For Lewis Tan, the stakes of “Mortal Kombat” are high.
“I don’t want to be that guy that makes the bad remake of ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and then that be on my track record,” says Tan, who stars in the film as Cole Young, a new character in the long-running video game franchise.
“Mortal Kombat” has a large fanbase, waiting to see if the film remake will do the source material — an arcade fighting game — justice. (The original two film adaptations were released in the early ’90s.) So far, he’s been able to breathe a sigh of relief. The film, which comes out theatrically and on HBO Max on April 23, saw a strong international release this past weekend, bringing in $11 million from 17 markets including Russia, Saudi Arabia and UAE. When the first trailer for the film was released in February, it broke the first-week record for red band trailers with 116 million views. (The record has since been beaten by the forthcoming “Suicide Squad” sequel.) “The fans’ reactions have been insane. I mean, jumping around the room, crying and screaming,” Tan says.
Fans were top of mind throughout the filming process, which brought another challenge for Tan: bringing a new character, without an established fanbase, to the “Mortal Kombat” canon alongside beloved classic characters.
Like his character, Cole Young, a young MMA cage fighter who discovers that the dragon birthmark on his chest means he’s destined for the “Mortal Kombat” arena, Tan was born into martial arts excellence. His father, stuntman and action choreographer Philip Tan, has been in the movie industry for over four decades; his lengthy list of credits include working with Tim Burton on “Batman Returns” and Steven Spielberg for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Tan grew up watching his father on set, but as a teenager, Tan wasn’t interested in following in his parent’s martial arts footsteps; now, he’s grateful for the training.
“I felt like it was kinda like a waste of time,” says Tan, who’s also starred in action films like “Deadpool 2” and “Iron Fist.” “And now my life is surrounded by those things.”
Tan performs all the martial arts in the movie himself, uncommon for a lead actor in a big budget studio film. “In order to do this, you have to train for 20-plus years. So it’s not like you can pick up a script and be like, ‘I need to learn how to fight,’” he says, adding that his years of training allowed him to instead spend his time focused on adding nuance and emotion to the fight choreography. (Although he did have to learn a few new weapons, specifics are, apparently, a spoiler.)
He also credits the performance of his costars like Joe Taslim. “Working with guys like him and Hiroyuki Sanada, who’s a legend, you got to step your game up,” he says. “Every time I’m doing an action film, I’m surrounded by these incredible guys and it elevates me, it inspires me to do better.”
Tan grew up playing “Mortal Kombat” with his three younger brothers and dressing up as characters from the game for Halloween. “My mom didn’t want me to play it because she thought it was too violent — which it is — but, yeah. Now look, mom,” he says, in jest.
“Mortal Kombat,” the game, has been criticized for its violence and hyper-sexualization of its female characters. (“Mortal Kombat 11” was criticized for the opposite problem — not enough skin.) The film stays true to its source material, packing in violence and sex appeal. Tan appreciates that all genders in the film are equal opportunity for eye candy.
“Someone posted a meme about it and they were like, this equality here is good,” Tan says. “Especially being an Asian man, you’re not often looked at as a sex symbol or someone who people want to date.”
My brother took this film photo of me the night we wrapped around 1am in the southern Indian ocean. Every part of my being was exhausted beyond words, but so grateful and proud of our work. #MortalKombatMovie pic.twitter.com/QiFicY3Z5N
— Lewis Tan (@TheLewisTan) April 10, 2021
Tan, who was born in the U.K. and grew up in Los Angeles, started studying theater as a teenager and acted in classic plays by playwrights like Tennessee Williams and John Patrick Shanley. But martial arts ended up being the thing that allowed him to get his foot in the door. “I don’t want to be doing fight films or action films forever, but I do have a big statement to make there and it’s not done yet,” he says.
Until very recently, Tan was in Thailand shooting the action movie “Fistful of Vengeance” for Netflix, based on characters from the streamer’s popular series “Wu Assassins.” The actor wrapped the project just before the mid-April release of “Mortal Kombat.”
He’s hopeful for a “Mortal Kombat” sequel. In the meantime, Tan is hoping to direct a film about his father, who prior to his martial arts and film career won the British Youth Tumbling Championship in the ’70s, followed by winning the Disco Dancing Championship. Tan wrote the script during the pandemic. “It’s kind of like a ‘Boogie Nights’ meets ‘Moonlight’ coming-of-age action-dance story about overcoming, identity and racism,” Tan says of the script.
“You have more respect for your parents as you get older and you get wiser. And then you realize like, damn, you know, they went through a lot. My parents didn’t come from money. Everything they have, they earned themselves. For them to move from London to L.A., without knowing anyone, raise four kids, pay the rent and give us a good childhood — that’s a really amazing thing, and I’m very grateful for it.”
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