Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

Plenty of critics dismissed Mortal Kombat during its initial run in theaters. Even the genre critics gave it a lukewarm reception. They found it fun in a vague, flat-tasting sort of way; another pitiful Enter the Dragon rip-off with a vaguely mythological twist.

Still, the damn thing made $70 million domestic, three and a half times its initial budget. Hollywood’s obsession with the “sure bet” is a well-documented phenomena, and we shall dwell upon it another time. We shall only pause to say that this “franchise” mentality is rapidly becoming the norm in video games as well. Be sure to expect a lot less overall originality from the folks at all your favorite design houses. The business of video games has, apparently, become Business.

Not that it was ever anything but business, mind you…ah, enough stalling. It’s time for me to repeat myself:

Fighter games, by their very nature, are short on plot and long on action. A Character (you, in other words) is magically whisked from one flashy arena to the next, where you must hit an opponent until he/she stops moving. Repeat. So in one sense, many of this movie’s critics are correct: it is slavishly faithful to its source material in terms of structure and style.

…while at the same time eliminating the very thing that gave this particular story its dramatic weight…excessive, cartoonish violence, and audience participation. I’d like to go myself one better tonight and say this: Fighter games, by their very nature, are incapable of existing outside of your favorite console system. They’re stories (while often ludicrous) are simply too complex.*

[*With one notable exception: Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee – which, as the title suggests, hijacks its plot from the classic Toho film. Which is not to say the game does anything but kick ass, and I shall not debase it any further by discussing it in this context.]

Don’t laugh. Think about it. You have a cast of…what? Twenty-two characters? Each of them complete with their own back-story, motivations, and set of relationships to everyone else. How are you going to cram all that into ninety minutes and still have room for the fight scenes?

You don’t. And when you don’t, you end up with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. There’s a lot of spoiling to follow, and for that I shall not apologize. I feel its necessary to present this movie in its full, spectacular non-glory.

The movie begins exactly where its prequel left us. Shao Kahn (veteran character actor Brian Thompson), the mad Emperor of Outworld, has somehow unbalanced the furies and flung wide the portals between his dimension and ours. The Emperor and his warriors drop from the sky before our heroes. Fans will recognize Motaro (former American Gladiator Deron McBee), Sheeva (Marjean Holden) Ermac (John Medlen), Nob Saibot (J.J. Perry) and Queen Sindel (Musetta Vander), Kitana’s long-dead mother, resurrected through Kahn’s magic.

Liu Kang (veteran Hong Kong actor Robin Shou) is forced to watch, helpless, as his home (the Temple of Light) is ripped apart under the extra dimensional assault. But wait. Didn’t the warriors of Earth win Mortal Kombat? Shouldn’t that ensure the Earth’s survival for another “generation” (however long that may be)?

Lord Raiden (James Remar, in place of the Christopher Lambert), God of Thunder and the Obvious, informs Shao Kahn that his actions are cause for a serious beat down. They fight. It is during this battle that Johnny Cage (Chris Conrad in place of Lindon Ashby) makes the Ultimate Sacrifice, saving Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess) from the Emperor’s clutches. In typical Bad Guy fashion, Kahn chooses this moment to retreat, leaving Our Heroes at the mercy of his faceless minions…excuse me. I mean, his “extermination squads.”

Needless to say, Our Heroes escape, and Raiden lapses back into his Boring Exposition Guy persona. The resurrected Sindel is somehow the key to all of this. How? Ha! Don’t ask. Mortal Kombat 3 saw the need to explain this part of the plot, but Annihilation does not trouble itself with Hows. Needless to say, if the Queen is reunited with her daughter Kitana (still played by Talisa Soto in all her blank-faced glory), the power of her Love (oh, for Pete’s sake) will destroy Kahn’s spell, sundering the dimensions and saving Earth from ruin.

How? Damnit, there’s no time for how. In six days the dimensional merger will be complete, and the Earth transformed into a purple-tinted, crumbling, surrealist nightmare place. And here I am worried about the how of it all. As if I expected this thing to actually make sense.

Gets worse. Being a God of the Earth, Raiden has no power in Outworld. As the two realms merge, his powers will decay. “You all must become stronger,” he says to the mortals, “together.” So what do they do? Yep, that’s right: they split up.

Liu Kang and Kitana go off to seek the warrior Nightwolf, so that they might prepare for the trials ahead. Instead they run afoul of the cyborg ninja Smoke (J.J. Perry) and a small band of faceless minions. A fight ensues. It is during this battle that the flesh-and-blood ninja Sub-Zero descends from the sky, making short work of Smoke with his ice blasts.

