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.”