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.