New Line Cinema’s Mortal Kombat has started streaming on HBO Max and is also in theaters. The bloody film, based on the video game, brings to life the intense action of the blockbuster video game franchise in all its brutal glory, pitting the all-time, fan- favorite champions against one another in the ultimate, no-holds-barred, gory battle that pushes them to their very limits.
The international cast of Mortal Kombat reflects the global nature of the brand; every actor in the film was cast not only for their talent, but also because they accurately represent their character as the fans know and love them.
Director Simon McQuoid says, “With this film we are elevating these much-loved characters onto a platform that is even more massive than in the games, so we respected every character as best we could in order to bring them to the big screen in a way that feels authentic.”
Producer James Wan adds, “In the world we’re living in today, representation is extremely important. When you have a film like this, there’s nothing better than embracing the way the characters were designed and casting talent from around the world.”
These are Your Champions!
The only lead role in the film that gamers won’t find familiar is the story’s point of entry, Cole Young. A new character to the Mortal Kombat franchise, Cole is a gifted MMA fighter struggling to catch a break in the violent, competitive world of cage fighting.
Unaware of his powerful heritage, Cole bears a distinct birthmark that he soon discovers has made him the target of Outworld’s assassins. Desperate to protect his family and uncover the truth behind his marking, Cole is propelled into a dangerous journey where the only thing that can save him is unearthing his own power from within: his arcana.
Lewis Tan plays Cole, a former champion now struggling to get by, fighting in illegal cage matches just to put enough food on the table for his daughter, Emily, and his wife, Allison. He loves his family more than anything in the world, but believes he is letting them down, that he’s not good enough probably never will be.
But Cole will soon come to realize that his purpose is much bigger than he ever could have imagined. His journey to become a very different kind of champion begins as he learns the truth about the strange dragon-shaped birthmark he bears.
Screenwriter Greg Russo says that idea for Cole’s storyline came from his own life. “When I began working on this project, my wife and I were in the process of having our first child. I was dealing with a lot of those questions about what it means to be a father, wondering if I would be a good dad, that sort of thing. And I channeled all of those fears and emotions into creating the character of Cole Young.”
Tan recalls, “I think the first time I played Mortal Kombat was in an arcade, but like most kids who fell in love with the action and fighting, I had it at home, too; I would usually play Kung Lao. And I would sneak and play late and night—and get in trouble! And now look at me, mom!” he laughs.
The actor loved the mix of what McQuoid was offering with his take on the Kombat universe. “The story was really cinematic and at the same time grounded, heartfelt, dramatic, violent. What was cool for me is to play this father who, in trying to protect his family, discovers his own true destiny.”
When we meet Cole, he is in the middle of a match. Tan remembers, “it was a powerful scene and it was one of the first scenes that we shot. Cole has a big MMA fight in the beginning against a guy named Ian Streets, who is a real bare-knuckle boxer, who also knows film fight choreography. But you can’t really fake MMA wrestling and that type of stuff too, too well, so we had to go at it for like three days.”
Tan relates that, at the end of that sequence, “Cole and his daughter walk out of this giant MMA warehouse in Port Adelaide—which they made look like Chicago. And they’re sitting together eating ice cream together and then all of a sudden it starts to snow. It’s a summer night in Chicago, and these little snowflakes are falling…” he smiles.
Before Cole can fully realize what’s happening, he’s intersected by a total stranger who does, in fact, seem to comprehend the situation and the grave danger Cole is in: Jax.
Played by Mehcad Brooks, Jax—aka Major Jackson Briggs—is a physically imposing, headstrong Special Forces soldier. A natural- born protector, Jax has always put the safety of those around him before himself, and does so again with Cole, ordering him to safety while he takes the hit from the veritable ice storm that’s upon them.
Brooks offers, “I’ve been such a fan of the game for so long that when I read the script, I flipped. It really is a dream come true to play Jax Briggs.”
