Anyone in Fresno or anywhere else in the world today can tell you that the Internet has changed the way our society operates for all time. Without it, communication would not travel at the speeds they do today, knowledge would not be as easy to access as it is today, and our sense of entertainment…well, frankly, if the Internet did not exist, then I would not be here writing this review for you at home to read at your leisure. But the use of the Internet for personal entertainment goes beyond just being able to express our opinions of movies, music and TV, it has also become an access point to watch such entertainment, sometimes through exclusive viral release.
Two years ago, this examiner made an example of this when he reviewed Mortal Kombat: Legacy, a nine episode web series directed by Kevin Tancharoen based on the popular fighting video game franchise. The series spawned out of an independent short film he had made called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, which he had made for $7,500 as a pitch to Warner Brothers for his vision of a reboot of the Mortal Kombat film series. The film was then leaked online and instantly became a hit, with fans praising it for its mature storytelling despite taking a far, far grittier and more realistic approach to the usually more mystical and fantastic nature of the Mortal Kombat universe. Even the franchise’s co-creator, Ed Boon, praised the film, but felt that it “probably crosses the line” as a re-imagining of the series.
The positive reception of Rebirth ultimately impressed Warner Brothers, not enough to green light a feature film, sadly, but instead a web series based around Tancharoen’s vision for the franchise. Much like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li had been a convenient tie-in for the released of Street Fighter IV, Mortal Kombat: Legacy would co-inside with the release of the Mortal Kombat reboot game released in 2011. Released on a weekly basis through Machinima, Legacy recounted the backstory of many of the franchise’s most popular characters, showing where each of them were when we first met them at the Mortal Kombat Tournament depicted in the original game. Being a web series deliberately aimed at a mature audience, Legacy was not barred by the PG-13 censorship of the previous two live-action films, resulting in graphic depictions of violence, profanity, and adult implications.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the series structure was that each character’s story arc allowed Tancharoen to try out a different filmmaking technique. For example, the two-episode arc surrounding Jax, Sonya and Kano were crafted like a TV crime drama, while the Johnny Cage episode opened with a E! True Hollywood Story type recap of the actor’s rise and fall from grace. The two-part Kitana and Mileena episode, which was easily the most poorly reviewed of the series, broke away from the realistic tone and restores the fantasy elements the games are known for; the problems with this were the sudden break in tone, half the footage being crude animation for the sake of budget, the constant narration needed to condense the wider story, and, frankly, the poorest acting in the series overall. The Raiden episode was a gritty tale told in a psychiatric ward with some particularly disturbing imagery that did well to humanize the game’s God of Thunder unlike we’ve ever seen him before. The two-part Scorpion and Sub-Zero episode was a straight-up tribute to classic Japanese ninja ans samurai films, to the point that the characters speak almost completely in Japanese (with subtitles of course). The final episode, focusing of Cyrax and Sector, was a surprising choice to end the series, but it impressed with its gritty tone, technology-based themes, and quality of the CGI models in context of the series’ budget.
With the success of Legacy, fans waited for two years to finally see if it would lead to either a new Mortal Kombat film or a second season. Well, my friends, the wait is finally over, because Machinima finally released all ten episodes of Mortal Kombat: Legacy II on the same day!
Unlike the first season, this new story arc focuses on the characters assembling for the Mortal Kombat Tournament itself, where Earthrealm’s mightiest warriors, led by the thunder god Raiden, fight the forces of Outworld led by sorcerer Shang Tsung, who is himself a servant of the evil emperor, Shao Khan. The season has a much more straightforward structure (for the most part) and the tone and style is much more consistent is each of the episodes. Because of this, there is not as much for this examiner to say about each episode individually as there was last time, but I will try my best. Here is a rundown of the plots for each of the episodes:
In this first episode we are introduced to Liu Kang (played by Brian Tee), a former Shaolin warrior and hero in Earthrealm’s defense against Outworld. But now, he has left the temple and is living as a drunk in Macau, when he gets into a fight (that he started himself) with some local gangsters. Lui Kang shows his amazing skills, but ultimately gets beaten to a pulp until he is saved by Kung Lao (played by Mark Dacascos), a monk and former close friend of Liu’s. But their reunion is bittersweet as Liu is still harboring a deep-rooted resentment towards Kung Lao for something that happened in their past.
