I have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time. I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise. These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking. Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film. You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman. That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel. The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology. Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.
In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating. In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope. In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah. But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?
Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said. Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general. James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film. The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this. Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made. The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit. It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker. It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity. As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques. He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.
What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot. The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase. The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war. In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective. Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence. From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention. If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax. Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film. Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.
This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action. The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture. It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology. Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around. All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability. Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways. It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture. Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film. The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation. The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen. There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie. Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story. Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence. The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited. It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was. Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations. It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another. It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.
Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese. What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance. Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it. Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah. There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers. It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity. The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance. This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long. Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture. It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films. He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate. Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me. It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.
It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles. While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom. What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue. The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence. I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special. It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene. You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark. There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton. While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him. He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion. There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator. Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.
This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident. While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity. Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through. When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays. Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism. The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members. That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before. It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself. At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.
And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield. Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable. We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character. Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer. He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop. Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.
While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie. The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace. Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs. Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise. The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job. Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination. The brief future war sequences are stellar. The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens. It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites. Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.
The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator. The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic. The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears. So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action. Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah. The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times. However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene. Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous. While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.
The Terminator is really amazingly well written. As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters. They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping. The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect. It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great. It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one. That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.
James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film. While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional. He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways. Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts. The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years. However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology. I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.
This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made. This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted. While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie. It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences. No part of the film ever drags on. Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness. I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me. It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator. Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres. Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen. It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others. This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list. And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.
Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend. It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes. Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns. Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.
In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past. Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked. This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home. Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent. Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market. When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family. McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency. McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely. Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims. However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril. Can Max change history before it repeats itself?
There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today. While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic. He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching. The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love. The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges. He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously. He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb. Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction. Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them. He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight. He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.
Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb. His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction. He is very imposing and intimidating. McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable. With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe. He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work. He just can’t do it all himself. The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet. His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat. Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance. The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film. They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining. They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.
I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent. I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of. From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around. As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity. He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check. He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker. McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly. Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story. Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.
Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical. As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her. She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely. The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience. Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth. Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film. The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks. The performances are very consistent and complementary. It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.
The visual effects are kind of mixed. The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done. There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb. These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film. However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive. I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints. CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them. This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here. While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time. I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all. For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.
Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature). I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow. The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far. There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values. It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight. Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well. He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying. Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display. Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability. The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film. His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick. The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically. The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.
Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner. Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre. The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart. It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie. Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past. There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications. Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot. There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel. So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all. In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.
The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope. The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it. The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility. It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes. The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles. I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect. Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).
The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable. The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to. That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming. Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical. The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining. The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices. Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.
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.
Warlock is a film I have always enjoyed, but have also always felt a little let down by. It’s a fantasy horror feature that had a great deal of potential with some fantastic performances and a good story behind it, but a low budget really hindered its potential. Directed by Steve Miner (Friday The 13th, Parts 2 & 3), Warlock was produced by the struggling New World Pictures in the late 1980s. It didn’t gain a release in the US until 1991 due to New World’s filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy soon after the movie was completed. Trimark Pictures gained the rights to the series which have since been absorbed by Lionsgate. Sequels were produced (one with Julian Sands, one with Bruce Payne), and while they had more impressive production values, they both were generally inferior on a screenplay level to the original. Unfortunately, a proper widescreen DVD release has still not been made available by anyone who’s held the rights. However, I have discovered an excellent quality widescreen presentation via FearNet OnDemand. Seeing it only on VHS all these years, I am astounded by its quality, and that is going to factor into my revised review here. Still, I have to hope that this transfer will become available in a new home video release in the high-definition digital era.
The film starts out in Boston, 1691 where Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant) – a witch hunter – has captured the Warlock (Julian Sands), and is soon to be executed in a most ‘Salem witch trial’ sort of way. Although, the Warlock escapes in a time warp via the forces of Hell. He is transported to the year 1988 (the present) to locate the three parts of the Devil’s Bible which will give him the true name of God, and the power to destroy all of creation. However, Redferne (Richard E. Grant) is able to follow him to the future, only one day too late. The Warlock has a head start on him, and has already placed an extreme aging spell on Kassandra (Lori Singer), the young woman whose home the Warlock crash landed into. So, now it’s up to Redferne to track down his archenemy before he destroys all of creation.
This is an impressively effective supernatural thriller. That is due to several talented individuals putting a lot of skill and time into this. It is a steadily paced picture filled with a good balance of suspense, action, light humor, dramatic moments, and horror elements. Gore only minimally factors into the film. It is the atmosphere and the deliciously evil, sinister performance of Julian Sands that helps land it near the realm of horror. He truly turns the film into gold above its budgetary shortcomings. He is the perfect evil disguised as a man – as the trailer states – “with the face of an angel, and the charm of the Devil.” He is frightening with an amazingly chilling screen presence that pulls you in fully. He can set a foreboding tone without saying a word.