This, surprisingly, is not a continuity error. Rather it is the brother of the Sub-Zero killed in the previous movie…by Liu Kang. Lucky for him this Sub-Zero is a little more talkative. Hell, he’s even reasonable, agreeing to aid Liu and Kitana in their quest to save the world.

Unfortunately, Sub-Zero’s presence attracts the attention of hellspawned ninja Scorpion (again, J.J. Perry). A fight insures. It is during this battle that Scorpion kidnaps Kitana, vanishing through a portal as he shouts the film’s one and only memorable line: “Suckers!” That “suckers” comes courtesy of Mortal Kombat creator Ed Boon (the voice of Scorpion since MK1). One can only hope he is speaking to our heroes. One can’t help but suspect he is speaking to us, the audience, who’ve actually paid real American money to watch this movie. Money that is now (partly) his. Bastard.

Sub-Zero sums in all up for the distraught Liu Kang. “What has happened here should prove that you alone are not ready for what is to come.” So what happens? Zero disappears, and is never seen again for entire course of the film. Guess he left the oven on.

Wedgey alert.Sonya ends up in Hawaii, on a quest to find her (Special Forces) partner Jax (Lyn Williams), MK‘s own Token Black Dude. Turns out he’s deep inside the “Armed Forces Biotechnology Laboratory,” getting himself a pair of cybernetic arms. But there’s no time to play catch up (thank God…this movie has a bad habit of repeating itself). Enter the cyborg ninja Cyrax and another squad of faceless thugs. A battle, once again, ensues.

Back to Liu Kang, who’s finally hooked up with the Cherokee warrior Nightwolf (Litefoot). Will the wilily skin walker become our Token Native American? Thankfully, no. Instead he knocks Liu Kang upside the head, sending Our Hero on a vision quest to find his “animality” (oh puh-leese).

Liu Kang snaps out of it just as night falls. The first thing he sees? A half naked woman standing in the snow. Hey there, darlin, what’s your name? Jade (Irina Pantaeva). Her name is Jade and Our Hero makes the mistake of repelling her scantily-clad advances. A fight (duh) ensues. It is during this battle that Jade reveals her true nature, costume, and intentions. She is a refugee from Outworld. Only she can lead Liu Kang to where Kitana is being held. What’s a hero to do? He allows her to tag along.

Cut to Raiden as he holds a chin wag with the other Elder Gods (Lance LeGualt, Carolyn Seymour and Reiner Schone as the unrecognizable Shinnok). Being Gods, they chose to abstain from any direct action. Raiden, ever the bleeding heart, declares that he will fight for the human race, with or without their help. Even if that means losing your immortality? Of course. How else can he make a Noble Sacrifice at film’s end? Can’t very well spur Our Hero’s on with some Departing Words of Wisdom if you’re incapable of Departing.

Everyone meets and greets outside the Elder God’s temple. Raiden, with the last of his strength, transports them all to Outworld. Will they rescue Kitana? (Yes.) Will they reunite her with her evil zombie Mother? (Yes.) Will the power of Kitana’s love defeat Shao Kahn’s evil plan? (No.) Will someone betray Liu Kang? (Yes…but, for what it’s worth, no one will deny him three times.) Will their every movement be the impetus for yet another gratuitous fight scene?

I don’t need to answer the last one. After all, what else are we here for? And while Annihilation fails miserably as a movie, it goes out of its way to try and make us happy. The sheer glut of combatants, each with their own costume and set of super powers, helps to alleviate this movie’s chronic habit of repetition. The makers of this DVD were even kind enough to include a “Jump to the Fight” feature, further showcasing how pointless the rest of the movie really is…for us and the filmmakers.

Annihilation‘s story is an amalgam of Mortal Kombats Two and Three, with pieces of Four, Trilogy and Gold thrown in for good measure. And while he occasionally attempts to pump some drama into the proceedings, director John R. Leonetti is laboring under no illusions. I can certainly respect his work ethic. Filming these fight scenes must’ve been a absolute bitch. And there’s so damn many of them, Jesus Christ. I know this is the sequel to a movie based on a fighter game but…man, does every plot point necessitate a fight scene?

Unfortunately, delusions abound in front of the camera. I pity these poor, poor actors, saddled as they are with this atrocious excuse for a script. I swear, some of these lines make Johnny Cage’s “I feel like I’m back in high school,” comment seem like a Robert Frost poem. No need for witty repartee when simple anger will suffice. Better yet, why have anyone talk at all? Fight scenes are so much more…easier to write

All you Brian Thompson fans out there (humor me for a second) should be forewarned: this is not the man’s best work. And here we have a man who seems tailor made for the role of…KAHN! Instead, he gives a textbook example of how not to play a genocidal despot. The man practically sweats ham throughout his entire performance, reducing Shao Kahn (object of hatred and fear) to another forgettable “bad movie” villain. (Notice how, when Thompson puts his hands on his hips to laugh derisively at Our Heroes, he keeps his elbows cocked at a regulation 45-degree angle.)