The second episode reveals that after Liu Kang left the temple, he fell in love and became engaged to a working class woman, until he witnessed her being murdered before his eyes by some common criminals. Meanwhile, back in the present, Kung Lao leaves the temple and crosses through the barrier to arrive at the site of the Mortal Kombat Tournament, as well as Raiden and fellow Earthrealm warriors Johnny Cage Stryker, Kenshi and Sub-Zero. But also arriving at the tournament are Shang Tsung and his own warriors fighting for Outworld: Kitana, Mileena, Ermac, Scorpion…and Liu Kang.
This episode sees the Earthrealm warriors taken under the guidance of Raiden (played by David Lee McInnis) as he tells them why they are here and how they each possess an extraordinary power that will carry them through the tournament. We also get a flashback to the origin of Kenshi (played by Daniel Southworth), a blind swordsmen with the power of psychokinesis. It turns out that he was once a ronin who saved a beaten old man from some rouge samurai one day, and in return the old man told him a story of the mystical Sword of Sento, placed within the mountain by Shao Khan and put under guard by one of his strongest warriors.
Picking up where the last episode left off, Kenshi enters the cave to claim the sword, but he must first defeat Ermac (played by Kim Do Nguyen), a fighter composed of the souls of multiple dead warriors, who also possesses the power of psychokinesis. Kenshi’s skill is no match for his enemy and Ermac blinds him. Back in the present, the two meet again for the first fight of the tournament.
This episode opens with a flashback to before the tournament as Shao Khan’s daughters, Kitana (played by Samantha Jo) and Mileena (played by Michelle Lee) are about to leave for the tournament. But Kitana is is serious doubt about her loyalty after the discovery she made about her true heritage last season. As the sisters arrive, they encounter Johnny Cage and give chase, after all three witness Kenshi’s defeat of Ermac.
In this episode, we see how Johnny Cage (played by Casper Van Dien) was arrested for getting into yet another fight and was then recruited by Raiden to fight in the tournament, having turned down Shang Tsung’s offer during last season. In the present day, Cage finds himself in a fight with Kitana and Mileena and is about to be killed…until Kitana finally rebels and the two sisters duel each other to the death.
Flashing back several years in the past, this episode reveals the full history of Hanzo Hasashi, a.k.a. Scorpion (played by Ian Anthony Dale) and Bi Han, a.k.a. Sub-Zero (played by Eric Steinberg). Raised in clans that have been at odds with each other for generations, the two nevertheless became friends as children and then, as adults, became leaders of their clans and end up continuing that tradition of hatred. But one day, after Hanzo is forced to kill Bi Han’s angry younger brother in order to protect his own family, Hanzo and Bi Han make a pact to make a truce between their two clans in honor of their childhood bond.
Picking up where the last episode left off, Bi Han receives word of his clan’s massacre of Hanzo’s family and clan and is furious over it, until a old mystic reveals to him that the act was a deception by Shang Tsung and Quan Chi to frame Bi Han himself for the betrayal, as a way to infuriate Hanzo and motivate him to fight for the forces of evil in the tournament. Back in the present, the two finally have the battle, with Bi Han professing the truth throughout, but with Hanzo too blinded by a furious desire for revenge to listen.
In this episode, we finally learn why Liu Kang is fighting for the side of evil. In the ten years since the murder of his fianceé, Liu has become a hitman as he is seen murdering mobsters in a seedy motel. He is later approached by Shang Tsung (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who convinces the angry young man that the human world has become so filled with evil that it is no longer worthy of being protected from Outworld and that the monks, particularly Kung Lao, have betrayed him. At the end of their conversation, it is clear that Liu Kang will enter the tournament as a warrior for enemy’s side.