Meanwhile Richard E. Grant delivers a fine performance bringing the pure-hearted, moral charm of the out-of-time and out-of-place Redferne to the surface. Grant makes Redferne a very likeable character as he has a warm heart of gold without becoming sappy. He maybe a bit naive because of him being a stranger in an even stranger land, but he remains dedicated to his purpose and oath to bring an end to the Warlock for all time. Redferne could’ve come off as a rather campy hero, but beyond all the old word speech, the value of Grant’s performance shines through to present an honest, grounded protagonist. Redferne is given a depth and history to give him his avenging motivations for hunting the Warlock to the ends of the world and time. Grant inhabits those qualities with weight and conviction. Redferne is also a worthy adversary as he is knowledgeable and experienced in hunting the Warlock, and is more than capable of not only combating him, but ridding the world of him. Most importantly, Redferne has heart – which is something you don’t usually see in this sort of genre picture. It’s a perfect contrast of good and evil where the performances of Grant and Sands are concerned. One is a passionate man of virtue, and the other is an icy cold villain. When the two occasionally share a scene, it is juicy, meaty content that fuels the momentum of the film. Their final confrontation in the climax is very strong, and allows the characters to feed off of one another, fleshing out their sordid history. It is a powerful and nicely crafted climax indeed.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing special or greatly important about Lori Singer’s character, but in the least, Kassandra is a decently enjoyable guide through the late 20th century for our kind-hearted hero from the 17th century. She does build a nice chemistry with Grant which gives way to some charming humor at appropriate moments.
The few visual and makeup effects present in the film were decent for the time it was made and the budget it was allotted. Still, some of the optical visual effects are severely dated by today’s standards. They may even seem obsolete by the groundbreaking standards of the day (i.e. The Abyss, Predator, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4). This really only applies to the optical composites of the Warlock flying. Although, I doubt the low budget effects will hinder your enjoyment of the film greatly. I have witnessed films, released before and after this one, with tremendously lower quality effects. I did find a nostalgic appreciation for the animated magical fire the Warlock wields. On the practical side, the old age make-up used on Lori Singer while she is hexed by the Warlock was far from being a crowning achievement, but it’s never been a serious detractor for me over all these years.
Steve Miner does as good of a job as ever here despite the film not being high on scares or blood – unlike his work on the first two Friday The 13th sequels. However, Warlock is a worthwhile supernatural thriller, and Miner should be proud of what he was able to create here. He handles the story with respect and care. He provides suspense and tension where need be, and is able to ramp the intensity up at the right moments. The screenwriter for this film was David Twohy (The Fugitive, Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick), and he definitely wrote a fine script that shows a rough, early version of his now well-known style. If Twohy wanted to direct a remake, or a worthy sequel – I’d definitely be privy to seeing it. With a more generous budget and little studio interference, he can churn out a really good film.
Looking at the credits of this film, there are a some notable names that would become horror veterans themselves. Two I noticed were David R. Ellis (director of Final Destination 2 & 4) as stunt coordinator and second unit director, and special make-up effects artist Tom Woodruff, Jr. of Stan Winston Studios and later Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (who have become responsible for the creature effects on all the Alien sequels). It’s always interesting to see that such amazing talents worked on a film such as this early on. It gives good context on where they’ve been, and how they’ve advanced their craft over the years.
The cinematography is fairly good. There’s a nice choice of angles and movement, and in select scenes, very moody lighting that enhances the Warlock’s dramatic presence. These elements come together quite well with the visual effects to create a darkly fantastical atmosphere. I don’t know how well it all would work for a modern audience, but since I grew up through this era, I can appreciate it with a nostalgic context.
The one last thing to praise is the late Jerry Goldsmith’s score. I have loved his work for years from his scores for the Star Trek franchise to an endless MASSIVE list of feature films. His score for Warlock had haunting, mysterious elements, and an epic feeling at the film’s climax. This musical master always delivered something memorable and wonderfully cinematic, no matter what the film or genre. It’s a sad thing he is no longer with us. I just hope that his legacy will be carried on by new generations of musical masters.
In the end, it really is the budget that holds down the greatness of this film. It had some solid talent in front of and behind the camera along with a well written screenplay. Not to mention, the title role was perfectly cast with an actor that envelopes the screen, and inhabits every scene with vile charm. Warlock simply did not have the money to boost its production values to a level comparable to the talent involved. It generally does not look cheap, but the dated and low quality visual and make-up effects damage it. But where there are films that falter despite great visual effects and production values, this one soars to respectable heights despite lower grade effects and budgetary limitations. This is due to the quality of talent injected into it, and the solid foundation laid down with David Twohy’s script. It’s full of charm, suspense, mystery, intrigue, and subtle terror. I thank the now defunct Trimark Pictures for picking up this film from the then defunct New World Pictures. I just wish Lionsgate would do something special for this old gem because it honestly deserves it.