This is one of those movies I haven’t watched since the 1990’s, but I remember liking it a lot. In watching it again, it’s amazing just how much of it I remember, which is a hell of a lot. This might seem like an under the radar action movie, especially since it couldn’t even earn back half of its $8 million budget upon its theatrical release, but boasting a cast of Christopher Lambert, Mario Van Peebles, Denis Leary, and Patrick Stewart, it’s got respectable muscle. That’s one thing that always struck me strongly about Gunmen in addition to Lambert and Van Peebles teaming up as buddies in this, and then, portraying enemies the following year in the third Highlander movie. So, let’s see what Gunmen has to offer that I find so vastly entertaining.
A bounty hunter, Cole Parker (Mario Van Peebles), and a con man, Dani Servigo (Christopher Lambert), each have half the clues to the whereabouts of a $400 million treasure of stolen drug money. Against their wills they are forced to team up to battle an elite squad of mafia assassins employed by the wheelchair bound Loomis (Patrick Stewart), and led by the ruthless Armor O’Malley (Denis Leary). If Cole and Dani survive a relentless chase across a jungle and two continents, they will have to face each other because a half billion dollars is not enough to share.
Gunmen is a fun action film, but one with heart, character, and dramatic weight. This all comes to us from Deran Sarafian, the director of Death Warrant, and screenwriter Stephen Sommers, who would go on to director Deep Rising, The Mummy, and various other fun big action movies. This seems to be a really good pairing. Sommers’ writing creates a fun concept with strong characters and his signature dashes of fun and humor. Sarafian grounds the movie with a real grit which mixes serious consequence with a thrilling ride. He makes it a harder edged action movie than Sommers typically would make, and that style perfectly works for this film. Plus, I like that the film hits the ground running dropping us into events already in motion as everyone is already on the trail of Dani and the money. That rhythm and tempo remains constant throughout the film propelling every event forward briskly. There’s very little slowing down in Gunmen, and because of that, these filmmakers are able to tightly pack a lot of exciting content into the 90 minute runtime.
I also really like that this film is a bunch of criminals, mercenaries, thieves, and bounty hunters running amuck. There’s not a law enforcement presence anywhere at all. Lots of betrayals, distrust, and personal agendas twist the plot around making it fun and interesting. This keeps every character on their toes, and allows for some spontaneous moments of drama and humor to occur that just add to the fun factor. At its core, Gunmen is a buddy action film headed up by an incredibly perfectly pair of actors who give it vibrant life.
Frankly, any movie where Christopher Lambert is having a good time is a winner for me just on entertainment value alone. His character of Dani Servigo is full of laughs all the way. Where Mario Van Peebles is the straight arrow and dramatic anchor of the duo, Lambert is the comedy, but is not farcical. These two have excellent chemistry together, and Van Peebles is able to get his fair share of humor into the mix. Once they spark off that chemistry, the film becomes more and more fun. The banter between them made me laugh so much. It’s a real delight. And Van Peebles really shows a lot of worth leading this film with a strong weight, charisma, and edge. Cole Parker is a definite tough bounty hunter able to hold his own against anyone, and is portrayed as a very smart, sharp, and cunning professional. Yet, while there’s a lot of fun, Gunmen still finds those quiet moments of character building and heart-to-heart scenes to maintain substance. Cole and Dani solidly bond together, but they still have their fun adversarial moments such as Dani shooting Cole in the leg to keep him from running off with the money and Cole later returning the favor to sharp, clever comic effect.
I severely love Denis Leary. He is a great comedian, but he has always impressed me with his dramatic work. I especially love his turns in Judgment Night and Suicide Kings, and here, he plays vicious bastard immensely effectively. Leary’s cynical humor is perfectly molded into an edgy, charismatic, sadistic, and bad ass villain. Armor O’Malley is a perfect mercenary out for himself, and willing to double-cross anyone for his own betterment. Leary’s sarcastic charisma fuels the performance and makes Armor an entertaining enemy all the way through.
Patrick Stewart’s role as Loomis is not expansive, but by no doubt, is solidly portrayed. You see this feeble man in body and mind ordering around Armor and his hired guns, and you can perceive someone who once had a strength and authority to him. However, age and circumstance have diminished him, and his sad double-cross departure in the film seems only inevitable. With Stewart in this role, it certainly adds a special notoriety to the character which elevates Loomis’ importance in the plot.
Lambert, Van Peebles, and Leary, along with many of their supporting co-stars, prove to be very action capable actors. As the title suggests, there is a very generous amount of intense gunplay and shootouts packed into the film, but there’s plenty of physicality and stunt work to behold. There’s loads of excitement throughout especially when helicopters are involved. That tight pace I mentioned before completely adds to the exciting momentum of the action. It just keeps on coming allowing for very little time to slow down, but it does have it s well timed breaths between the blazing thrills. The climax has everyone in a sort of cat-and-mouse game aboard a luxury motor boat, and it is very cleverly and sharply executed. I love how this is all shot keeping this a little shadowy to give the sequence some visual edge. Overall, the film is really damn well shot in the cinemascope anamorphic format from the director of photography of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The quality of the cinematography really enhances every fun, thrilling moment of Gunmen.
I also really enjoyed the score by John Debney. Since the film is set in South America, we get some Latin flavor in the music that blends in beautifully with Spanish guitars and percussion. The action scenes have some very good and original driving beats which hold to that musical style. It’s really a wonderful piece of work from the man who would later score Sudden Death, Sin City, Predators, and Iron Man 2. This film also incorporates a lot of early-to-mid 90’s hip hop / rap music very well. It’s surely not my genre of music, but they are all very good songs which aid the vibe the film is going for. After all these years, the opening title track of “Bite The Bullet” by Kid Frost has stuck firmly in my mind, and I think that says quite a lot.
I honestly think I enjoyed Gunmen more now than I did years ago. It really is a solid, fun, enjoyable action movie with a fully charismatic cast that doesn’t disappoint. There’s near wall-to-wall action with a full helping of laughter between Lambert and Van Peebles’ superb chemistry. There are only a few films that really exemplify my preferred style of 1990’s action films, and this is definitely one of them. Really tight pacing with a grounded sensibility that still has its tone opened up for great fun. The film doesn’t get cheesy or diminish the grit of its action by adding in those humorous elements. It all works very cohesively for a well-rounded piece of entertainment. This is just a movie of pure enjoyment right from the start and it only builds as it progresses. While Gunmen got the shaft on DVD in the United States as a pan-and-scan edition, I was very pleased to find it on iTunes in its proper widescreen format for purchase or rental in standard or high definition. If you’re looking for a really solidly made action film with intense excitement and a lot of laughs, you really cannot go wrong with Gunmen. I give it a very strong recommendation.
To this very day, I am still a Street Fighter II gamer fan, but I have never seen either of the live action movies based on that video game property. Instead, Mortal Kombat is the one that I have always greatly enjoyed. I was subscribed to a few video game magazines back in the day when I owned my Super Nintendo, and I remember all the hype and articles that were published on the making of this film. With how poorly received the Street Fighter movie was, fans were clamoring for Mortal Kombat to succeed and dominate at the box office, which it did. Although, I’m glad my tastes matured to realize how bad this film’s sequel was, but this rather impressive first film by, of all people, Paul W.S. Anderson still holds up rather well today.
Summoned to the mysterious land of Outworld by the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), three martial arts warriors engage in the ultimate battle of good against evil – the supernatural tournament of Mortal Kombat. The honorable Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeks to avenge his brother’s death, action film star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) desires a validation of his skills, and the dogged law enforcement agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) hunts a murderous underworld criminal. They are all brought together under the guidance of Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert), God of Lighting, to put them on the path to victory, or else Earth will fall to the forces of darkness forever.
Movies adapted from video games have been a notoriously bad film genre. So many filmmakers find it difficult to adapt the material into a recognizable product, but Mortal Kombat had a very well fleshed out story built into it. Still, Hollywood seems to make a habit out of screwing up the easiest of adaptations, but here, it is a stunningly near faithful job. Sure, Kano is changed from Chinese to Australian, and maybe a few details are messed with here and there. However, this film is executed exceptionally well from a fairly good screenplay with a lot of fun to be had.
The only real shortcoming this movie has, which does date the film, is the quality of the digital effects. The filmmakers really kept the budget down under $20 million, which was very smart on all levels, but especially in 1995, that really limited what CGI could do for them. Even the bad CGI of today is better than what we get here. However, if the film is good enough in story, characters, and entertainment value, I can forgive substandard effects. The most impressive effect, which is done entirely practically, is the towering Prince Goro. Surely, if made today, he’d be 100% CGI, but these filmmakers made the smart and economic choice of creating an animatronic character. He can be a little stiff at times, but frankly, I’d take a well implemented practical creature over a cheap CGI one, which we do get in the form of Reptile.
What really makes this film work, in my opinion, is that it does take the property fairly seriously, but keeps the tone comfortably open for humor and light fun. There are bright, cartoonish characters like Kano, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion, but there’s a firm enough sense of danger and gravity attached to them to make them formidable, not funny. There is an emotional story for Liu Kang to traverse dealing with fate, destiny, grief, guilt, and his own inner strength. That gives the film its weight of drama and heart, but it’s never bogged down by heavier subject matter. Anderson hits that right balance to give the film some substance, but maintain a tone completely conducive to fun. It’s sad to say that many of his subsequent films couldn’t achieve that respectable balance.
They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and in this case, we have a great villain in Shang Tsung perfectly cast with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. He is a rock solid serious threat enveloping himself in a dark, haunting mystique. You can tell he was enjoying playing this meaty role. He has an authoritative presence, but wisely maintains a low key, confident manner showing that Shang Tsung is truly in control every step of the way. However, Tagawa can unleash a vicious mean streak when the moment calls for it. He just portrays a great, smart, subtly charismatic, and cunning villain that I have always thoroughly enjoyed. Better yet, he gets to speak all of the game’s signature lines such as “flawless victory” and “finish him!”
While Johnny, Sonya, and Liu are treated fairly equally through most of the film, it is indeed Liu Kang that is the intended lead hero. Robin Shou does a very admirable job taking Liu on a progression from the skeptical, slightly arrogant young man to a wiser, stronger fighter. Shou shows he can handle the lightly introspective and soul searching qualities of the role very well, and is a very capable martial artist. I really like the journey he takes Liu Kang on, but the film, almost wisely, doesn’t dwell on these character development aspects. I have no doubt that Shou could have done more with it had the script called for it, but the film maintains a tight and consistent pace of excitement. So, there’s hardly a lull in the action or momentum, and Paul W.S. Anderson fits everything comfortably into a 101 minute runtime.
Johnny Cage is charismatically portrayed by Linden Ashby. He really is a well-rounded fit into this group of characters adding in the needed arrogant wiseass comments, but being charming and likable all the way through. It’s interesting to note that the role had been previously offered, supposedly, to both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Brandon Lee. Van Damme chose to do Street Fighter while Lee had tragically died before production began. It’s interesting to think how the film would have been different with either of them as Cage. Regardless, Ashby proved way more than capable, and really shined flawlessly in this role.
Of course, Christopher Lambert is just delightful. I could probably watch a movie of any quality as long as Lambert is having fun in it, which says a lot for why I own the first three Highlander sequels. As Raiden, he brings both a weight of wisdom and levity of charm into the mix. His slightly raspy voice really lends towards the ancient mystique of the God of Lightning. Lambert, overall, just delivers the dramatic, thematic weight of these warriors with Raiden’s perceptive words of wisdom, and just makes things a little more fun and charming at times.
Many of these actors really deliver on the physical and martial arts demands, and the film throws some regular action scenes their way. While none of it is the best martial arts fight choreography you’ll ever see, it serves its purpose towards an exciting and thrilling movie. The only weak link is probably Bridgette Wilson as she doesn’t come off as a very skilled fighter using very basic kicks and punches. Even taken as just law enforcement training, it’s still nothing special. Shou and Ashby show off much more diverse and dynamic skills, and are much more interesting and fun to watch in their fights. Thankfully, they are the ones given the most opportunity to show off those skills.