In the final episode of the season, we start ten years before the present day, as Liu Kang returns bloodied and desperate to the temple where he confesses to Kung Lao that he murdered the men who killed his financeé, but he comes seeking comfort rather than forgiveness. Upholding the teaching s of his people, Kung Lao turns his back on Liu Kang’s new path, resulting in the animosity they share today. Back in the present day, Kurtis Stryker (played by Eric Jacobus) finds Johnny Cage and treats his wounds, when they are suddenly ambushed by Liu Kang. Both men are about to be killed when Kung Lao appears and is stunned to see his old friend at the tournament. Liu Kang is determined to put an end to things, but Lao is reluctant to in the name of their past friendship. the season ends with the two former friends about to have the battle.
Obviously the main centerpiece of this series is the fight scenes, and the I am pleased to say that the choreography is clearly up-to-par with the first season. We get a variety of fights this season, if not necessarily a variety of fight locations. We start with, of all things, a brutal drunken bar fight with the guy who is supposed to be our main hero (I emphasize “supposed to”, more on that later), which is only stopped when Kung Lao knocks Liu’s attacker out with his signature hat trick…and no, unlike in the games his hat does not have a bladed edge that can be used to decapitate people. The Kenshi and Ermac fight is basically a sword against magic, and it is probably the least visually appealing fight, but the finishing move is still cool. The Kitana and Mileena fight is also pretty good, but a lot of that comes from the dynamic between the two, both from the events of the first season and from over twenty years of Mortal Kombat at mythology. The best fight of all, of course, is the Scorpion and Sub-Zero fight. There is sheer brutality and all of the special moves that you expect from their battle, and it all builds up to a finishing move that is classic Mortal Kombat, but is nevertheless the kind of thing that they could have never gotten away with in the 90s movies. Unfortunately, as this season takes place on the tournament island, a lot of the outdoor settings for the fights start to all look the same and a little bit more variety would have been appreciated.
One thing that did take this examiner out of the moment for a moment was the nearly complete recasting of and unexplained dropping of characters from the first season. This season is meant to be an adaptation of the original tournament seen in the original game, just like the first movie was doing. In that original game there were seven characters: Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, Raiden, Kano, Scorpion and Sub-Zero, with Goro and Shang Tsung as the final bosses. Sonya and Kano, who along with Jax were firmly established in the first two episodes of season one, were all cut out of this season. I know that the director said that the actresses schedule left her unavailable to be their in time for filming, but it still fails to live up to the promise of those early episodes. Instead, Stryker, a character a lot of fans never favored to begin with but who was written into their story arc last season in a way that worked well, is taking their place altogether. Cyrax and Sektor were introduced in the ending of season one, and to not see them here kind of makes their introduction pointless. Johnny Cage, Raiden, Stryker, Mileena, Sub-Zero and Shang Tsung are now played by a different actors. Now, I actually thought that Cage and Mileena’s actors were able to do more with their roles, but I regretted not seeing the same actor play Raiden, even if he barely appears this season. Sub-Zero’s recasting I did not mind since he wears a mask anyway, and I loved being able to see the original movie’s Shang Tsung reprise his role again, and hey, given the Shang Tsung mythology, the dramatic difference in age and appearance in both versions can be easily explained.
