Fatality to Friendship: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

This piece was written while drinking a large number of caffeinated beverages while listening to the techno soundtrack on full blast (namely Fire by Scooter and every KMFDM track on a loop). I regret nothing!

Sometimes it’s worth prefacing a piece simply acknowledging the particular film you’re about to discuss is, in fact, hot-steaming trash despite having a fondness for it. In fact for several years (despite receiving the VHS for my birthday one year), I felt guilty for liking this video game adaptation follow-up. Much like my love of another sequel I recently discussed (An American Werewolf in Paris(1997)), it became a dirty little secret in my early twenties (during my filmmaking days). Here’s the thing, despite Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) being a mildly incoherent mess peppered with an overabundance of techno music – it was the late 90s after all – there is still something delightfully ridiculous and entertaining about this often detested sequel.  

Mention your enjoyment for any video game adaptation and no doubt the outpouring of nostalgic love would emanate for Paul W. S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995), which has only intensified in the 25 years since its release. Back when video game to screen adaptations were in their infancy, it’s not an understatement to suggest they were having a tough time getting started – Super Mario Bros. (1993); Street Fighter (1994); and Double Dragon (1994) were critically mauled by reviewers and audiences alike. Often being labelled the worst films committed to celluloid and their stars not shy of being embarrassed to have been part of it. Time is a great healer though, and the aforementioned films have all – rather interestingly- garnered their devoted fanbases.

The first Mortal Kombat film, despite copying the template of Cannon action classic Bloodsport (1987) (much like the original game) fans lapped up the impressive martial arts violence, catchy techno score and luscious set design. Years on and Mortal Kombat remains the gold standard of video game adaptations regardless of whom you speak to. It’s certainly the most faithful. With it being a sleeper hit for New Line and being left on an explosive cliffhanger teasing a confrontation with legendary MK big bad Shao Khan, it was inevitable that a sequel would be fast-tracked, some might say a little too soon [1].

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. For starters MK:A suffers from the often seen sequel issue of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into its follow-up to appeal to everyone, and ultimately no-one due to missing key details. A good example of this is the overabundance of nearly every character from the Mortal Kombat 2 and Mortal Kombat 3 games (which this sequel is very loosely based on). Series favourites such as Baraka, Noob Saibot, and Sub-Zero are present if only for fleeting appearances that they feel almost superfluous and ultimately are a disservice to their video game counterparts. 

Its narrative is absolute bobbins; a convoluted mess that in-spite of its pace is both supremely unfocused and uninteresting, especially given how straightforward Paul W. S. Anderson’s original was (itself just a rehash of Bloodsport (1988) much like the original game). While this might seem like a negative, it does at least move at a great pace, only adding to the confusing insanity that is unfolding on scene. The pattern of an exposition dump, then a fight with techno music, followed by further information before our heroes leave the scene (rinse and repeat), ranges from tedious through to flat out farce. But you know what? It’s rarely ever boring, which is already better than some video game adaptations.

Although MK:A gets a lot fundamentally wrong even on a basic filmmaking level, it never forgets just how ludicrous its premise is and (despite the lack of gore the series is known for) can make you crack a smile or two, whether its intentional or not. The costume designs from Jennifer L. Parsons (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004) and Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)) prove that, even with their vibrancy, screen accurate representations of sprite-based character models can look a little silly, which only adds to the overall camp value of this sequel. At times it feels as though some characters (Baraka[2] for instance) are on the same level as cosplayers who decided to craft their outfit the night before the convention. This might be damning with faint praise, but it does have a particularly low-budget fantasy feel to proceedings that (if you’re in the right frame of mind) can be endearing

So what of the overabundance of fight sequences? Well, there is a lot, all of varying quality. Most of them run the gamut from gravity-defying insanity, through to short sequences that exist merely to shoehorn in an established character in a hope that’ll please fans. There are a handful of standout fights that are either better or more entertaining than the majority of the first film. Although brief, the Scorpion vs Sub-Zero face-off is one of the highlights (poor green-screen and cheap set design aside) and is a genuine shame Keith Cooke is only given a brief moment of screen time as the new Sub-Zero (particularly being one of the best DTV martial artists with The King of Kickboxers (1990), Heatseeker (1995) and China O’Brien (1990)to name a few).

Another moment lodged in my memory is Raiden’s two-on-one fight with Reptile, which appears to be three-on-one until the editing seemingly does away with the additional fighter. With James Remar only doing the close-ups, it falls to (a then-unknown) stuntman Ray Park (Accident Man (2016)X-Men (2000), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)) to indulge in all the back-flipping goodness. Again despite its abbreviated fight length, it manages to exhilarate more so than most of the other fights. Its also clear that New Line was catering to the teenage boy crowd, not just in the consistent momentum of the fights and set-pieces, but also with Sonia and Mileena’s skippy outfit tussle in a mud-pit. You’re not fooling anyone MK:A!

Pandering to the libido of teenage boys aside, MK:A with its multitude of faults, rushed production, cut content [3] and unfinished CGI persists in being (much like the derided Batman & Robin (1997)) a tongue-in-cheek ride that has the pacing and hysterically bad acting a production from The Asylum could only hope to achieve. It is once again a case of a film’s failure enduring beyond criticism. 

With the new Mortal Kombat (2021) arriving and its most recent trailer (at the time of writing) at least proving that a game-to-movie translation can be violent and gory, it’s worth remembering just how far the series has come from the ‘90s. Time will tell whether this new incarnation will continue the current trend for, mostly, faithful video game adaptations. But I digress. 

In all honesty, MK:A has aged surprisingly well, particularly in contrast to its more po-faced predecessor. It may not be a well-made film, but by-golly does it know how to have fun, with nary a second pausing for breath, acting more like a martial arts road movie with wonderfully bizarre and obtuse leaps in narrative logic. The dialogue is eye-rollingly bad (more so than the first) but in turn this creates some instantly quotable lines (thanks in large part to Brian Thompson and Muestta Vander’s performances as Shao Khan and Sindel respectfully) that I have spewed forth on many a beverage catch up with friends. The CGI is cruder than the original but also manages to feel (unintentionally) closer to stop-motion during the final dragon/hydra fight with its stilted frame-rate movement. Plus it’s the only film where you’ll see a poorly CGI’d dragon backflip an even more poorly animated hydra – which is an absolute plus point in my book. 

Even with its multitude of flaws, a rushed production, recasting, occasionally poor editing and possibly one of the most obnoxious uses of a purple filter to light most scenes, it has become a perennial viewing staple of mine due to its entertainment value. The first may be heralded as the first good video game adaptation, but this maligned sequel is infinitely more fun than most remember. Laugh with it, not at it. For me at least, this follow-up will forever be an old friend I return to when a fun, judgment-free time is required. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, I salute your schlock-tastic silliness and overuse of purple filters!

The UK VHS cover that I watched many a time
Behind the scenes filming of the Sonia vs. Mileena fight or the inside of a teenage boy’s wet-dream?
One of the rare behind the scenes shots of Quan Chi (actor unknown) who was subsequently deleted from the final film

[1] If you’re interested in some bizarre behind the scenes shenanigans on Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, then I recommend this video from Matty McMuscles on YouTube which goes into further detail.

[2] When not in motion the prosthetic facial features for Baraka can be impressive. Sadly if you dig a little deeper (or in my case zoom in on a photo) it is clear the effects were rushed. The stuntmen’s real mouth is visible and the wrist blades haven’t been fully glued on or blended properly to the actor’s forearms. Looking back at director John R. Leonetti’s comments about the making of this sequel, it’s clear both he and his crew were rushed into production following the first film’s success. Leonetti has even gone on record to say he was overwhelmed by the experience. The fact they managed to get a (mostly coherent) film out at the behest of the studio (who refused to allow them extra editing time) is truly an achievement.  

[3] One behind scenes shot that has materialised online shows another fan-favourite Quan Chi, who would have made a cameo towards the end of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and let to a setup for the cancelled Mortal Kombat: Devastation

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