Being so familiar with the character, Brooks says the challenge as an actor was precisely that. “The interesting thing about playing a video games character is that you have to walk this line of being larger than life, but also making that person feel real, so I needed to wrap my head around that.”
One trick he employed to put the role into perspective was, he says, “I thought of the Hemingway quote, something along the lines of ‘Once a man has hunted armed men long enough and like it, he has very little appeasement with anything else thereafter.’
For Jax, coming from Special Forces, he doesn’t have an appetite for anything less, so where do you go from there? Monsters, right? And to hunt them, you have to be one, in some ways. He’s a killer, so there was some soul searching I had to do to play that sense of duty, that compartmentalization that comes with the idea that this is what he has to do to keep himself and others safe.”
One of the “chosen” ones himself, Jax bears a mark similar to Cole’s, and has been working to uncover the truth behind the Mortal Kombat mystery—ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good if necessary. In fact, in sending Cole away, Jax sustains a terrible injury, one that would be enough to keep a regular man down. But Jax has unfinished business.
Jax is also responsible for recruiting Sonya Blade to Special Forces, and while she does not bear the chosen mark, the intelligent, steadfast soldier has also been digging into the mythology behind Mortal Kombat for years.
A deadly knife-wielding fighter, she is as determined and no-nonsense as they come. Her dedication to unraveling the truth behind the mark has driven her to track down the few remaining champions of Earthrealm.
Jessica McNamee, who plays the powerhouse Sonya, came to the role without a gaming background. “It was a learning experience for me,” she says, “and there’s a lot to learn! I read a lot and listened to a couple of podcasts about all the characters and the game—the whole universe—and that was really helpful. I learned Sonya’s backstory and all about the rivalry she has with Kano.”
The actress says the latter helped fuel her performance. “If I’d just read the script alone, I don’t think I would have realized how much of a vendetta Sonya has against Kano—she really wants this guy dead, and that made playing their dynamic really interesting.”
And a conundrum for the character. One of the things that gets under Sonya’s skin is that Kano murdered his way into becoming one of the chosen few. “She has such a predicament, with Kano at the root of it, because she really wants him dead, but she needs him to help save the world.”
Because it’s up to Sonya and the mercenary Kano to see that Cole gets to Lord Raiden’s temple, where he will be trained to fight in Mortal Kombat, McNamee spent a good amount of time with Tan and costar Josh Lawson, who plays the gruff and unrepentant Kano.
“They are such cool guys and a lot of fun, and we laughed a lot on set…probably to the annoyance of everyone else trying to get through the scenes,” McNamee grins. “But seriously, they both worked their butts off. Lewis’s work ethic is unreal. Josh, whom I’ve known for a long time, is absolutely the class clown, so I always enjoy working with him.”
Lawson relished playing Kano, who tends to be a fan favorite thanks to his brash personality, observing, “He’s a guy you love to hate, I think. He’s a mercenary for the Black Dragon Clan, an opportunist…he’s complicated. Is he good, is he bad? He’s antagonistic, self-serving and greedy, with a nasty sense of humor, all of which makes him a lot of fun.”
Loyal to anyone who’ll pay him enough, Kano goes against everything Sonya Blade stands for and their rivalry, well-known throughout the Mortal Kombat universe, is played to full force in the film.
Ironically, though he was familiar with the games, having played them as a kid, Lawson confesses, “I knew Sonya Blade, I knew Lord Raiden, but I never played as Kano!” The actor found it freeing. “I didn’t bring any preconceived ideas on who Kano was for me, I just got to discover it and dive into the character which was so fun.”
As they near the temple, the trio is greeted by Liu Kang, an integral force among Lord Raiden’s team of Earth realm champions. Admirably loyal, Liu Kang has dedicated his life to preparing for Mortal Kombat and serves as a trustworthy guide and counsellor to all on the path to protecting Earthrealm from Outworld’s forces.
The shaolin monk is one of the few who knows everything there is to know about Mortal Kombat and has already earned the trust and favor of Lord Raiden. He has also unlocked his own arcana, or true power, and has the power to manifest and manipulate fire. He will counsel our heroes and guide them into discovering their true potential.