I liked some of the turns made in the writing here. As I watched these episodes, there were a few times when I was afraid that Tancharoen was going to forget his own continuity, like when Raiden is shown recruiting Johnny Cage to fight at the tournament, when they had already showed Shang Tsung going to him last season; thankfully, a few lines of dialogue rectified these sorts of issues. While the first season kept its focus on Scorpion’s point-of-view of that back story, thereby making him a sympathetic character, this season also goes into Sub-Zero’s point-of-view, showing his outrage at his own clan for his belief that they massacre’s his friend’s clan. After Sub-Zero learns the truth, you find yourself wishing that he can get through to Scorpion even though, as every Mortal Kombat fan knows, that is simply not how this is going to go down. I’ve become so used to the original Sub-Zero (long story) coming across as an a**hole, even if he wasn’t really one who killed Scorpion’s family, that I was genuinely surprised to find myself feeling sorry for him as well as Scorpion. On a similar note, the the dynamic between Kitana and Mileena carried on the the only point it could have, but was still great to see all of that go down. The only down side is that I felt that Kitana’s turn and Mileena’s defeat happened a bit too early; that, and that Liu Kang had nothing to do with it.
In speaking of Liu Kang, this is easily the biggest shock of this entire season. Tancharoen felt inspired to defy all fan expectation and turn the series primary protagonist, the character more identified as the hero of this series than anyone else, and turn him into a murderous renegade fighting for the villains. Sure, it always sucks to see Ryu and Ken get the shaft every time someone tries making a live action Street Fighter movie, but at least they know better than to take the game’s main heroes and turn them evil…Except that in the 90s movie they both found work as con men…okay, never mind, but you get my point! I have no idea what the director has in mind to bring this arc to a close in either a third season or a movie, but I would be lying if I did not admit that seeing this portrayal of Liu Kang was simultaneously intriguing and detracting. It is intriguing because it is a massive deviation from what we have all seen before and offers up a fresh spin on things. But it is detracting because it is a complete character assassination to everything that this character is meant to represent within the series. Say what you will about Robin Shou’s portrayal in the films, but while both of these Liu Kang’s were shaped by a great loss, Shou’s Liu Kang was still a hero, fighting for the side of Earthrealm against Shang Tsung and using a desire to avenge his brother’s murder as a motivator to fight for good, and simultaneously getting over his sunken in doubt about Raiden and the other defenders of Earthrealm’s worth, and certainly never doubting the value of Earthrealm itself. Brian Tee’s Liu Kang, on the other hand, is a man who lost the woman he loved to a couple of robbers and his reaction was to kill them, take pride in it, and when Kung Lao and the other monks cannot comfort him for it, he becomes a cold-blooded killer for ten years, convinced that everything the White Lotus (the society he and Kung Lao belong to) hold dear is a lie and that mankind is so corrupt that it is no longer worth protecting. This is exactly what Shang Tsung tells this Liu Kang during their admittedly well-acted conversation, and even though Liu makes it clear that Tsung was once very much his enemy, he nevertheless accepts what is said and joins forces with Outworld to defeat those who should be his friends.
This is not at all the Liu Kang any of us expected, but again, Tancharoen is fully aware of that and we merely have to wait and see what future installments in the series will do to resolve this. However, there are some bright sides to this portrayal. Firstly, is allows the actor, Brian Tee, a chance to play a wider range of emotions, namely bitterness and anger, that likely would not have been available to him if he had played the traditional Liu Kang. Secondly, it helps add more durability to Kung Lao, another popular character from the games who, sadly, has not had as much attention in other media as he deserves. For all intensive purposes, he seems to be playing the role that Liu Kang should be playing. Thirdly, obviously, it keeps all of us watching to see how the next season will play out and how, or if, Liu Kang will be turned back to the good and play his role to save the world like we all expect.
The costumes, I feel, should also be noted, as they are very hit-and-miss to me. Kitana and Mileena’s clothes looked fairly traditional and more-or-less resembled their look from season one, as did Raiden’s robes. Kenshi’s costumes looks straight out of the most recent game, and when Kung Lao did get into his warrior garb in the second episode, he looked great too. Scorpion’s new mask with the sculpted mouth was a bit odd, but in a cool way, whereas Sub-Zero’s costume (and I swear the segway pun wasn’t intentional) is pretty weird looking, almost resembling a cybernetically-enhanced snowboarder. The redesign on Ermac is done to make him look like just a monster, which I think was a mistake; it would have been better to just give him either his classic red ninja look or more likely his black bandaged look from the 2011 game. And then their’s Liu Kang’s costume…An hoodie?! Seriously?!!How lame can you get?!
