Highlander II: The Quickening
(Director’s Cut) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.
In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? The screenplay is credited to Peter Bellwood (co-writer of the original) from a story by Brian Clemens (yes, The Avengers Brian Clemens) and William N Panzer (a veritable career of subsequent Highlanding), but the ins and outs of who decided what when seem to be dependent on who you asked at what point. It’s been said the revelation that the Immortals are aliens was a means to get Sean Connery (one-time dead Ramirez) back on board, whom Lambert had enjoyed working with on the original. Alternatively, Ramirez wasn’t originally in the film, and Lambert threatened to back out if Sean wasn’t included.
Then there’s the interference of the completion bond company, who took over the film during editing, and wrangling with producers who demanded the addition of elements they thought would make money. It’s been suggested they introduced the planet Zeist element, although this was in the original script. Some of this sounds a lot like passing the buck. Certainly, the major change to the Director’s Cut is excision of references to Zeist, in an attempt to mash together some continuity with the subsequent series. It’s a gesture that entirely flounders. I have to admit, apart from the reference to being sent to the future, it passed me by that they were now intended to come from Earth’s past. Connor and Ramirez being sent through the mists of time makes no more sense than being sent from another planet.
The latter whiffs strongly of looking to Superman for inspiration, both of Highlander as Supes and his various opponents (the Kurgan, Katana) as Zod and his cronies, and of the superpowers imbued on the otherwise mortal beings once in the Earth’s environment. The conception of the sequel goes so wrong on so many levels, but primarily the problem is “How do you continue a complete story?”
Somehow Connor has to be made immortal again, which requires negating everything he achieved (including happiness, so Brenda is killed off in a perfunctory flashback with a different actress). By revealing the origins of the Immortals, the makers also fall into the trap of diminishing the most fascinating element of a good movie mythology; what you don’t know and are able to speculate on is always more evocative (see also Alien/Prometheus, the Star Wars prequels).
Additionally, one of the most attractive elements of the original was the traveller through time element, the protagonist alone and unchanging through the ages. Now the flashbacks are mostly about Zeist or the intervening years until 2024. Not nearly so engrossing. There’s a general overtone of bashing together random elements regardless of whether they worked, simply because they suited someone’s whims.
So Mulcahy wanted to make his Blade Runner (even though that ship had sailed almost a decade ago), but ended up falling foul of a country (Argentina) where it was hoped the extravagant scope could be achieved on the cheap. Suddenly MacLeod’s an inventor who can rig up a device to save us from the absented Ozone layer because it was considered a good idea to shoehorn in a commentary on one of the big issues of the day (had no one seen Superman IV?)
Louise Marcus: Okay now, let me get this straight. You’re mortal there, but you’re immortal here, until you kill all the guys from there who come here and then you become mortal here. Unless you go there, or some more guys from there come here, in which case you become immortal here, again.
Connor MacLeod: Something like that.
Inevitably, the picture (even in original release form) spends a lot of time setting up this new world and retconned history, but then has nothing worthwhile to do with it. There’s no attempt to explain how adult Connor ended up with a Scottish tribe (evidently, he’s no longer born into it), but that’s peanuts in the scheme of the nonsense on display. The Zeist/past is a means to bring Ramirez back for an extended cameo ($3.5m to Sean and a sexual harassment suit to boot) and introduce a villain/villains (Michael Ironside’s General Katana), but the plot amounts to little more than Connor proving the Ozone layer shield he set up is no longer needed.
Sure, there’s some (so subtle) commentary on corporate greed (John C McGinley wants to carry on charging for the shield’s use; couldn’t Connor just design it with an off switch?), but nothing happens for good reason, such that at points it has to resort to commenting on its own stupidity as a kind of double bluff (“He’s an old man now. He’ll be dead in a couple of years” one of Katana’s idiot henchman advises, entirely logically).
Doctor Who’s current showrunner Steven Moffat really ought to be one of the few who adores Highlander II; it makes even less sense than his constant retcons and spuriously reasoned catalogues of plot elements. His predecessor introduced the very Highlander standing up regeneration (just with slightly less orgasmic overtones, surprising really given how keen on innuendo the show has become), of course.
The Quickening takes in a ragbag of elements including Mulcahy’s Wild Boys video, Back to the Future Part II (coincidence, apparently, and there’s the little thing that these hoverboards are really shitty), Dune, The Godfather Part III and the aforementioned Blade Runner. There’s little means to do this well, so the director opts for a proliferation of low angled close-ups to hide the shoestring (for example in a Zeit/past battle scenes).
Generally, the action is threadbare, entirely without urgency or tension (Mulcahy still throws in some wonderfully individual shots throughout, but they’re in the service of nothing), from the dual Highlandergasms that restore Connor’s youth, to Katana’s joyride on a subway train (complete with tonally gratuitous gore), to Connor and Ramirez being shot to bits in a car just because they’re, like Immortal. The big fight with Katana is entirely forgettable.
By which point Sean has exited, mostly because they couldn’t afford him anymore; that’s really how it feels (“My time here is over” and I need to kill myself in a big fan). We’ve already traversed from incoherent to incoherent and indulgent (anything with Connery in Scotland, although it just about gets a pass for being Connery, really isn’t very good; the staggeringly unfunny appearance mid-Hamlet – shouldn’t it have been the Scottish play? – and the visit to the tailor).
For the first half hour the picture’s sort of tolerable, before the sheer stupidity of what Mulcahy and co have planned has fully unfolded. Lambert’s really enjoying himself doing his Vito Corleone old man act, and there’s much nostalgia for the original (two Queen songs play, and that’s about as close this gets to any kind of mood or atmosphere).
Anything involving Ironside is particularly wretched. He basically admits he took the piss, which isn’t something to be proud of, and his performance isn’t over-the-top in a good way; it’s wholly tiresome, and so fits with the crappy dialogue he and everyone else gets (“After all these years, you’re still a jerk” notes Connor).
I’m not really sure what happened to Virginia Madsen’s movie career (Sideways was a decade ago; I see she’s in David O Russell’s upcoming Joy); I guess it was as simple as a string of bad choices (like this). She plays a good terrorist (you wouldn’t get one of those these days, or they’d call themselves something else; she refutes the accusation), one with humanity’s best interests at heart, who is shagged by Connor just as soon as he gets all randy from beheading a couple of compatriots. She goes to Zeist or stays on Earth with Connor, depending on the version you’ve seen, but in both she’s effectively banished from existence by Highlander III, with Connor’s new totty turning out to be Deborah Unger.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising the Highlander reboot is having so much trouble getting off the ground when the franchise’s history has been plagued by mediocrity (at best). Like The Crow, this seems to be a series where producers/studios are convinced there’s some money in but have little real enthusiasm for milking it. You’re unlikely to get anyone claiming any of the sequels are much cop, only discussing degrees of how bad they are and how much worse a particular instalment is than another. Which is a dubious honour. And yet the premise of the immortal, condemned to see others pass away as he remains every youthful, is a potent and understandably much plundered one. To turn that into a series you probably need more than just the bare bones of the original’s mythology, but you need to avoid the almost wilful incompetence of Highlander II.