Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
By no means am I here to say this film is not worth the scorn it has received from day one. Highlander II: The Quickening absolutely conceptually butchered most everything that made the original fantasy adventure film so amazing. However, there are certain elements that people don’t give this film credit for in spite of its storyline and screenplay failings. Of course, it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, and it has more wrong with it than any one reviewer should torture him or herself to detail. So, I am exercising restraint to not scrutinize everything that is wrong with it. While I will blatantly point out why this film was a failure, I do want to give credit to what I feel are highly admirable qualities for the film. However, the bad outweighs any good you can find in this film, and while so many have covered why, it’s time to offer my perspective and insight into this notorious motion picture.
By the end of the 20th century, the Ozone layer has been damaged severely, and Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the one who brings all the great minds together to create a protective energy shield around the Earth. However, a quarter century later, humanity lives in a perpetual nighttime world as the sun’s rejuvenating, life-giving rays do not penetrate the shield, and the world is in a state of depression. They’ve lost hope in this dreary world. Because of this, Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) and her anti-shield team break into one of the Shield Corporation’s stations, and discover that the radiation above the shield is normal. This means the Ozone layer has healed itself, and the shield is no longer needed. Of course, it is a corporation, and they are just interested in capitalistic greed. Louise is the only one of her team to escape alive. Connor is now an old man, having become mortal after defeating the Kurgan to win ‘The Prize.’ While enjoying a night at the opera, he has flashbacks (similar to those during the wrestling match in the first film), but instead of the Scottish Highlands, he remembers his life as a rebel on the planet Ziest (or from a distant past on Earth, depending on which version you watch). Here is where he met Ramirez (Sean Connery), and battled the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside). For their rebellious acts, they are exiled to different points in time on the planet Earth where they will be immortal, and have to battle other immortals until only one remains. The winner will have the choice to return home to live out the rest of their lives. Despite the fact that MacLeod has been mortal for nearly forty years, and is a matter of months away from inevitable death by natural causes, Katana is not willing to wait any longer to see his enemy die. He sends two comical spiky haired warriors to assassinate Connor, but it backfires making MacLeod immortal again, taking into two Quickenings. One restores his youth, and the other allows him to resurrect Ramirez back in Scotland. By this time, Louise has found Connor in an effort to use his influence to get the shield shut down. Now, with his youth restored, they become sexually involved, and he becomes invested in her mission against the corporation. Meanwhile, Katana decides to dispatch his enemies first hand. He forges an alliance with the major tool that is Shield Corporation CEO David Blake (John C. McGinley) to combat MacLeod, Ramirez, & Louise. With two over the top villains, one more ridiculous than the other, our heroes don’t exactly have their work cutout for them, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.
Okay, this is actually not the worst Highlander film ever made. That dishonor belongs to Highlander: The Source. If you’ve seen it, and I surely hope you have not, I don’t see how you could disagree with that assessment. You thought it was impossible to sink below Highlander II, but you were proven wrong. Regardless of that, here’s why this film is so reviled. At its most basic, this first sequel takes what was pure wondrous fantasy, and turns it into cheap science fiction. There was a simplicity to the mystery behind immortals in what screenwriter Gregory Widen created with Highlander. “It’s a kind of magic,” offered up a sense of charm and wide eyed wonder to the idea. For me, the origin of immortals is unimportant. Through all the other films and the television series, where they came from was never as important as their journey to wherever they were going. The story of Highlander is one of adventure, love, legend, pain, heart, wisdom, and magic on an epic scale that spans countless centuries. Watching how our Clan MacLeod heroes battle through it all, and how it molds them into more seasoned, weathered, and wiser people is what it has all been about. It was never about aliens from another planet, time travel, shield generators replacing the Ozone, or weirdo assassins flying through the air cackling like hyenas. The premise of this sequel was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and no matter which version you watch, it’s still a failure in that department.
The only thing Highlander II has going for it in its defense is that the production was full of problems, conflicts, money issues, and creative differences. That can explain the clusterfuck of bad execution, but still, people signed on board due to the screenplay and premise that this film was built upon. They have no defense for that. Christopher Lambert supposedly would only do the film if they brought back Sean Connery, and that resulted in a very peculiar resurrection. While Lambert and Connery have fine chemistry which provides the film with a good deal of fun, I have to admit that Ramirez was rather shoehorned into this. The entire film would likely flow along far better without him at all, and make room for more relevant elements to be fleshed out. Ramirez has some decent wisdom to impart that works itself into the story by the end, but it would be easy to write around, if needed. Still, it is good entertainment seeing MacLeod & Ramirez interact on more of an equal footing like friends or brothers instead of the student-teacher relationship they had before. Of course, I could’ve done without the out-of-place excessive humor resulting from Ramirez’s inclusion.
