The third episode of Mortal Kombat: Legacy starts off looking jarringly different than anything we’ve seen from the show so far. Gone are the gritty environments and shady looking tough guys, and in their place is a parody presentation of one of those Hollywood gossip shows. It looks like something you’d see on E! reporting on the personal lives of the Kardashians.
The effect is a little confusing, and I even spent a second thinking I had loaded up the wrong video, but the change in tone comes because we’ve left our characters from the first two episodes behind in order to be introduced to a new player, Hollywood actor Johnny Cage.
The first thing we learn about Cage is that his story is one of rise and fall. He was once the most promising action star in the business, but he threw it all away due to ego and self-destructive tendencies. I liked the way Cage’s story was presented, as the trash news parody was able to act as a framework for giving us a lot of information in a short amount of time without writing huge mouthfuls of expositional dialogue for the characters. This is the sort of trick an abbreviated series with ten-minute episodes needs to be pulling to keep us engrossed in the characters but not use up all of the precious screen time being talky. Plus, Kevin Tancharoen and his crew got the tone of the thing just right. We get the Ken Burns motion effect over stationary images of a young Cage, awkward sound bites from random people he used to know; this looks and feels just like trashy cable television, right down to the goofy voice of the announcer.
What I remembered about the Johnny Cage character from playing “Mortal Kombat” as a kid is that he wore sunglasses and was able to do the splits and punch people in the balls. In this episode, Cage is played by Matt Mullins. He is obviously a very skilled martial artist, is able to pull off the cocky, pretty boy thing pretty naturally, and most importantly, two of the first things that we see him do in this episode are wear sunglasses and do the splits while punching people in the balls. Sometimes it’s not the little things; it’s the big things. If the introduction to Johnny Cage didn’t include sunglasses and ball punches it would have felt like a failure to me, but Tancharoen and crew hit all of the right bullet points
After the mock news piece we are taken to present day where Cage is presenting a new reality show to a couple of slimy producers. I’ve been praising this series so far for how stupidly the action isn’t shot; well, when we see Cage’s presentation to the suits, we see every bit of annoying trick of modern production that I’ve been railing against. Cage has shot his new Dog the Bounty Hunter type reality show from tons of ridiculous angles, with constantly moving cameras, and too rapid cuts. The whole presentation has a faux hipness and stupidity that has to be seen as a shot at modern television and action film production. I’m starting to like this series more and more. The producers even talk about how staged and fake everything Cage does comes off, and how the whole thing skews “too old” for them. Are Tancharoen and his writers predicting the end of MTV style production in action movies? If they are, and it comes true, I may have to hunt them down and shake their hands.
Back to the drawing board, Cage comes back with a new demo reel for a show that is grittier and less flashy. The action scene in this one is shot much more in line with the style Mortal Kombat: Legacy gave us in the first two episodes. It’s here where some credit should start being given to the show’s fight choreographer Larnell Stovall. Cage has a distinct fighting style from what we’ve seen out of Jax and Sonya so far in the series. He’s appropriately much showier, and relies quite a bit on big spin kicks, as opposed to the more brutal, power style that Michael Jai White was employing in episode 2. At first I was just happy that somebody was bothering to intricately choreograph these fights at all, now I’m starting to see that even more thought is going into the hand-to-hand action that we get. That’s a good sign for the show’s future.
When we’re not getting footage of fake news programs or proposed reality shows, most of what we see in this episode is happening on a film set between Cage and his producers. These sequences are shot with a sort of Steven Soderbergh aesthetic. The shots are all handheld, and there seems to be some color filtering going on with the image. It’s not a bad way to spruce up dialogue scenes in an action show, but I’m not sure that it did enough. So far the scenes I’ve liked least from this show were ones where people just sat around talking. It was Jax and Stryker talking in the police station in the first episode, and Cage and the Hollywood types negotiating in this one. In both scenes I’ve found the dialogue to sound like unpolished action movie bravado, and the acting to look like it belongs firmly in the straight to video genre. The fake news program that opened this episode came off as a much better way to let me know who Johnny Cage is as a character and what his motivations will be going forward. My only real complaint about the series so far is that it has focused on action a bit too much, and character far too little, and this episode addresses the issue by telling us way more about Cage than we’ve learned about Jax, Sonya, or Kano so far; but the efforts may prove to be moot if the show doesn’t show improvement with the way it handles dialogue.
The other big noticeable about this episode is that the cursing is being edited. More specifically, the audio drops out every time somebody says the F word. And people say the F word a lot in this episode. I was surprised by this, as I remembered a couple moments that came off as weird and lame in the first episode where characters seemed to look right into the camera before they dropped uncensored F bombs, pretty blatantly as a message to viewers that this was going to be a balls to the wall show that didn’t get censored. At the end of the video we get an annotation that an uncensored version will be released this Friday. I have to wonder what the motivation behind this is. Are they trying to create a subset of cleaner videos that people can show their kids? Or do they honestly think they can drum up more views by having people go back to hear the re-inserted cursing? I don’t know which approach I prefer, but instead of either of them I would suggest only a smattering of cursing, peppered in for the purpose of realism, that doesn’t get bleeped. Neither blatant cursing to look cool or a bunch of cases of dropped audio work for me, and I’m not watching the episodes twice just to hear curse words. That’s ridiculous.
The third episode can be watched now in all of its ball punching glory. In addition to a look at the character of Johnny Cage, we also get a surprise appearance by a big character as this week’s cliffhanger. It seems, after this episode is over, that we might soon be getting a better idea of where all of this set-up is heading. Check it out: