Saturday, 21 May 2011

Highlander II: The Quickening

(This is a review of the 86 minute cut of Highlander II The Quickening from the UK video with the original plotline.)

Much like the series' titular characters, Highlander is a franchise that is seemingly immortal. Since the first film in 1986, it became one of the largest and most popular fantasy franchises for the next few years with a rabid fanbase to boot; the franchise in total has five live-action films with a planned remake in the works, a television series that spanned six seasons, an animated series and an anime movie by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Needless to say, that is one hell of an achievement for a series mostly reviled by film critics. However, there is one part of the series that many fans have tried to sweep under the rug since its release in 1991, four subsequent cuts exist of the film today to try and 'fix' the story and even the director who also helmed the first movie Russell Mulcahy deems it 'a fucking mess.'

Now as a kid who was certainly late to the party, I personally really enjoyed the original Highlander. It has practically everything I could have asked for in an 80s piece of fantasy hokum. A soundtrack by Queen, a badass cast of actors including Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, swordfighting aplenty, a few romantic bits along the way and to top it all off it was released by Cannon; to me the film defines the term 'guilty pleasure'. As I learnt about the smorgasbord of technical issues surrounding this sequel I became ever more intrigued. The unusual shift in setting and plot, the blatant disregard for continuity not to mention the almost Joel Schumacher-esque hate towards the film itself. But unlike the hardcore fans with a scimitar where the sun don't shine, I decided to give this film a chance expecting to loathe it. Prepare yourself, this one's plot is a doozy.

We begin in the familiar far future of 'movie' 1999, our returning protagonist Connor Macleod (with token girlfriend from first movie noticeably absent) is now a successful scientist who has created the perfect shield for the Earth's ozone layer. Subtle ecological messages, what are those? The shield is a resounding success blanketing the Earth in an ethereal glow that leaves every man happy and cheery. But as we all know in 'dystopic science fiction 101', every revolutionary piece of technology has some form of dark consequence and 25 years later Connor is in the ditch. His newly mortal life from The Prize has left him a withering, dying man complete with the greatest wheezy voice ever conceived. Driving through a futuristic landscape that Syd Mead would sue for, Connor explains how the shield has pretty much turned the world to anarchy and chaos (represented by the lighting bathed in an EVIL red). The company that invented the shield has disowned his presence and now fleeces the populace to power the shield leading to everyone not particularly liking our hapless mortal.

In a nearby opera house, the disembodied voice of Ramirez communicates with Connor about the good old days on the planet Zeist 500 years ago. Cue hundreds of Highlander fans hissing at the screen. While subsequent versions of this movie have been redubbed with new dialogue which I will explain later, this original version explains that the Highlanders are not actually Earth-born but are a race of aliens from a distant world and that Connor as well as Ramirez were banished to the Earth to fight in the Gathering as Immortals. Now take a deep breath, the Zeist history lesson is far from over.

The two Highlanders originally planned a rebellion against the ruthless General Katana (Michael Ironside with a rocking hairdo), this plan failed and the two warrriors are branded with immortality as a form of purgatory until they fight for The Prize. Now all this would sound pretty epic however there is a huge problem, in the original movie Connor and Ramirez never knew each other before they worked together thus the movie contradicts practically all of the major events of the first movie. These include Ramirez' decapitation at the hands of the first villain The Kurgan (originally written to be a henchman of Katana but subsequently abandoned) as well as abandon the notion that the Highlanders are human pretty much shifting genres within one movie from fantasy to science fiction, confused yet?

Moving back onto the main plot, in the flashback Ramirez and Connor become bonded by their power of the Quickening (the way a Highlander absorbs energy, this review has now become a series of glossary notes) so that whenever they need each other they can just call. Sounds very romantic I know. Back in the present day, a resistance group led by a young woman named Louise attempts to infiltrate the shield corporation and disable the shield culminating in failure as well as a retreat into the nearby city, personally I just love how her hair completely changes from scene to scene at times. Not to mention the way a walkway she travels on can also double as a giant ladder, don't ask. Meanwhile on Zeist, Katana after 'ahem' 500 years only just feels like killing Connor once and for all. With that he sends two lackeys who are basically KISS fans with goggles out to kill him, they also have a tendency to talk funny and maniacally laugh for no real reason. Hooray for forced comic relief.

Louise encounters the haggered Connor introducing herself and uttering the cliche of 'OMG I love your work'. Connor naturally assumes she is crazy and tries to ignore her despite her also deciding to ride with him because she wills it I suppose. The two bumbling lackies attempt to assault Connor who promptly shoves Louise into a nearby bin. For a man who is succumbing to old age, Connor surprisingly is still skilled enough to decapitate both of them through a hilarious encounter with cart wheels and trip wire. As is normal amongst Highlanders Connor absorbs the power through an incredibly destructive quickening, survives a head on explosion with a truck and comes out both immortal and young again. Without a scratch obviously. During his electric boogaloo he also decides to call out for Ramirez indicating that he might come back to life through some contrivance later on 'gasp'.

