. For one thing, the proof-of-concept trailer Tancharoen shot has higher production values – better actors, dialogue, editing, cinematography – than any Mortal Kombat movie we’ve seen to date. Putting the Mortal Kombat film franchise in his hands will only improve it.

But MKR’s a good object lesson in the limits of verisimilitude. Adding plausible science and politics to a story makes it seem grittier. It helps the stakes feel more real. But, at the end of the day, you’re still telling a story about mutants throwing blades at demons in a martial arts deathmatch. Verisimilitude can only take so many hits before you inflict a fatality.


I want to see them explain Raiden.

14 Comments on “A Truly Mortal Combat”

  1. stokes OTI Staff #

    Growing up, I was the kind of kid who always chose Raiden because his backstory said he was a god, and I was like, “Well, clearly he’s the strongest, then. Because he’s a god.” I thought it was BS that he ever lost to anyone, but especially Johnny Cage.


  2. Kater #

    After I saw this trailer, I was curious about the likelihood of Reptile’s survival as well. It’s extremely rare, but not impossible–there are some surviving harlequin babies who are now in their teens or 20s, the oldest surviving ones ever pretty much. They also have of course an exhausting daily routine due to their conditions, but it is interesting to note that it’s possible.

    Somehow, however, I got the impression that Reptile doesn’t so much keep up with daily baths and scrubbings.

    I think pop culture these days has taken to this sort of ‘verisimilitude’ as you put it to let the viewing audience be lead on a path that’s plausible. If you accept A early on, then later in the movie it’s not so hard to accept B. If you accept B, then C and finally D are no problem! It’s a nice way of bringing the viewer in slowly but surely and making the suspension of disbelief a process rather than a jarring experience. Done well, we get a movie like Batman Begins where we gladly follow along despite the fact that yes, this is impossible. Done poorly, we get, hmm…one of the Matrix sequels? One of the Underworld sequels? I’m failing at getting a good example.

    What’s strange, too, I think is that people will often find jump the shark moments in these films, but it’s not something crazy. My favorite example is in Independence Day, I’ve heard a few people complain that when Will Smith found his girlfriend, *THAT* was when it became unbelievable. Really? When he found her at the ruins of the Air Force Base, where she was headed to try and find him and where he was headed to try and find her? That’s more unbelievable than huge alien spaceships appearing, destroying cities, being invulnerable, and that we all then get saved by a computer virus that’s uploaded to their systems because OF COURSE their computers and ours will have compatible systems in the first place?

    An interesting thing, the limits of the imagination. :)


  3. Kater #

    oh great, and I somehow made my whole post in italics. :P


  4. Ryan #

    I want to see them explain Raiden.

    Raiden will be…uh…an immigrant who fled North Korea and used his skills as an electrician to get hired by the city’s power company. Kim Jong-Il found out about his desertion and sent assassins to kill him. The assassins threw Raiden into a transformer at the power station and left him for dead. LITTLE DID THEY KNOW, Raiden survived the ordeal and found that the surge of electricity (coupled with the microchip that Kim Jong-Il has implanted in all North Koreans) altered the way his body’s electrons interact with the protons, thus giving him ELECTRIC POWERS. He wears the straw hat because the top of his head was singed off, and he doesn’t want to draw attention to his deformity. He enters the tournament to find (and kill) the assassins that did this to him.


  5. Gab #

    (EEE! U used mah laljoker!)

    So the reserve I mentioned on the Open Thread comes from the harlequin thing. I think it’s an awesomely clever explanation (and example of verisimilitude) for Reptile looking reptilian, but I read an article saying the images in the trailer were actually images of REAL HARLEQUIN BABIES taken from Google. That made me kind of sick to my stomach, to think those were actual people and not at least cosmetically altered ones, animatronic ones at most. I’m too much of a wuss to image search it the way the author said he did to see if it’s true, though- so it could be wrong. And if not, I’d hope the only reason they’re real babies is because of the timeframe and budget Tancharoen was working with. That doesn’t necessarily make it 100% okay with me, but at least it gives an explanation- and I’d hope that, were he to actually get a full-length movie and budget, he’d use makeup and/or robots. It may have been a tasteless call at first, but he could redeem himself by at least publicly apologizing.

