Before discussing the failure’s of the year’s big web series, it’s worth going back to where it began. In 2010 Kevin Tancharoen’s short film, Mortal Kombat Rebirth, created for $7,500 as a pitch to Warner Brothers hoping to get the greenlight to start work on a full length feature, was excellent. Featuring a surprisingly good cast for a web series, fronted by Star Trek Voyager’s Jeri Ryan and The Dark Knight’s Michael Jai White, and dragging the mythological based series into the real world, it served as a reworking that in ten minutes, was better than either of the two silver screen Mortal Kombat movies that had preceded it.
Warner Brothers weren’t sold enough to allow Tancharoen to begin work on a third big screen outing for the franchise, but they did stump up some cash for a web series, and the resulting Mortal Kombat Legacy released the next year remains one of the most impressive web shows you can see. Adding Battlestar Galactica’s Tamoh Penikett to the cast, featuring impressive fight sequences and a range of different styles suited to the characters portrayed, the project wasn’t perfect, but was very impressive.
Using each episode (or at times, two) to tell an origin story for different characters allowed Tancharoen to experiment with different storytelling techniques, and use the ten-minute constraints of webisodes wisely. Sub Zero and Scorpion’s family rift is shown to have started in feudal Japan and their film is reminiscent of countless Samurai stories. Movie star Johnny Cage was treated to an E!-like celeb gossip intro, Jax and Sonya Blade have an action shoot out with criminal Kano, the more fantastical story of Kitana and Mileena is told in part by a Ghibli-esque anime, and Thunder God Raiden is treated to an excellent short where he is trapped in a psychiatric institute. Not all aspects worked and some were divisive, but there was something for every fan of the series.
The success of the show prompted Warner Brothers to trust Tancharoen with a second series and a 2015 feature film. Talking of the former, Tancharoen promised a more linear plot revolving around the tournament itself and the typical ‘more of the same but better’ aspirations.
Admittedly the reaction I’ve seen from others has been positive, but there are countless problems with Legacy’s second run that are all too easy to point out. Mostly, we’re dealing with a new cast and mostly, they’re as wooden as a log cabin. Despite some nice ideas (for the first time in history, Liu Kang is almost interesting), the dialogue is clunky and the script cries out for an editor.
Take this sequence as an example. In episode 3 we’re shown the backstory for newcomer Kenshi, for who it seems Daniel Southworth has based his performance on a sneering Steven Seagal. It’s not a bad short, leading up to a fight that sounds like it has promise in episode 4. Come episode 4 though, we don’t see it; instead the screen goes black, some heavy chords hit and we’re left to assume that he won, but was blinded in the process. Not to worry though, because later in the episode the characters face off again, and this time we’re treated to some acceptable martial arts and hammy effects. Done.
Then we get to episode 5, which is ostensibly about two pieces of Ikea furniture having a row (or to put it another way, Kitana and Mileena), which is composed of flashbacks to their original episodes from the first season, and then? They stand and watch Kenshi’s fight, with Johnny Cage (Casper Van Dien phoning it in as the most pathetic incarnation of the character you’ve ever imagined). We’re treated to some vaguely different angles of the same so-so fight and the same angles of the same hammy effects.
The production values vary wildly. Sweeping shots of Macau and landscapes constrast oddly with Mileena’s appalling facial make-up and Sub Zero’s motorcross mouthguard. Varied and attractive filming locations in Earthrealm go up against a field and a beach for Outworld.
The pacing is nonsensical, with three episodes giving time to the story of one fight, and others serving as naught more than reminders of what’s happened previously.
Despite the promise to focus on the tournament this time around, there are countless flashbacks (not in themselves, bad things), and the ‘tournament’ itself boils down to a campfire on the beach and three fights which occur as the result of aimless walks around the same dour landscape.
The brilliant origin episode in season one which introduced us to Raiden is forgotten, and now the character (played again, by an inferior actor) serves only as the protagonists’ expositionist, except he doesn’t explain anything of note because he’s onscreen for less time than it takes the opening titles to roll.
Tancharoen’s script is littered with immature drops of clumsily-delivered F-bombs that do nothing but suggest a teenager was working on the script, he serves up the wrong fatality to one character, appears to have completely ditched any pretence of realism as seen in the first series, there’s no mention of favourites such as Jax, Blade or Kano who anchored its success, let alone appearances, and after ten episodes which, objectively speaking tell no real stories beyond those of Kung Lao, Liu Kang and Kenshi (the rest is filler and repetition) the tournament we were promised has barely begun.
It’s not all bad. It’s a lot of fun to see one positive piece of recasting and welcome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa back as Shang Tsung after 18 years. That’s about it though. There’s none of the inventiveness we saw two years ago, absolutely no risk-taking (unless you count letting the work experience kid write the banter), a lack of wow! moments, a failure to agree a purpose for the season and so tell either a collection of stories or one cohesive one, a dropping of the varied filmography that worked so well first time around… The whole thing feels like lazy, directionless, fan-film filler till the movie comes out.
None of this would really be an issue if it were the first we were seeing of Tancharoen’s Mortal Kombat work, but we know he can do better. Legacy II’s greatest crime isn’t that it’s bad, but that it’s disappointing, because after two years and with a solid base it should have been very, very good.