Of course, the possible biggest point of contention is that the video game was famous for being a very graphic and bloody video game, but this is almost an entirely bloodless PG-13 film. However, this movie does its job quite well enough that the absence of blood and gore has never bothered me. Certainly, many fans likely still wanted to satiate their cinematic bloodlust when the end credits rolled, but this Mortal Kombat movie is still primed to please, regardless.
While I wouldn’t say there’s anything special to say about the cinematography as a whole, Anderson does have everything shot very smartly. A lot of sets are utilized to create the exotic feeling of Outworld, and enough is done with lighting, camera angles and framing, and a little bit of haze to make these sets work solidly. There are some very visually sharp moments utilizing some light, shadow, and fog to build up mystique, which is really the film’s strong suit. There’s a respectable amount of atmosphere in this film which creates the sense of unease and danger for our heroes. Everything is being fought on Shang Tsung’s world and his terms, and that world is indeed very intriguing with some very smart production designs, borrowing from some Asian cultures for a little added exotic flare.
Mortal Kombat really does succeed in putting the concepts and characters of the video game into a respectable feature film package. Unlike the live action Street Fighter, this movie is able to retain its tournament format as it is entirely connected with the larger plot. Fight and lose, Earth falls to Outworld. Fight and win, and we are free from their impending tyranny. Every character motivation and arc is intertwined with that very logically, and the film smartly contains its cast of characters to avoid spreading itself thin. Everyone has the right amount of screentime to flesh out their roles and progress the plot forward in just the right ways. While the script is nothing spectacular, it hit all the right marks and kept everything very manageable in story structure and characters for its director to make the most of the concept under fairly tight constraints.
Mortal Kombat might not be a flawless victory, but it was a very solid first step forward to one that never happened. Believe it or not, I actually gave this film’s sequel a positive review upon its theatrical release. An avid video game friend of mine made me realize the error of my ways a few years later, and I retracted and rewrote that review in a much more negative, yet honest light. Anyway, what we’ve got with Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 live action film is a surprisingly damn good movie filled with a consistent current of energy flowing through it, which is electrifyingly reflected by its intense electronic techno dance remix soundtrack. Overall, it’s just a fun martial arts action fantasy film that is definitely one of the best video game-to-film adaptations ever done. I really, seriously love this movie completely. It’s a great piece of exciting entertainment that will get you jonesing to play one of these games all over again!
Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe. It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it. The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing. It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.
In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako). However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries. In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger). However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod. Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch. He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives. Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.
This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series. It’s nothing exceptional or stunning. It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it. It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything. As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery. Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role. However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with. You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance. It gave the character depth and texture. Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience. The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long. This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.
Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities. There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane. How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie. In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality. Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice. As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain. However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance. Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy. He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though. Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue. For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car. Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.
Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much. They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be. Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads. It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor. I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain. Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity. Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.
Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect. It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward. It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it. I like how this was done in Endgame as well. However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.
Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son. It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane. It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original. Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie. It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.
I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation. Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time. With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together. It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done. Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation. It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.
Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles. However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced. The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks. I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie. It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.
Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead. Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight. She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert. Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films. She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film. While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.
I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer. This is a very well shot and well lit movie. The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere. Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights. While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films. This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out. He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here. Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos. This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since. He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly. It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films. So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.
As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple. It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges. With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter. It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with. The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects. It is very physically intense. However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.
The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good. I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere. The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character. What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film. With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score. Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score. With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all. The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod. Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax. I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock. Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.” This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out. I really adore its beauty.
On the up side, the visual effects are very good. During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects. The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action. There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky. Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.
Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.” An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away. Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion. They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic. Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power. Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry. So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it. Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.
I think what this film lacks the most is depth. Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters. Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander. I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it. Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer. The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring. Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable. The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe. They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake. Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto. We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love. It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it. I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands. It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.
I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor. The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship. At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts. Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again. Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD. The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension. I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality. The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant. So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.
Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention. The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems. While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem. As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there. Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie. I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance. In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.
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.