A review requested by Ben Gruchow, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The bar for movies based on video games is low enough so that my judgment of 1995's Mortal Kombat - it's not just the best one, but is the best one by a whole lot - isn't even necessarily a compliment, let alone a backhanded one. But boy oh boy oh boy oh boy, if you want to make Mortal Kombat look like one of the peaks of not just the martial arts genre, nor even action cinema generally, but of the entire medium of narrative motion pictures, just stack it up next to its 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. If nothing else, you will then get to ponder the ineffable mystery of how one movie could be made for $18 million and look like a reasonable attempt at 1995-era CGI on a budget, while its sequel could cost $12 million more and yet appear to be the end result of the effects supervisor and his high school buddies getting stoned and then racing to get an entire feature's worth of visual effects done the night before the premiere.

The film picks up in almost the exact instant that the first one ended: seconds after winning the Mortal Kombat tournament and therefore saving the planet from the forces of the demonic Outworld, human fighters Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Kitana (Talisa Solo), Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess, replacing Bridgette Wilson), and Johnny Cage (Chris Conrad, replacing Linden Ashby), under the guidance of lightning god Lord Rayden (James Remar) - "Raiden" in the original, and the change makes me unnecessarily antsy - are stunned to find that the bad guys have decided to cheat: Outworld emperor Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson) has decided to go along with the invasion anyway, using his resurrected consort Sindel (Musetta Vander), Kitana's mother, to help facilitate this magical override. As a result... stuff. I am, with all due humility, a bit twisted up as to what exactly happens in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation: even the appropriately dry Wikipedia summary shamefacedly includes the phrase "the answers he receives are sparse and ambiguous" to explain one of the few patches of exposition in the movie, which is a real gentlemanly way of saying "none of this makes any goddamned sense". Whatever the hell is going on, here's how you stop it: by punching a lot of people who wander into the film without explanation, a great many of them consisting of several palette-swapped magical ninjas.

I will give the movie this credit: it's a superlative adaptation of the feeling you get when you're playing Mortal Kombat at the arcade, and you have the vague sense that there's a narrative, but mostly you're just button-mashing your way through apparently randomly-selected bad guys. I honestly admire the full-throated perversity with which the overstuffed team of writers committed to the notion that Mortal Kombat is, above all, about the long list of fighters and their special moves. Which, obviously, that's exactly what it is, but as compelling movies go, one needs something. The first movie was a mindless Enter the Dragon clone, but at least you can hang your hat on that. It's a recycled story, but that means that it has a story - Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is just one damn thing after another.

About those writers, by the way: the story was by Lawrence Kasanoff & Joshua Wexler & John Tobias, the screenplay was by Brent V. Friedman & Bryce Zabel. Of those five men, three of them - Kasanoff, Wexler, and Freidman - fulfilled the same roles on the notorious 2012 "animated" "film" Foodfight!, which Kasanoff also directed. That's not directly germane to anything, but I thought you might take inspiration from the knowledge that it's possible to create something as wholly meritless as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and still find further down to fall.

In fairness, the wandering, disconnected plot could in some capacity work, if the film found a way to turn it into a strength, while it proceeded to function as a chain of martial arts battle scenes. I might then be inclined to call the plot "pure", in that it refuses to get in the way of the action. No worry about that! The action in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is just as muddled as the storytelling. I do not know if director John R. Leonetti (later of the truly despicable horror movie Annabelle, though that's still a better film than this one) and editor Peck Prior were merely dealing with the fact that the cast couldn't do martial arts, or if Shou's fight choreography was just that awful, or maybe the stunt team was that helpless, or what the hell is happening: but anyway, the action is diabolically bad. The editing in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation seems to serve one and only one purpose, which is to remove the moments of contact between fighters, or the spatial relationship between concurrent events: it is an assiduous exercise in reducing every last fight scene to a series of arms waving through space, miles from anything they might accidentally punch.

Even worse - aye! even worse! so much worse that it's not even a competition! - the action takes place in a nebulous anti-space where some of the worst visual effects you will ever see in your life serve to diminish the acting even more. And when I say worst visual effects, I by no means am thinking of the bargain basement CGI. That's all over the place, of course, including a climactic final battle between Liu Kang and Shao Kahn that ruinously takes place between their "animality" forms; not, maybe, one of the game elements that needed to be slavishly replicated, at such great expenditure of foggy exposition. But heck, all that low-rent plastic doll CGI is practically charming, it's so quaint and helpless. No indeed, when I think of the film's awful effects, I am mostly thinking of the incomprehensibly bad compositing, which looks like Photoshop. Bad Photoshop, done by a first-timer who thinks you can use the extract tool all by itself and call it a day. As in, the edges of humans have visible jagged pixellation. It is all-time, awe-inspiringly horrid stuff.

Compared to all that, the more routine badness of the film is practically soothing. Like the non-stop barrage of literally unspeakable dialogue, one godawful line after the last, all so different in their unacceptable garbling of the language that you can never get bored by them - sometimes it's grandiose operatic fluff, sometimes it's cringe-inducing "white guys writing street lingo for a black dude", sometimes it's the excruciating '90s teen quipping they give to a Native American who turns into a werewolf, in what manages to be maybe the worst scene of the whole movie - a damned competitive race. And of course the dialogue utter defeats the actors, most of whom were probably never going to be good. But I think some special attention should be paid to Remar, who is utterly defeated by everything surrounding him. He looks so hopeless, like he knows that he's James Remar, and you only hire him when you can't afford the megawatt star power of Christopher Lambert, who played Rayden last time. And Thompson goes so capital-B Big with his line readings that he manages to stand out in a very full movie of people leaping at their purple prose like eager community theater players - that above and beyond being an big white dude from Washington with the surname "Thompson" and for these reasons an epically poor casting choice for an Asian-flavored multidimensional evil warlord.

I hated, with all my hottest hate, everything about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation: it is inscrutable mostly and in those rare moments that it can be decoded, it's so awful as to prove unworthy of the effort, and it's the most savagely ugly motherfucker. But I confess, my primary response to the film as it played was not rage, but sheer dumbfounded shock: how did this get made, how did it cost $30 million in 1997, what in Christ's sweet name led the filmmakers to bury the story beneath such a slurry of terrible acting, worse dialogue, and wholly arbitrary action scenes? It is incompetent to a degree that's honestly impossible to comprehend, a barrage of nonsense that ends only when everybody bad has been punched to death - I assume, the film doesn't make it easy to determine who is bad and who isn't - and not because it feels like it has in any way built up to some kind of conclusion.