    And about 2. Jacks calls the tournament itself “underground,” implying to me it’s one of those things spread on the hush-hush, like Fight Club or something. I guess my impression wasn’t that it was a high-profile thing at all.

    Coincidentally, Michael Jai White was in _The Dark Knight_ as Gambol.


  6. Sajanas #

    Harlequin babies are about as horrific looking as the youtube style videos show. I tried looking the disorder up online, and they shield you from those images unless you really want to see them. Gah, so gross.

    I would also think that using a ‘gritty real life’ situation for your movie can be good in some ways, when the filmmakers bother to at least look up their flights of fantasy in google first. I remember The Happening was aiming for something somewhat realistic, but then started using a fake quote from Einstein, and a science teacher who said “You know, sometimes you just don’t know, and you shouldn’t bother finding out, and thats science.” I understand that people don’t necessarily have to let the facts get in the way of story telling, but at least try not to get your basic premise completely wrong.


  7. Fish #

    At least as far as point 1 is concerned… when Jax says that Cage was ‘undercover’… I don’t think that they meant that he was pretending to be someone else and infiltrating the crime syndicates, but rather that he was just actually working for the police department without anyone knowing and then passing on information to them. Being a Hollywood type, he might have been invited to places and saw things that the people involved were unconcerned with him seeing, since they figured he was just a D-List celeb looking for a good time, rather than having some other sort of motive. Now whether that fits the definition of being ‘undercover’ per se is a different story.


  8. Tom P #

    If Shang Tsung is a mysterious underworld crime boss, why would he hold a high-profile martial arts tournament? Isn’t that just asking for more scrutiny into your affairs?

    See also: Poker, World Series of (origin).

    If you can smuggle a steel dart and twenty feet of wire past a metal detector or a pat-down, you can smuggle a gun in as well. But I guess a hallmark of assassination is being exotic.

    Guns make a lot of noise. A poison-tipped dart, not so much.


  9. Brandon #

    I’m glad my friends are talking about this trailer as much as I’m thinking about it. Thanks Perich for voicing some thoughts I had trouble putting into words here; 18tiles.blogspot.com

    (can I plug my own stuff here?)


  10. Jon Eric #


    I’ve occasionally made mention of my music recording hobby/career, and linked to http://www.jon-eric.com when I could fit it into context, so… probably. ;)

    Back on topic, though…
    With the million Youtube hits, the link sharing on social networking sites, the blogosphere going crazy about it, and the hugely positive reaction from all sides – With all this support, it would seem foolish of Warner Bros. not to finance this film.

    The proof-of-concept video toes the line for me. Mortal Kombat is one of those video games that I loved when I was younger, but I’ve revisited it in later years and found that it didn’t hold up as well as it used to. It was more apparent as time passed that the game really an excuse for the hyperviolence it depicted. Any film that tries to transcend this with gritty “realism” (the better word is indeed “verisimilitude,” Perich, and I appreciate you bringing that aspect of it into the conversation) and stylized cinematography is sort of missing the point. Nonetheless, this proof-of-concept video actually looks really visually-engaging and well-acted, and even if I feel that adding these elements betrays something about the spirit of the game, they look as though they’re primed to add up to a film much greater than its predecessors.

    In other words, if they make it, I’ll sure as hell go see it.

    It certainly doesn’t hurt that the talent (writer, director, lead actor, et al.) are all such huge fans of the franchise. This proof-of-concept film was clearly a labor of love, and a feature-length expansion of it would presumably be, as well.

    Also, I agree with Tancharoen – the Scorpion/Sub-Zero rivalry dynamic was severely underexploited in the previous three movies. I look forward to seeing what he can do with that if given the chance.