The performances of the actors should not go unacknowledged. Ian Anthony Dale return as Hanzo Hasashi, a.k.a. Scorpion, and this time gets to truly indulge himself in the characters fury and obsession with vengeance. Mark Dacascos brings an great amount of pity and regret the the role of Kung Lao, frankly, playing him as a warrior bound by the honor and traditions of his people, but nevertheless torn between that and his desire to make amends with his former friend. So far, this has cast his character as the primary hero of the series. David Lee McInnis replaces Ryan Robbins in the role of Raiden, and while the change of actor was initially distracting, he does okay for the precious little screen time he is given this season. Harry Shum, Jr. is introduced as Kuai Liang, the second Sub-Zero, and he plays the role with a lot of anger and resentment; not a huge role, but hopefully one that will have potential to grow in the future…despite his apparent off-screen death this season. Brian Tee is a paradox this examiner; while I feel that the portrayal presented on Liu Kang here is very wrong, none of that is Tee’s fault, and he actually makes it bearable through the surprising weight and layers of his performance, be he a happy young man in love, a lost soul desperate for acceptance, a man ruled entirally by his anger, or, ultimately, a tool of evil. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa reprises his role from the first Mortal Kombat film as Shang Tsung, replacing the much younger Johnson Phan from last season. It was such a delight to see him in this role again, and this time he bring an added age and wisdom to compliment this master manipulator aspect of the role; his conversation with Liu Kang is super effective. Casper Van Dien, best remembered by this examiner as the main character from Starship Troopers, replaces Matt Mullins as Johnny Cage and brings a much needed comedic relief to this series, as Cage’s character should do. Samantha Jo reprises her role as Kitana, but like last time she may be the weakest actress in this cast; still, she is trying her best and her fighting skill showcase how good a stuntwoman she is. Michelle Lee replaces Jolene Tran as Mileena, and makes the role very ferocious and filled with anger, being aloud to do, and say, much more than the original actress did. Eric Steinberg replaces Kevan Otsuji as Bi-Han, a.k.a. Sub-zero, and his performance succeeds in making this man a tragic and sympathetic character, unlike the original Sub-Zero is known for being. He is just as angry about what happened to Scorpion’s clan as he is and only wants to make his former friend understand the truth, making his final fate not only horrific but tragic as well. Dan Southworth, whom this examiner remembers as Eric Myers, a.k.a. the Quantum Ranger from Power Rangers Time Force, in introduced in the role of Kenshi; there isn’t a whole lot of depth to this character, but he does get to show off some terrific martial arts skills. Eric Jacobus replaces Tahmoh Penikett as Kurtis Stryker, but like Raiden, he too doesn’t get a whole lot to do; he does get some nice gun choreography though. Kim Do Nguyen appears as Ermac, but there isn’t a whole lot to say as he plays the role pretty much as just a monster.
Overall, Mortal Kombat: Legacy II is a lot like the first season, a winner, but it is not a flawless victory. It still suffers from the inevitable flaws related to budget and timeframe and not everyone in the cast feels fleshed out thanks in part to the more streamlined structure. The reinvention of main character Liu Kang was a major disappointment, yet at the same time kept the story interesting and lead to a cliffhanger ending that makes this examiner want to see how this all gets resolved, and hopefully fixed, in a third season. The series nevertheless continues to be the best adaptation of the Mortal Kombat universe outside of the games themselves but always taking this larger than life material seriously, treating its fans like adults, and striving for some kind of balance between the realistic and the supernatural. Despite its flaws this examiner still enjoyed it and is giving the season three stars.