By: Anthony Wright
According to Kasanoff, whose exuberance for his new endeavor is as strong as a Xena back kick, Mortal Kombat began its "conquest" of the media world as a popular-albeit bloody video arcade game and has evolved into the fifth best-selling entertainment property in the world. To date, Mortal Kombat has amassed over $4 billion in retail sales. In addition to the video game, which continues to remain immensely popular in an otherwise crowded industry, Mortal Kombat has spawned a plethora of multimedia children. In addition to the syndicated, one-hour television series, being produced in conjunction with New Line Television, Threshold has also produced a direct-to-video animated special Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins, which climbed to No.1 on Billboard's kid video sales and rental charts. The soundtrack from the first Mortal Kombat feature film went on to become one of the most successful techno albums of the year, and a live stage version of Mortal Kombat premiered at Radio City Music Hall before going on to tour the world. Finally, the CD-ROM The UItimate Guide to Mortal Kombat is touted as being the most comprehensive strategy guide to the Mortal Kombat world and features a behind-the-scenes look into the Mortal Kombat movies, animation special, and live tour.
The only media left untouched by the chill of Sub-Zero and the Mortal Kombat army was television. And Kasanoff is quick to point out that the small screen was always in his masterplan.
In addition to being executive producer of the television series, Larry Kasanoff is also chairman and chief executive officer of Threshold Entertainment," an intellectual property management company specializing in digital media." Kasanoff was the driving force behind the first Mortal Kombat movie, which opened to a surprising $23.3 million role in the in its first weekend (at the time, the highest August opening ever). Kasanoff also produced Mortal Kombat:Annihilation, which opened as No. 1 at the box office. Still, despite the success of the movies, Kasanoff planned to bring Mortal Kombat to television over three-and-half years ago. "Mortal Kombat," Kasanoff explains, "is so rich with stories and characters, that a movie every 18 months is just too long a time frame to wait to tell them all. There are just too many stories."
Like Hercules and Xena before, Mortal Kombat:Conquest is filled with a cast of relative unknowns. Starring is Paolo Montalban, who portrays Kung Lao, an ancestor to the original movie’s hero. ." Montalban's most recognizable role was as Prince Charming, opposite Brandi in the Whitney Houston-produced Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella. In addition, Montalban has appeared in the stage productions of The King and I, Business as Usual, Man of Mancha, and Aladdin. Hardly the resume for a role in a martial arts-heavy television role. At first, even Montalban was convinced he didn't get the part. "I auditioned in New York,", he explains, "but after seven call backs, I figured I didn't get the part. Fortunately for young actor, they in fact did offer him the part and he immediately flew to LA to ink the deal.
Montalban was attracted to the character of Lao for two very different reasons: first the action-heavy role was a huge departure from the stage musicals he had started his career with; the other reason was that he saw a sense of himself in the tragic hero of Kung Lao; a sense of duty with a touch of tortured self-doubt. "Even as an actor, there is always that feeling that maybe you aren't good enough, that perhaps you could do things better," he explains. "The character is that reluctant-hero type, the type who has done his duty, but now longs for a normal life."
Despite having undergone just two days' worth of martial arts training prior to shooting, Montalban wasn't intimidated by the physical nature of the role. "The physicality of the part wasn't as bad as one would expect. Plus my background in dance helped me prepare for the part." Still, Montalban admits that once production began, he discovered muscles he didn't know he had and found bruises in places he didn't think he could get them.
Martial arts training wasn't a problem for Daniel Bernhardt, who plays the shamed bodyguard Siro. For Bernhardt, the action of the series was custom-made for his talents. Before becoming an actor, Bernhardt was an accomplished athlete, "well-versed in the martial arts, boxing, kick boxing, sword fighting, and horseback riding." Bernhardt parlayed his athletic skills into a series of martial arts films, including Bloodsport II and III, True Vengeance, Perfect Target, and Black Sea Raid. Bernhardt's background is what led the producers to approach him for the role, but it wasn't the show's action that attracted him. "Episodic television is incredible practice for acting," he explains, "it's a learning experience every day. Because of the short shooting schedule, you can't get a script and say, 'I can't do that.' You just do it," Fortunately, Bernhardt's experience in making low-budget movies prepared him for the rigors of episodic television. "Doing the show is much like low-budget film making, you don't have a lot of time, so you try to get through six or seven pages of script in a day."
Bernhardt agrees with Montalban in that there is a part of him in the character of Siro. However, he sees it from a different approach from that of his costar. "I don't see myself in the character in the sense that I am like him, but I do think that every actor puts a part of themselves into their characters."
In addition to Montalban and Bernhardt, the cast includes Kristianna Loken, Bruce Locke, Tracy Douglas, and Jeffrey Meek. Loken, who plays a thief who allies herself with Kung Lao and Siro, has appeared in several popular television series such as Just Shoot Me, Law and Order, Star Trek: Voyager,Boy Meets World, among others. Locke, a familiar-if not well-known-face has an
impressive list of TV appearances, including Arliss, NYPD Blue, General Hospital, and feature film roles in Robocop 3, Black Rain, The Shadow and more. Douglas has been seen in several soap operas, as well as Michael Hayes, Malcolm and Eddie, and The Single Guy. Meek, who provides a subtle dose of comic relief as the Elder God Rayden, is an actor who has appeared on film, television, and stage. Among his credits are Winter People; Johnny Handsome; Heart Condition; Alright, Already; and Davis Rules.