    I was skeptical, at first, that the trailer seems to place so much weight on Jax, who I always thought of as a throwaway character. But the end product certainly justifies that decision, and I actually care about Jax more than I ever did before.

    I am quite curious as to how they’re going to do characters like Raiden (ageless thunder god who shoots out lightning like Picachu?), Goro (Two words: four arms) and Shang Tsung (a friggin’ shapeshifter for chrissakes).


  11. RiderIon #

    I, for one, still enjoy the first Mortal Kombat movie. It has enough fanservice and action sequences for to enjoy without questioning the plot too much. I just watched the proof-of-concept video and I approve.

    The other problem that Mortal Kombat has (besides the verisimilitude and realism aspects discussed in the article) is its continuity. Or more correctly, it’s cluster*@#& of a storyline after Mortal Kombat 3. You’d have to reboot the franchise and cut all of the fat to make a good adapatation. The MKR concept does just that while fixing the realism/verisimilitude issues.

    And to bring the topic around, I picked Raiden when I was a little kid because he had the Superman move. And he was the only character I knew a Fatality for in MK2.


  12. Valatan #


    Dude decapitating people and then eating the decapitated corpses, in clear view of camera: GREAT! PLEASE POST IT

    Woman baring her breasts for a fraction of a second: INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT.

    I know that it’s a trite, overstated point. But damn. I can’t believe that that video is postable on YouTube


  13. Brian Williams NBC Nightly News #

    RE: 3) Scorpion’s dart – Actually I’ve always considered unconventional/handheld weapons as a way around things like metal detectors. Warrior cultures like the Maori invented brutal devices with wood, bone/teeth, and stone. A dart made with organic material and deployed with rope could squeeze past most security.

    I liked the video for its effort and style, but the attempts at “verisimilitude” turned me off. I actually liked the first Mortal Kombat movie–they just played it straight up, and once you accepted a few fantastical elements, it was quite watchable, especially since the heroes were handicapped in the way of “special moves” (minus Liu Kang’s ridiculous bicycle kick). They even managed to make Johnny Cage badass.

    It seems like Trancharoen will introduce the supernatural stuff anyway once the tournament starts, so why try to do it half-way at the outset? It’s unnecessary and the attempts at “real-life” detract from the believability when they fail. For instance, Reptile might be a harlequin, but somebody with such a disability would be absolute child’s play to fight. And Baraka would have to be the dumbest doctor on earth to think that installing blades in his arms could be a good idea. Unlike Scorpion, he would NOT get on any planes, severely hindering his chances to kill people (Wow that guy looks like a psycho killer, let’s cross the street). Plus during his fight I was wondering why he didn’t just slice Johnny from the outset.

    So I guess what troubles me is Trancharoen already referring to his short as a “prelude,” implying that most of those elements would stay. If it was just a one-off chance for him to show what’s possible, then I’d be excited.


  14. Gab #


    That’s a pretty in-depth interview with him about it. Like Brian Williams says, he hopes to keep the more mystical stuff in there, while keeping out the cheese. I think the bottom line is he realizes the games don’t really have a plot, and you can’t make a movie like that- but that the idea is still a really cool one for a movie. For what it was, the first movie was pretty good, but the people with the most positive feelings about it pull a lot of their love for the games into their opinion of it. I don’t think I know a single person that didn’t like or know the games and still liked the movie. For a MK movie to be a Good Movie, not a Good MK Movie, it kind of *needs* to stray from the mythos of the game. Sticking to the games’ mythos isn’t as marketable, and the point of making a movie like this is marketability- not necessarily from a for-profit standpoint, either, but out of love of the games and a desire to spread them around however possible. I find this very similar to what goes on with the comic/graphic novel movies as of late- some stuff just doesn’t translate well to the screen in a movie format, and some elements just need to be changed or added or eliminated in order for it to resonate with as many people as possible- and saying “no true fan would condone that change” or something similar is disingenuous because a lot of “true fans” will do anything they can to get what they’re fans of exposed to as many initially-non-fans as possible. It’s like spreading the Gospel. A *lot* like it.


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