The first red-band trailer for Warner Bros. Mortal Kombat movie reboot leaned violently into its R-rating. In that first look, Sub-Zero dismembered Jax’s arms using ice magic, Scorpion threw a kunai through the back of an assassin’s skull, and Kano ripped out Reptile’s still-beating heart. It would be a cinematic sin in the modern era, where hardcore fans are lavishly serviced, to make a Mortal Kombat movie without extreme graphic violence.
But it seems equally challenging to convince a major studio like Warner Bros. to invest in making an R-rated video game movie. Still, producers James Wan and Todd Garner, and first-time feature-film director Simon McQuoid pulled it off. It was part persistence, part product of the times, Garner said in a roundtable interview this week.
“Basically, there were five things James and I said — you might call them demands, you might call them really polite asks — we said, ‘There are five things that are really important to us in this movie.’ One, it’s got to be R-rated,” Garner said. “Two, it’s got to be a diverse cast.
“Three, they’ve got to be [legitimate] to the lore and backstory, and each character. Four is they need to be real martial artists. And five is we’re gonna do these [specific] characters.”
Oh, and Garner told Warner Bros. executives, their film won’t have any “movie stars.” (Fans of The Raid star Joe Taslim may take issue with that assessment, but Garner’s point stands: Mortal Kombat is not a movie driven by marquee Hollywood actors.)
“And they went, ‘Cool,’” he said. “Seven years later, we got the movie made [laughs]. So maybe not the smartest things to say. But we said ’em. And we stuck with it.”
Garner said a number of factors — the primary being the potential for a lot of money — helped convince Warner Bros. that limiting the potential audience for a Mortal Kombat movie by making it graphically violent wasn’t the worst idea.
“Luckily, movies like Crazy Rich Asians came along and Black Panther and these movies that had diverse cast that murdered around the world and made hundreds of millions of dollars,” Garner said. “And you know, movies like Deadpool and John Wick that were R-rated made  or 500 million bucks. And Warner said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ So in a weird way, the world caught up to something that James and I were talking about seven years ago.”
He added, “I’ve just seen when you’re shoehorning something into the PG-13 [rating] that shouldn’t be and it sucks. It’s just sucks to make. It’s no fun. And people see through it. [...] But for something called Mortal Kombat, which the game has people ripping each other’s spines out. Very tough to go, ‘Yeah, we’ll be good with the PG-13.’”
Garner said that the decision to add an original character, Cole Young, who’s new to the franchise, was a component of the aforementioned five demands. The producers didn’t want yet another white guy in a diverse, Asian-led cast to be the hero. In other words, casting Christopher Lambert as Japanese thunder god Raiden wouldn’t fly in their film.
Young, played by Chinese-English actor Lewis Tan, is a mixed martial artist who gets roped into the mystical Mortal Kombat tournament, entering a strange world of sorcerers, half-dragons, and undead super-ninjas. But he’s also the audience insert, someone who can ask the questions that moviegoers unfamiliar with Mortal Kombat lore would be afraid to ask.
“I just felt if I was getting the chance to make a movie with a diverse cast, it felt weird to me to have a white actor, literally Johnny Cage, be the hero of the story,” Garner said. “It just felt weird all of a sudden, to have like, ‘Oh, by the way, the white guy is going to come in and kind of be the hero of the movie.’ And we already have Kano in the movie, who’s so great —he’s my big carrot for the sequel.”
Mortal Kombat will be released in movie theaters and on HBO Max on April 16.