As a nerdy kid growing up in the early 90s, Greg Russo made a second home out of his neighborhood arcade. Each day after school, he and his friends would spend hours developing what he now jokingly calls an unhealthy relationship with Mortal Kombat. “I played it all the time,” he says of the fantasy-themed fight game. “I knew every move.” Most importantly, Russo knew all the right button combinations required to execute a fatality: the game’s signature, hyper-violent finishing move that eliminated an opponent in shuddering fashion. The proper sequencing could allow a character, like the ice-manipulating ninja Sub-Zero, to freeze and snap a spinal cord, or the special forces soldier Sonya Blade to throw an energy ring and skeletonize her foe. “It was kind of a rite of passage in the arcade. If you couldn’t finish your match with a fatality, you kind of didn’t deserve to be [playing],” he says. “I loved capping off my matches with one of those.”
More than two decades later, tasked with co-writing the screenplay with Dave Callaham for a revamped and unfiltered Mortal Kombat movie, Russo aimed to recapture that victorious feeling on the big screen. That primarily meant re-imagining his favorite fatalities—specifically one belonging to Kung Lao, a character with a razor-rimmed hat capable of slicing opponents in two—and inserting them realistically into the plot. “It would be very easy to just throw in flashy, gratuitous fatalities, finishing moves, just for the sake of them being there,” Russo says. “We just didn’t want them to feel unnecessary…We wanted the fatalities to actually have a purpose in the story.”
Lao’s iconic fatality shows up halfway through director Simon McQuoid’s movie. Based closely on the game, it features a quartet of champions chosen by the Elder God Lord Raiden to protect earth from Tsang-Shung, the leader of a parallel dimension called Outworld. The evil emperor and his special-powered minions plan to overtake the planet unless Raiden’s group of “Earthrealm” fighters can protect it in a series of high-stakes battles. One takes place between Notara, a winged character, and Earthrealm’s Kung Lao. In a matter of moments, Lao frisbees his hat into the sand, jumps onto Notara’s back, grabs her wings, and rams her face straight into his spinning metal blade. It’s unexpectedly gruesome—her blood splatters over Lao’s face, and the camera tracks the body-splitting carnage down to its entrailed conclusion. “That was quite a process, that particular one,” remembers McQuoid. “I didn’t want to cut away from it.” The act also lends legitimacy to Lao’s skills and briskly highlights the extreme, buzz-saw dangers of the enhanced combat world. “It’s one of the most vicious, creative, cool things I’ve ever seen,” Russo says.
The bloody imagery lasts just a handful of seconds, but the scene is emblematic of the movie’s commitment to recreating fatalities in all their graphic glory. Unlike the franchise’s previous two cinematic endeavors, which mostly eliminated the game’s death sequences, McQuoid’s adaptation never shies away from the obliterating brutality that gamers and fans have come to expect. The executives believed in Russo and McQuoid’s R-rated vision from the jump, which challenged them to create and execute practical sequences centered around the franchise’s absurdist DNA strands.
When Mortal Kombat premiered in arcades in 1992, the game’s finishing moves were just as shocking and cringe-worthy. Even with the two-dimensional graphics of the era, the seven original characters that creators Ed Boon and John Tobias conceived were still capable of unleashing repulsive displays of aggression. “We’d never seen such well-designed graphics, especially when it came to violence,” Russo remembers of the first game. “So when Sub-Zero’s taking someone’s head off, or Kano’s ripping out a heart, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’”
As the game’s sequels added more characters and migrated to Nintendo consoles, Mortal Kombat eventually became the subject of controversy. Its ultraviolent fatalities quickly entered the cultural dialogue, triggering congressional hearings that would result in establishing a video game ratings board in 1994. “Part of us kind of realized that it was something that was becoming necessary because graphics were becoming a little bit more realistic,” Boon told GameInformer in 2010. “We just wanted to show a big spectacle that would shock and entertain the player.”
Amidst the hoopla, Hollywood wanted in, and in 1995, New Line Cinema tapped Paul W.S. Anderson to direct a PG-13 adaptation to cater to its younger fans. “At the time, there was a lot of press about the fatalities and how gruesome it was, and [that] it was disgusting—and this was back when it was a big thing to censor lyrics on albums,” Anderson says. The young director embraced his mandate, and as an avid player himself, he knew that fatalities wouldn’t take up a big chunk of the runtime, anyway. “You have to kind of earn the right to do a fatality,” he says. “You’ve got to put in hours and hours of playing before you get to rip out a spinal column or suck somebody’s soul or turn someone into a block of ice. You really have to fall in love with the game, fall in love with Mortal Kombat without the fatalities.”
With a limited budget and fine-for-its-era CGI at his disposal, Anderson kept the fatalities in the background of the action, showing more palatable deaths and amping up in-camera, practical fight sequences. “We pushed the envelope as much as we could,” Anderson says. “We played to a young audience. I don’t think it would have delivered to that audience if we had gone R-rated…I don’t think ripping out more spines would have done anything for us at the time.”
Now, of course, that generation of moviegoers has matured, raised on a game with eleven installments whose high-definition, gross-out deaths have only become more insane. McQuoid and his VFX team had to find creative ways to keep pace with the game designers.
Appealingly, the team relied where possible on old-fashioned practical effects. Their first task was to provide a platform for Kano, the sour-mouthed, laser-eyed musclehead who finishes off his opponents by ripping out their hearts. As portrayed by Josh Lawson, Kano performs his classic technique early on against Reptile—a terrifying, invisible lizard creature—by attaching a flare to its scales and piercing its insides with his fist. McQuoid worked with fight coordinator Chan Griffin to make sure the choreography didn’t read too cheesy, and then used practical elements to sell the effect. “We had a torso built with a hole in it that Josh could punch his fist through, but not that easily, and inside that was a heart that he could grab on the way,” McQuoid says. “Larry [van Duynhoven], in charge of the prosthetics, had this beating heart and was under [the camera] pumping all the blood that was squirting out of it.”
In between some other classic finishers—including one committed by Liu Kang, who humbly breathes the word “Fatality,” like the game’s narrator—Russo also pays special tribute to Jaxx. Despite struggling early on with his weak robotic arms, the character eventually unlocks his inner power to unleash a devastating blow on his opponent Reiko. Much like the video game, which often shows fatalities take place in three quick stages, Jaxx delivers a couple punches that bring Reiko to his knees before decapitating him with a giant, two-handed slap. “That was a callback to my glory days in the arcade,” Russo admits. “It was just such a satisfying punctuation to a fight.”
Borrowing the visual grammar of a video game’s cut scene, McQuoid captures the moment in slower motion, using a higher frame rate so that chunks of brain would be more visible. Using a Reiko head cast, “Larry filled it full of brain matter and bones and everything,” McQuoid remembers. The hybrid tactics provided a blueprint for other bloody sequences, and the scene fulfills Jaxx’s arc, showing off the strength of his newly-powered arms. “They didn’t just pop out as a box-ticking exercise,” McQuoid says. “The fun part was trying to make a head explode but be elegant about it, and be cinematic and beautiful at the same time. I guess that was the joy of it.”
Nearly 30 years after their initial inception, the fatality scenes remain short, satisfying and more than a little sickening—blood-spattered dots of fan service powered by nostalgic adrenaline. The scenes returned Russo him right back to his childhood arcade, and made him appreciate the twisted ingenuity that Mortal Kombat game designers continue to deliver.
“There’s only so many ways you can break off someone’s organs, but they seem to go to some dark places to figure that stuff out,” Russo says. “I don’t envy that creative process.”