This predisposition toward over-acting infects the entire Rogues Gallery…for their paltry handful of actual scenes (thrill to Musetta Vander vamping it up as Sindel). It is marked (or perhaps, canceled out) by a great deal of under-acting on Our Heroes’ part. Mr. Reemar seems almost bored as Raiden, and if you think a vengeful god is bad, imagine a god phoning in his lines while pondering if anyone will even notice his next performance. Ms. Hess chooses to show us Sonya’s grief through pouting. And Mr. Shou, who’s Liu Kang must take the long, strange road from Doubting Thomas to Chosen One, is eternally dogged by a movie that insists his journey consist of neatly truncated, five-minute blocks. Three of those minutes, naturally, must be taken up by a fight scene.

After all, that’s what we’re here for…and once again, the fights aren’t all that bad. Nothing terribly original is displayed (odd, considering the multitude of superpowers this movie takes for granted) until the final fight, as Liu Kang finds his “Animality.” Shao Kahn wastes no time in discovering his own. An (all too short) giant monster battle ensues, making full use of then-cutting edge CGI technology. These effects, needless to say, have not aged well. But after ninety minutes of lukewarm acting and some of the worst dialogue this side of the “Family” section I’ll take anything I can get.

Annihilation won’t give you much. It forces one to think. About something, anything to drive away the feeling of my brain cells dying. So I chose to think about the fact that there’s absolutely zero gore on display here…or in Mortal Kombat One, for that matter. Odd, considering the glut of controversy surrounding “violent” video games and their effect on today’s society.

Strike out the word “violence.” Violence is okay. Cartoons (despite much hoopla from the dreaded Middle-American Soccer Mom) remain as violent as ever and are still the number one babysitting tool in American today. I’d even go so far as to liken video game characters to cartoons. Both are vaguely unreal human images. Both posess powers not-of-this-world. And both instantly regenerate after sustaining horrific amounts of damage. Hit some character with a nine hit combo and what happens? They spring right back up, unchanged for all the blood you’ve spilled.

''Foreward! Be advised: Your hearts will go on.''Ah, yes. The blood. “The blood is the life,” Dracula says, and there’s precious little blood in Mortal Kombat or Annihilation. Characters who make use of edged weapons are never allowed to successfully employ them. The few on-screen deaths are usually quick, efficient neck-breaks or all-encompassing explosions. Our Heroes suffer blow after blow right to the face without so much as a nosebleed. You’re telling me these people aren’t human cartoons?

Compare to the Tekken movie, a piece comparable to Annihilation in terms of sheer Crap Factor. Yet the makers of Tekken knew what the makers of Mortal Kombat somehow forgot: that the blood is the life. No blood, no life, no reason for me to care.

You remember Die Hard, right? Well then, you should also remember that Die Hard was the first chink in the Action Heroes’ Personal Invincibility Sheild. For two hours we watched as Bruce battled those terrorists, turning into a blood soaked pariah in the process. But still he fought on and (for whatever reason) the audience empathized with him. He was human. Crude, prone to mistakes, vengeful…and mortal. You didn’t see John MacClain tiptoe through a hail of bullets. Hell, man couldn’t even walk on broken glass without cutting up his feet.

Liu Kang is bludgeoned, slashed at, hit with multiple energy blasts, and mutates into a bad CGI dragon…all without sustaining a scratch. Not even the patented hairline-cut-above-the-eyebrow so prevalent in Hollywood.

This, I discovered (as the Elder Gods declared, “The Fate of the Universe shall be decided as it should be…in Mortal Kombat!”) is the alpha and omega of these damned Mortal Kombat movies. In their quest to be loved by as many people as possible (ka-ching!), they sacrificed all of the things responsible for their franchise’s continued popularity.

As it stands, the series is another example of Hollywood taking a nice idea and watering it down as much as possible, before bleeding it dry. And they’re not done, yet. Heavens no. Haven’t you heard? Sequels are still all the rage as shrinking profits and skyrocketing budgets reinforce the “proven concept” mentality. As I speak, Mortal Kombat: Domination is already in production, due out next year…say, early summer?


2 thoughts on “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)”

    1. Indeed. Poor entire rest of the cast for that matter, but especially Robin Shou, whose fight choreography remains about the only worthwhile thing in this flick (not that I appreciated it until my colleague and fellow Cold Fusioneer, Dr. Ngor of It’s a Beautiful Film Worth Fighting For, pointed that out). But yousa point is well seen, since Remar’s the only cast member trapped in the Highlander’s long shadow.

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