Still, despite their impressive list of starring roles and guest appearances, none of them would have much trouble walking down a crowded street. Of course, a few years ago Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless probably couldn't have gotten a table in a crowded McDonalds. Today, both are known world-wide. For Kasannoff, the fact that his cast has no name power is not a drawback. In fact, he sees it as a plus. "There are no egos on the set. They relate well to each other." More importantly, as Kasanoff points out, "they are passionate about what they are doing."
Talk to Bembardt for more than two minutes and you get a sense of that passion. "It's a great cast. There's a great relationship among us. We all hang out together in our trailers after shooting." Montalban agrees that it is a great cast and crew, but he admits that he has ulterior motives for hanging out with Bernhardt "In between takes, I like to have Daniel show me some new moves." Although he admits that his castmate is "quick to pick things up," the versatile martial arts expert divulges that showing Montalban television moves is a lot different than the moves he has used off the set. "In real life, everything is short and quick. On film, everything is long and wide, with broad open moves. You would never catch me using those moves in real life. But, they look a lot better on camera that way" Despite this revelation, Bernhardt admits that the action he has seen thus far-they are currently shooting episode 15 - is some of the best he has seen on television. "It looks really good. I have to give credit to the [fight choreographer]. There is no better fighting on television."
Something else that both actors agree on is that one of the true challenges is working with the show's special effects. "It's just not something you can prepare for," says Montalban. "I mean, how can you practice dodging a serpent coming out of a guy's hand?" For Bernhardt, the addition of special effects is something new, but not unwelcome. "Special effects make things more interesting. You have to use your imagination more." As far as Kasanoff is concerned, special effects create an entirely different challenge than the one faced by his actors. The true challenge is finding the time to do the special effects the way he expects them to be done. "It's a true test to live up to the special effects produced for the movie in the time frame of episodic television. I'm really proud of what the animators have accomplished."
Those animators work for Kasanoff's Threshold Digital Research Labs (TDRL), a subsidiary of Threshold Entertainment, "the first worldwide, on-line, digital production studio which produces 100 percent digital entertainment for all media. "Currently, TDRL has arrangements with global communications giant IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation, to provide hardware to this unique worldwide production studio.
Without a decent story, however, all the special effects and martial arts action in the world wouldn't hold audiences' attention for long. For those not familiar with the Mortal Kombat mythos, "ages ago, the Earth was a young and desirable planet, rife with energies and resources, making it a target of many attempted conquests by the denizens of the Outworld Realms. Since the inhabitants of Outworld have powers and capabilities not available to humans, the Elder Gods [who rule all realms] devised a mean by which humans could honorably defend their Earth-Mortal Kombat, a battle in which defending warriors face off. If the Earth Realm warrior is victorious, the planet is saved from invasion [until the next tournament]; if the challenger wins, the Earth's portals are weakened and the Emperor Shao Khan, leader of Outworld, would be able to cross over and wreak havoc.
The television series follows three Earth Realm warriors: Kung Lao (Montalban), Siro (Bernhardt), and Taja (Loken), who battle the forces of Outworld with the aid of Rayden (Meek). "Kung Lao, raised by monks in the Temple of the Order of Light, has been preparing his entire life for Mortal Kombat-it was his destiny to be a warrior. Taja was a bandit whose life was spared by Kung Lao after a robbery gone awry and Siro was a bodyguard whose charge was killed by one of Shao Kahn's warriors. Now both have joined Kung Lao on the higher quest to keep the Earth Realm free from the clutches of Outworld."
In the series premiere, Kung Lao defeats Khan's chosen champion, Shang Tsung (Locke), in Mortal Kombat. Spared by Lao, Tsung is banished by Khan to the Cobalt Mines of Shokan. There, Tsung learns from another denizen of the mines, the evil she-prisoner, Vorpax (Douglas), that thousands of warriors are trapped within the mines. Determined to exact revenge, Tsung uses his sorcery to unleash attack after attack against Lao and his allies.
It is within this framework that Kasanoff and his actors and writers weave their tale of Mortal Konibat: Conquest. However, unlike its competitors, Mortal Kombat: Conquest takes a very different approach to its style of story-telling. "The show stands out from the others, because it's dark," says Montalban. "Darkly lit, darkly written, and darkly acted. In Mortal Kombat, the good guys don't always win." Bernhardt agrees, "This isn't the A-Teami, where at the last minute the good guys construct some contraption that saves the day."
Montalban agrees that the best is yet to come for the fledgling show. "It's too early to tell," explains Montalban. "The show is still trying to feel out the genre. To find those elements that will work."
The bottom line for Kasanoff is that whatever might come, the universe will go on. "We will always grow and learn from what we have done. We will continue to ask ourselves, 'How can we do better?' In the end, all we can hope for is that the people have as much fun watching the show as we did making it."