Ludi Lin plays the mystical Liu Kang. “I started playing the video games when I was a kid, and when the first ‘Mortal Kombat’ movie came out, Robin Shou became one of my heroes—I skipped school to watch the second movie. Now I get to play the same character,” he smiles.
“Liu Kang is the spiritual center of the film,” Lin notes. “He is very pure of heart. He believes in Earth’s champions more than anybody—even Raiden has lost faith in the world because its people have forgotten its mythology. He has grown distant. But Liu Kang still believes. Whether his faith in someone like Cole proves to be well-placed remains to be seen.”
Immortal elder and protector of Earthrealm, Lord Raiden has assembled and trained generations of champions to fight each Mortal Kombat tournament. Having lost the last nine, Lord Raiden does not have much hope in this latest group.
Tadanobu Asano, who portrays the Thunder God, offers, “Raiden was waiting for the fighters who will fight for Earth. It’s a very important thing for him as he’s always preparing for the next Mortal Kombat, but he thinks now maybe he should give up, that his opponent is too strong, his choices are not good.”
To help him build the character, who can be somewhat reserved, the actor read not just between, but all around, his lines. “For me, the most important thing is reading the script over and over,” he says.
He adds, “There is my dialogue, but there are many important feelings in the dialogue of others. Raiden is a still and calm person, but he sometimes will blast out his feelings, shouting. I can understand my character from these scenes but also from scenes where they speak about Raiden. These things, these other details, are very important for me when I’m reading the script.”
Among those in whom Raiden does place great confidence is Kung Lao, descendent of one of the greatest fighters Earthrealm has ever known, The Great Kung Lao. Bold and faithful, Kung Lao is himself one of Raiden’s finest warriors, his acumen and his adept use of his razor-brimmed hat, which he controls via telekinesis, rendering the shaolin master a formidable opponent.
Unlike many of his co-stars, Max Huang came to the Mortal Kombat gaming universe after first discovering the earlier films. A full-fledged fan, he says, “When I heard I was going to play Kung Lao, I happened to be in China, training in martial arts. It was like a dream come true, really.”
Huang dove into preparing for the part and arrived at a unique angle. “I went through the script and right away thought it was like a classic western movie, because it has all these cool characters coming together for a showdown,” he relates. “Especially Kung Lao, because he is this mysterious guy, doesn’t talk much, keeps to himself and wears this wide-brimmed hat, which is so iconic; I felt it almost makes him look like a cowboy.”
The actor, who went back to play the game in order to take in his character’s fight style, devised a way to train with the hat prior to having the benefit of his costume. “I actually cut out a hat from cardboard, so I had something to work with, and I even came up with a couple of new moves. It was pretty fun.”
The filmmakers knew they could not give the fans a Mortal Kombat movie without including the legendary ninja born to the Shirai Ryu clan and the greatest warrior to ever live, Hanzo-Hasashi, also known as Scorpion. But his violent murder at the hands of rival assassin Bi-Han banished him to the Netherrealm, where his soul remained trapped in eternal fire, revenge his only thought as he waits for a chance to be freed from the dead.
With no experience in the Mortal Kombat fandom, actor Hiroyuki Sanada headed directly to his computer to research the property and especially his character as soon as he was cast, but also felt a hands-on approach was worth a try.
“I was on location on another film and went to a game center where I found the classic game. I put the coin in and tried to find Scorpion and Sub-Zero, to figure out those characters. Of course I was beaten every time, just losing and losing,” he laughs. “But I kept at the games to keep learning the stories, the background and the characters. It was so much fun.”
He immediately embraced his character. “He was cool, and I loved his weapons and fighting styles,” Sanada says. “But I did feel some pressure to make sure I got him right.”
The actor needn’t have worried—it seems his casting was predestined. “Before I was offered the part, fans on the internet used Photoshop or something to put my face on the body of Scorpion!”
Watch Mortal Kombat now in theaters or on HBO Max.