Now, Michael Ironside is indeed a fine actor that is able to stretch out into a wider range than he is typically typecast into. The failing of many Highlander feature film villains is that the screenwriters try to make them carbon copies of the Kurgan. They are given similar crazy scenes, over the top characterizations, and even all their names start with a ‘K’ – Katana, Kane, Kell. The television series ultimately became the real treasure trove of fascinating and original villains including my favorite in Xavier St. Cloud. Here, Katana is hard to take seriously most times. He is over the top, almost badly comical in certain scenes, and all for the wrong reasons. The original film handled its characters with weight and respect. It made them dimensional, textured people, or at least with the Kurgan, formidable and frightening. Katana constantly comes off as the bad guy whose already lost, and is just lashing out because of a bruised ego due to that loss. He seems desperate, and incapable of truly being a singular threat. He’s certainly not intelligent, as the film eventually and blatantly reveals, which I will get back to. He doesn’t have the bravado to truly become the adversary he needs to be to confront and take down MacLeod. I do not lay too much fault on Ironside. This is what the screenwriters and filmmakers gave him, and he did what was demanded of him. Still, I know he’s such a better actor, and definitely capable of being a better villain than this film allows him to be. John C. McGinley is the same way. I have seen him put in so many performances over the last twenty or so years that I know he can do better than this. He has even regretted how he portrayed this role. I am always glad when an actor can look back on their work, and make an objective assessment of what they did wrong.
Lambert is his usual charming self, but I feel all the world weariness and haunting sense of Connor MacLeod was lost. On one hand, I can see him becoming a lighter weight character due to having slain the Kurgan, and come to peace with much of what he’s lost. Still, we see that even more heartache has befallen him since then, and while he demonstrates mourning for it, it doesn’t carry with him throughout the film. Even the accent Christopher used in the first film is abandoned, and frankly, would never reappear with Connor ever again. Still, Connor MacLeod remains a character to invest yourself in. He’s still handled in a decently well rounded fashion. It’s the just the horrible “origin of immortals” scenes that really damage it all. It sort of makes all we knew of who Connor was in the first film nearly inconsequential, not to mention, wholly confusing to a mind boggling degree. That plot point alone creates more contradictions and catastrophic problems with the entire established mythos to the point of wondering, “Why the hell did they go forward with it at all?” And again, why they went back to an “origin of immortals” story with Highlander: The Source when it failed so miserably the first time? Of course, there are no good answers to those questions.
Anyway, Virginia Madsen is probably the only genuine, grounded talent in the whole film. She always turns in a solid, pitch perfect performance, and she does so here. She’s a fine love interest with a dash of action ability. She and Lambert work well together, but not amazingly so. It’s well handled and well played, but there is a missing romantic aspect that I think every Highlander love should have. The entire base concept of Highlander has a very romanticized nature to it. There is a sexual encounter here, but there’s not much intimacy between the characters to really forge a deep emotional connection. There’s just too much plot getting in the way for that, and of course, they needed to shove Sean Connery into the mix to detract from that relationship. You see, for every potentially good idea, there’s something else thrown into the film to detract from it. The potential of the elements that could be used to improve the film are limited to make room for something that brings down the film.
For instance, Russell Mulcahy, in these earlier years, always made gorgeous films with such enveloping cinematography. However, where the first film was able to mostly thrive in practical locations and expansive sets, in this film, the first major action sequence that is supposed to be a large area of the city is confined to a soundstage, and it looks like a soundstage. The scope and scale of it is so small, you can’t help but see the limitations of the production, and it detracts from the visual aspect of the feature. Sequences may be shot with great angles, unique lenses, and inspired camera moves, but you can almost always tell when they shot it on a cramped back lot or soundstage. A real city street has depth and scope with block after block of buildings, skyscrapers, and movement crisscrossing in the distance. It has character from its history and people over the decades and centuries. None of that can be seen here, and it only begins to sell how inferior this sequel is to its predecessor. And even for all the improved practical effects, and more visually impressive Quickenings, the bulk of the visual effects (pre-Special Edition) are not up to standards for a film that came out the same year as Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Regardless, when you get outside of that, and onto the truly beautiful and well designed interior scene sets, the production design and cinematography SHINES. Mulcahy’s music video-born artistry finally comes to glorious life, and you see that classic grand Highlander style manifest itself. The lighting is very theatrical, moody, and atmospheric at times. However, it seems a little heavy on the Blade Runner influence in both lighting and production design. Still, big dolly and crane shots really bring forth that epic, large scale cinematic feel which is why I am attracted to Mulcahy’s 1980s & early 1990s films on through to The Shadow.
