Greg Russo was barely a teenager when he convinced his mom to buy him Mortal Kombat for the Sega Genesis. It was 1993 and she had to drive him to the local K-Mart in South Jersey to pick up a copy. Once he had it in his hands, he felt like he’d gotten away with something wicked. Russo was aware of the controversy bubbling around Mortal Kombat at the time; how gruesome and violent it was supposed to be. His mom, not so much.
“After that, it was on all day,” Russo said. “I joke with her nowadays. I'm like, ‘Hey, Mom, I may have duped you, but look, I wrote the movie.’”
Russo is the screenwriter on Mortal Kombat, the film set to hit theaters and streaming services on April 23rd. He put together a story starring series newcomer Cole Young and a cast of iconic characters, wrote dozens of fight scenes and gory fatalities, and sprinkled in plenty of jokes and drama, all while drawing on his long personal history with the franchise.
And for Russo, it’s definitely personal.
“I grew up loving it,” he said. “I used to go to the arcade after school. It was kind of like it was an escape for me. I grew up in a household with divorce, so for me, it was any way to get out and be my own person, was important. And for me, it was the arcade.”
In the early 1990s, Mortal Kombat became the focus of an intense Congressional debate about violence in pop culture. The game celebrated gore with a wink and a grin, featuring photorealistic characters that spewed pixelated blood as they eviscerated one another in horrific, often hilarious ways. By 1994, Mortal Kombat was partially to blame for the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which still slaps black-and-white classifications on video games today.
But for Russo and plenty of other early Mortal Kombat fans, the game was pure fun and fantasy. He would play it at home, on that Sega Genesis, but when he needed an escape, he’d visit the Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet at the local Barkley Bowling Lane.
“It was just me and a bunch of kids, and it just felt like our little safety net,” he said. “And Mortal Kombat was the throne that we'd all gather around. So it took on this real personal place for me, and my love for it just grew out of that experience, really.”
Mortal Kombat was the throne that we'd all gather around.
Barkley doesn’t exist any more, like a lot of other bowling centers across the country. Mortal Kombat, however, has endured. The series has produced dozens of video games across multiple console generations and a handful of movies, most of them cringe-worthy.
Russo made sure to add levity to the new script, but not enough to throw off the dramatic momentum. As demonstrated by the film’s first seven minutes, it features slow-burning tension that explodes into bloody violence, and it doesn’t shy away from mass murder, even when it involves children. But of course, there’s humor, too. It wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat without that.
“Mortal Kombat — you know, their fatalities are insane,” Russo said. “They're finding new ways to rip out faces every day, and that’s ridiculously wonderful. I give them a lot of credit. But for a film, we definitely wanted to make sure that the balance felt, that it didn't feel over the top, and it didn't go into silly territory.”
There’s a rhythm to Mortal Kombat games — introduce a new character, throw them into a fight; introduce a new character; throw them into a fight — and it was Russo’s goal to infuse the film with similar beats.
“If you start off with everybody kind of lumped in, Avengers-mode, it's just way too much,” he said. “You're going to be lost trying to understand who everybody is. So it allows our audience a chance to slowly acclimate to the world of Mortal Kombat as we slowly bring them in. And then we have the creative thing — I thought that was just a lot of fun, because it felt to me like you were unlocking characters as you went through the movie, kind of like in a classic gaming mode.”
Russo didn’t stop playing video games once Barkley Bowling Lane closed down. He recently admitted to Polygon that he has an Xbox Live Gamerscore of “like 1.5 million,” which places him among the top 50 Xbox players in the world, and the top 15 in the US. Working on Mortal Kombat has been more than a fantastic opportunity for him. Mostly, it’s familiar.