With practically no recollection of Connor's previous remarks about her brash personality, Louise instantly becomes attracted to our newly grizzled hero and gives him the smooch. Connor also does the 'I cannot die' routine as to let the fans know this is definetly still Highlander, honest. At Connor's audaciously large abode, Louise discovers and repeats to an already bewildered audience about the origins of the Highlanders and even stating her confusion as to the whole farrago. Nothing like breaking the fourth wall in a film not intended to be a comedy.

Suddenly we cut to Scotland as a Hamlet play takes place with Ramirez suddenly being warped back into existence. More comic relief begins to take over as Connery questions the play naturally with the Shakesperean actor backhanding him with some insults complete with Australian twang. Our bumbling highlander leaves while uttering 'Farewell, dear shithead.' Poetry in motion I am sure you will agree. Ramirez decides to acquire some new threads in possibly the most homoerotic suit tailoring scene in movie history complete with Connery's bulge. Now I see where Paul Whitehouse got his 'Suit You Sir' idea from.
Adding to this already confusing mishmash of plot points is Connor's assistant scientist Dr. Allen being pestered by none other than Dr. Cox from Scrubs (if you are really wondering his actual name its John C. McGinley and his character is David Blake). Yep, he is in this movie as the new leader of this maniacal corporation complete with all of the comedy faces we know him for. Don't worry though, this sub plot is pretty much dull padding to show we have switched to another movie so thus it has no impact on anything else in the movie. Also Dr. Allen dies, big whoop. Anyway, after his lackeys fail him and his rocker hairdo, Katana finally heads to Earth to deal with Connor personally.

Well before that he decides to hijack a train in a sequence that is basically Billy Idol's Speed music video but with 50% more lightening; to show that he is also a villain he decides to randomly break a guy's neck for staring at him, taunting a smiling kid, trashing a cab because he can and having a quick quip with Connor about the Highlanders power. The guy seems less like an oppressive villain and more like a loiterer with ADD. Assuming that because he is a villain he can have total power, he takes over the shield corporation by simply taunting Dr. Cox and overpowering his men involving more laughing and neck twisting.

Ramirez eventually meets up with Connor and Louise and plan a daring raid of the corporation, well not after Connor and Ramirez remenisce about Zeist. Ramirez decides to proclaim that 'your time is NOW!' and smashes a globe; truly inspring stuff. The two immortals drive right into an armed battalion and are bloodily shot up in a sequence that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. Louise is taken out of the boot of the van by the Aliens trooper rejects and taken to the morgue where our sleeping heroes now lie. Connor and Ramirez soon wake up and the three dash into a secure room with the LARGEST fan in human history about to skewer them. Ramirez being the Scottish badass he is manages to hold the fan up with possibly the single most powerful weapon in the univerese; a power so great it would make the Force irrelevant: bagpipe music.

Soon after the most anticlimactic sacrifice ever, due to Dr. Cox's failure to eliminate everybody Katana grabs him literally through the stomach and chucks him out a nearby window. Louise is left to her own devices to fend off the swarming guards while Connor engages in the climactic battle with Katana. You can tell from the giant laser beam protruding through the floor and whats rather amusing is if you look really closely you can see the green screen effect through the body of the actors. But wait will Connor defeat the evil general through the power of hot laser death? The results are underwhelming, a few slashes to the stomach Katana kneels down and Connor lops his head of. But wait, the laser powers the satellite controlling the shield so in a typical case of protagonist bravado Connor leaps into the laser and deactivates it without a care. Note that suprisingly he is not vaporised completely by this. Connor and Louise make up and stare into the sky as the shield fades into black with the stars shining and the credits roll.

Highlander II in all honesty is not really the worst sequel ever made although it is certainly somewhat weak compared to the original with the plot and narrative in particular being bewilderingly nonsensical; a boiling plot of fantasy ideas that rarely gels into a cohesive plot. Admittedly the change up of the Highlander origins is an interesting concept but feels arbitrary due to its numerous continuity mistakes; even the setting itself while having some unusual Gotham/Syd Mead-esque design choices looks very unpolished with certain model shots looking particularly wonky. The acting is pretty standard, however the presence of Sean Connery as well as Michael Ironside keep the 'Action Movie 101' script from growing too egregious. Some of the dialogue from Ramirez however is amusing, Sean Connery often makes even the worst dialogue sound good. Arguably the best part about the movie is its pacing which for the most part is fairly quick due to the numerous action scenes, no doubt trying to cover up the clueless plot.

Highlander II is not a sequel that was really all that necessary, the first film tied its plot threads up nicely and this installment often feels like a bit of a cash in. However I admire the fact that they had a stab at changing the formula through various means which many sequels often fail to do, even if they don't all quite mesh. No doubt many fans will persuade you to look for the definitive version which rejigs the continuity somewhat with new dialogue which can now be easily obtained under the subtitle of Renegade. In its original form, Highlander II is a passable but mildly fun experiment in mishmash filmmaking. Not quite the new kind of magic it could have been, but an admirable attempt.

-Oli, 07 December 2009 (original date)
  • Michael Ironside + Sean Connery x Dr. Cox = Greatest cast list ever
  • Does it follow continuity of the first movie? Pffft.
  • Opportunities for music videos: 3/5 
Review source: UK DVD
Screenshot source: UK DVD

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