The score by Stewart Copeland does have a lot of depth and richness. It is highly orchestral bringing a unique identity to this film as it is quite different from Michael Kamen’s score for the original Highlander. Like with Connor’s character, gone are the haunting or mysterious qualities in the music. And while there is essentially no Queen in the soundtrack, we do get a fine closing credits song from Lou Gramm of Foreigner titled “One Dream.” Gramm formed a band called Shadow King at this time, but it was very short lived. The song is hard to find commercially as no soundtrack was released in the US, but I have come to enjoy “One Dream” as much as any other Highlander musical staple. Now, I’ve always been put off that the final battle between MacLeod & Katana has next to no music behind it at all. Not to mention, it’s a rather brief duel. Anti-climactic indeed. It’s almost as if it’s there because it needs to be, and they just want to wrap up the film as quickly as possible. There’s no epic quality to it, no passionate intensity. It’s a bunch of dull clanging back and forth for a few moments. Still, the score has gained some good respect from the franchise’s fans, and Stewart Copeland is an exceptionally talented and diverse musician from his work as the drummer for The Police on through to many other film and television scores. He surely gave this feature a wide, full sound that may have been more than it deserved. It’s not always entirely to my liking, but I can respect the musical quality and artistry of it.
What I can’t respect is the creative process behind the idea of this movie. Okay. They wanted to do a sequel. That’s understandable, but that’s also the problem. The first film ends definitively. Connor wins ‘The Prize,’ and thus, there are no more immortals left in the world. There’s really no credible way around that ending, and making a prequel about Connor is foolish because there’s no mystery of who would survive. Gregory Widen wrote a fantastic, self-contained screenplay with no allusions for a sequel. Even still, how these filmmakers conjure up the idea of all immortals being aliens from another planet shatters all logic because everything they develop in the sequel contradicts everything from the original film. In later revised cuts of Highlander II, the immortals are changed to being from Earth’s distant, forgotten past. So, now they are time travelers which makes even less sense, but as I concluded sometime ago, there is absolutely no way you can re-cut this film to have either premise make any real sense. Every fiber of this plot is fundamentally flawed from every angle. The plot holes are atrocious, and are blatantly stated by the characters in the movie itself! How do you write a screenplay with such plot holes, do nothing to mend them, but have enough awareness about them to have the characters spell them out in detailed discussion? It sounds like a screenwriting paradox that could unravel the very fabric of the universe, or drive one totally insane trying to make sense of it. MacLeod states to Katana that he was ready to settle down and die peacefully, but then, Katana sends his cackling henchmen to change all that. Now, he’s immortal again, just where he didn’t want to be. Katana would’ve had his victory of MacLeod dying if he just sat on his ass and did nothing! Even his idiot henchman caught onto this, and Katana just slaps him in the face for having a rational thought.
The theatrical cut even made Russell Mulcahy walk out of the cinema within fifteen minutes. The editing in it was an abomination of continuity. They tried splicing together two different duels for one massive end battle, but it features Connor using two different swords in two different outfits. Subsequent re-edits such as the Renegade Version or Special Edition had more linear coherence, but hardly resolve any of the base issues with the movie. Frankly, as I said, that is impossible.
Flushing away the adventurous fantasy for idiotically conceived science fiction explanations leaves a horrible, bitter taste in any fan’s mouth. Beyond just the irresolvable continuity contradictions, this is a contradiction of all that Highlander was based upon, and later re-established itself as through the television series. Highlander II: The Quickening became so reviled that it was disassociated from all continuity. That’s not a regular occurrence for a franchise when millions of dollars are poured into a feature film, but it seems like it was an experience many would have rather forgotten in part, if not in whole.
While there are admirable technical qualities in the film, there is surely nothing within it that can hope to redeem this epic failure. It’s become legendary and notorious to the point where it’s awfulness has transcended through pop culture as a benchmark for a bad film. Christopher Lambert remains a solid lead for the franchise with an enjoyable performance, but as with so many aspects of the movie, it’s more indulgent in itself than really bringing something memorable to the table. Connery’s presence alone is self-indulgent, and Katana is a generally weak, one-dimensional villain played up more for laughs than as a cunning, intimidating adversary. The producers can continue to update the visual effects and refine the editing, but it’s only making a pile of garbage easier to look at. This is not a film where I say watch it for yourself to make your own determination apart from its reputation. Even on its own merits, it’s not a good movie. In itself, it has unforgivable failings, obvious limitations, and baffling errors in logic, to say the extreme least. It certainly wasn’t the only controversial misstep in Highlander, but it was the first. And for that, it will remain a stigma on the franchise for all time.