Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

To say video game adaptation adaptations are not a respected movie subgenre would be putting it lightly. However, one franchise born out of arcade cabinets and controversy proved that audiences want to see game-based movies for better or worse: Mortal Kombat. A franchise that remains so popular on consoles that it’s received a hardcore, big-screen reboot. Before we get there, though, let’s go back to the 90s when Hollywood went back for round two with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)!

An intellectual property capturing the pop culture zeitgeist is a rare occurrence. Therefore, when it happens, it’s only logical to do as much as you can with it at that moment. A prime example of this is Mortal Kombat in all its forms. Granted, MK is one of those few pieces of entertainment that has managed to stick around and maintain a loyal fanbase. But there’s no doubt that this series was at the apex of its popularity in the 1990s. As such, the series was translated to every other medium and ancillary market by the mid-late point of that decade. 

One of these translations was, of course, the live-action movie adaption of Mortal Kombat released in 1995. While the film was, unsurprisingly, not a critical darling, it was pretty well-received by audiences and highly successful at the box office; grossing a worldwide total of over $122 million on a meager $18 million production budget. To capitalize on the movie’s silver screen success, New Line Cinema and producer Lawrence Kasanoff (C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud, True Lies) wanted to get a sequel into production as soon as possible. Logically, Mortal Kombat director Paul W.S. Anderson was offered the chance to return to helm the sequel. Thankfully, though, the director chose to parlay his success into his best flick yet, Event Horizon (1997). 

Upon W.S. Anderson’s departure from the series, New Line and Kasanoff decided to promote from within. Thus, John R. Leonetti, who served as the director of photography on Mortal Kombat, climbed into the director’s chair. After taking the helm, Leonetti brought on his brother, Matthew F. Leonetti (Poltergeist ‘82, Star Trek: First Contact) to replace him as cinematographer. In addition, the cinematographer-turned-director brought on an essentially new crew, writers, and cast.

The only returning cast member from the first film is Robin Shou as Liu Kang, who also pulls double-duty as the fight and stunt coordinator. The reason the rest of the cast did not return was an issue of contracts not being honored — a diplomatic way of saying that the cast was offered a pay cut alongside the chance to return. The sole exception to this was Christopher Lambert, who declined to reprise his role after reading (and reportedly loathing) the script. Eventually, would return to voice Raiden in the video game, Mortal Kombat 11 (2019).

With an increased production budget totaling $30 million, the fresh set of talent set out to deliver a sequel loosely inspired by the Mortal Kombat 3 (1995) video game. Picking up moments after its cinematic predecessor, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation finds that the tournament rules have been broken by Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson); the evil sorcerer and his Outworld generals have opened all the dimensional portals. Now, it will be a mere six days until Outworld and Earthrealm merge, which will allow Kahn and his forces to cause total (and titular) annihilation! But here is one small glimmer of hope: suppose Earthrealm’s greatest warriors, Liu Kang (Shou), Kitana (Talisa Soto), Raiden (James Remar), Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess), and Jax (Lynn Red Williams), can defeat these invaders in less than a week. In such a thing occured, Kahn will be stopped and the world saved!

If you’re reading this article, you are no doubt unaware of this sequel’s dreadful reputation like I am. In fact, I was so aware of the disdain for Annihilation that I had never seen it in full before watching it for this review. Look, I never like to trash any film entirely, and the same goes for this one. By that token, I will say that I think the fights and acting in this movie are ever-so-slightly superior to the original. They are still bad elements, of course, but I must give credit where I find credit to be due.

Otherwise, though, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation the biggest Franchise Implosion of the 90s! This flick is painfully terrible and poorly made. It’s so poorly produced that I’m shocked it received a theatrical release instead of going direct-to-video back in the day. Where the first installment in this franchise possesses an actual level of production value, such is well, annihilated in this sequel. The filmcraft on display here should not even be referred to as such.

On the contrary, this movie looks and feels more like an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995–1999), Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), or most notoriously, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993–1996)! Now, admittedly, as a child of the ’90s, I dug all these syndicated TV shows — especially Power Rangers. Alas, in actuality, they were terrible B-grade entertainment then, and they’re unbearable to watch now. Sadly, the same can be said of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. To watch this sequel is to suffer through it, as it is a poorly paced narrative of characters running around and getting into fights. Forget any story framing structure, as that clearly was not a concern. The only total victory here is if you can make it to the end credits.

Ultimately, most folks felt the same way upon this film’s theatrical release. To say this sequel was less successful than its predecessor in terms of audience reception and box-office would be an understatement. It grossed less than half of what the previous entry did. Utilizing a $30 million budget — which definitely did not show up on-screen — Mortal Kombat: Annihilation only grossed $51 million worldwide. Despite the lackluster performance of the movie in review, though, a third entry in this franchise, supposedly titled Mortal Kombat: Devastation, was in development. However, it thankfully never came to fruition. Instead, we will soon see a hardcore, R-rated reboot of the franchise!

“GET (BACK) OVER HERE” next time for Mortal Kombat (2021)!

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