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Mortal Kombat’s secret weapon is comedy (and Kano)

Despite paternal and political hand-wringing over ripped-out spinal columns and characters clutching still-beating hearts, the Mortal Kombat games have always had a silly side. Even the modern games’ gruesome, now photorealistic fatalities, where a crumpled fighter’s intestines are pulled out of their mouth by magic, aim to provoke a laugh at the absurdity of it all.

The people who made the new Mortal Kombat movie get that. Sure, the fate of Earth’s existence hangs in the balance of an interdimensional martial arts competition between gods and sorcerers, but it also leans into Mortal Kombat’s penchant for goofiness.

The film’s director, Simon McQuoid, said he and the creative team approached integrating comedy — and silliness — into Mortal Kombat “very carefully.”

“Silly humor is, like, the most potent ingredient — far more potent than the violence, far more potent than anything,” McQuoid told me in an interview last month. “A drop goes a long way. So early on, what was really important to me was that the comedy is housed in a character; it’s not sprayed across the top of the film. When you’re trying to take certain elements of the canon really seriously, you can’t then in the next scene feel like it’s made from people trying to make a comedy.”

The character McQuoid is referring to in that quote is Kano, played by actor Josh Lawson, the mercenary scumbag who joins Raiden’s team in the fight against Outworld and Shang Tsung’s warriors. He’s one of the standout characters in Mortal Kombat, and like the film’s newcomer, Cole Young, guides the audience through the movie’s decades-long supernatural lore.

McQuoid also noted that there’s a “fun-ness” to the inventiveness of bloody, over-the-top action that a franchise like Mortal Kombat can exploit.

“We’ve tried to get that across within certain fights or within action set pieces — let’s talk about [Sub-Zero’s] blood blade for a moment,” McQuoid said. “You wouldn’t put that in the comedy category. It is the sort of fun elevation that is kind of silly as an idea, but I wanted to do it in a way that makes you kind of think, ‘Fuck yeah, that’s cool!’ I didn’t want you to go ‘Eh, that’s kind of cheese.’ So there’s ways to do it where it feels cheese and there’s ways to do it where you go, ‘Oh my god, that looks fuckin’ great.’ … So it’s a matter of taking these ingredients and balancing them.

“And then the other side of that comedy comes from Josh Lawson and Kano. Kano is a dark character, but he’s a funny character and … he brings a great deal of fun to proceedings. That’s a really important ingredient to Mortal Kombat.”

Lawson described his take on Kano as both “juvenile” and “earnest.” Sure, he’s a vicious contract killer capable of ripping someone’s actual heart out, but he also offers comic relief and (unexpectedly) centers the film when he revels in the possibility of getting super powers. Kano’s fun to watch.

“Comedy’s necessary in any film, I think, particularly in this genre,” Lawson told me in an interview earlier this month. “I hope that [Kano] feels true to how he was created in the games and how he’s evolved over the years. It was always a juggling act. It was, like, bring the comedy but don’t bring so much that it leaves the world of Mortal Kombat, you know?”

Kano’s comic chops are evident in the Mortal Kombat movie’s first trailer, in which he holds up the bloody heart of Shang Tsung’s assassin Syzoth — better known as Reptile — and declares gleefully, “Kano wins!” It’s just far enough from cheese to work.

McQuoid and Lawson credit third assistant director Greg Tynan — “a massive Mortal Kombat fan,” McQuoid said — with getting that silly line into the film, which wasn’t in the script.

“We were doing a bunch of [alternate takes] at the end there with the heart rip,” Lawson said. “And we were just enjoying ourselves and sort of going, ‘Hey, is there anything else? Any anyone have any ideas?’ There was a whisper from the back of the room that was like, ‘Um, maybe “Kano wins”?’ And I remember Simon and I looking at each other going, ‘That’s great! How did we not think of that?’ Of course, [Kano] is such a narcissist, he would talk about himself in third-person. And I think we did one take of that and that’s the take that ended up in the film.”

Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Mortal Kombat is peppered (not sprayed) with moments like that. There are on-the-nose catchphrase line reads, sure, but some of the film’s in-jokes are more subtle (and not worth spoiling). But Kano is a consistent comic streak through the film by design, said Mortal Kombat screenwriter Greg Russo.

“With Mortal Kombat being fun and having lots of humor in it, we wanted to embrace that,” Russo said in an interview with Polygon. “We wanted you to be smiling and having a good time through the movie. Kano felt like such a fun way to add some of that in there because he’s such a bastard. He’s such a smug asshole. We have our heroes, we have our new hero Cole, we have Sonya, we have Jax, we have Liu Kang, Kung Lao — it’s loaded with the good guys. And to me, from a storytelling perspective, I always love when they throw in like one real jerky character into the mix. It breaks up the good guy feeling.

“So Kano became that kind of great character where we just let him run with it. He’s constantly a pain in the ass for the heroes.”

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