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Doomsday Reels: Highlander 2 – The Quickening

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February 20, 2017
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March 8, 2017

Doomsday Reels: Highlander 2 – The Quickening

Doomsday Reels
Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991) and Highlander 2: Renegade Edition (1995)

shithead

THE TRAILER

THE DIRECTOR
Russell Mulcahy

THE ACTORS
Christopher Lambert (Connor MacLeod), Virginia Madsen (Louise Marcus), Sean Connery (Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez), Michael Ironside (General Katana), Allan Rich (Dr. Allan Neyman), John C. McGinley (David Blake)

THE CAUSE
Ozone Depletion

THE STORY
“The year is 2024. Industrial pollution has destroyed the ozone layer, leaving the planet at the mercy of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. An electromagnetic shield now protects the earth. A small group believes that the ozone layer has repaired itself and that the shield is no longer necessary. But no one knows for sure.” – Opening text in the Renegade Edition.

“Okay, now let me just see if I can get this straight. You come from another planet, and you’re mortal there, but you’re immortal here until you kill all the guys from there who have come here… and then you’re mortal here… unless you go back there, or some more guys from there came here, in which case you become immortal here… again.” – Louise
“Something like that.” – Connor

THE RUNDOWN
I know I’m not making a controversial statement when I say that I think Highlander 2: The Quickening is a bad movie.  As any member of the fandom knows Highlander is a series that you can love but it will never love you back.  The first movie is far from perfect, having its own sense of self-seriousness that is build on a shaky foundation of ’80s kitsch.  But whatever you may say about Highlander it is a perfectly enjoyable and entertaining film that manages to work within its own central logic.  It’s not surprising that the people involved should seek to make another movie, the problem was that the first Highlander movie is the absolute end of the series.

For those somehow completely unaware of Highlander and its mythology it concerns the story of Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a Scottish Highlander who is killed in battle and improbably returns to life.  Connor is approached by a Spaniard named Ramirez (Sean Connery) who explains that both he and MacLeod are Immortals.  Immortals are a certain race of people who manifest after a violent death.  Upon resurrection, Immortals do not age, cannot reproduce, and can only by killed by having their head removed from their body.  Immortals can sense the presence of other immortals as well as the presence of those who could become immortals if killed.  When an Immortal beheads another of his or her kind they absorb the abilities and essence of their victim in a spectacular lighting show known as The Quickening.  The Immortals will fight until there is only one left upon which event they will receive The Prize and become The One.  What constitutes The Prize changes a bit with each iteration of the series and is more implied than outright stated but in general it seems to be complete consciousness of the entire universe including the ability to hear the thoughts of all mortals and dominate them completely.  It also includes the ability to become mortal and have children.

The problem with sequelizing Highlander is that Connor MacLeod won the prize and became The One at the end of the first movie.  He was the only Immortal left and there was no changing that, that was the unquestionable end of the franchise.  Now, had I been charged with the task of rebooting the franchise I would have simply set the next film in the distant future wherin an elderly Connor MacLeod begins de-aging because people who carried the Immortal gene had gone on to die violent deaths and become a new generation of Immortals, thus giving Connor the need to either defend his title or to take a bow and allow another to become The One.  You could even do that story where Connor has died of old age and the whole thing starts over again.

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What ultimately happened was even further outside the box than my own idea.  Saying of the massive departure from the concept of the first film, Russell Mulcahy said “All I can remember about Highlander is lots of guys in various eras bashing swords about. That worked the first time, but Highlander 2 has to transcend that with more originality and the ability to turn unknown corners.” 

Highlander 2: The Quickening presupposes that Immortals are prisoners from the planet Zeist who are sent to Earth as a punishment where they are made immortal and forced to fight it out until only one remains, wherein that one can choose to return to Zeist as a mortal.  This decision has been met with a lot of derision by the fanbase, but on its face it’s not an inherently bad idea.  The inclusion of Zeist and their exile system doesn’t even begin to explain how Immortality works and the movie even wryly shoves it aside when Connor ask if it’s magic only to be given a smirking non-answer.  Zeist does little to take away from the mystique of the Highlander mythos, it simply adds another element to it.  The problem with Zeist is that it’s not incorporated into the mythology in a way that makes sense.

The first big mistake made is bringing back Sean Connery’s character of Ramirez.  There’s a decent enough explanation of how Ramirez has returned from the dead in the movie, involving a flashback to Connor and Ramirez bonding through The Quickening by dipping their hands in some glowing liquid at the same time.  What doesn’t make any sense is that their characters on Zeist are also named Connor MacLeod and Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez.  In the original movie Ramirez revealed to MacLeod that he was actually of Ancient Egyptian descent (as if the most Scottish man in the world playing a Spaniard wasn’t already a stretch of the imagination) so the name Ramirez was simply an alias he had adopted to hide the fact that he was immortal.  Similarly Connor MacLeod was so-named because he lived in the highlands of Scotland with his family the clan MacLeod(similar to Connery not being remotely Spanish, Christopher Lambert is American born and spent most of his young life in Switzerland and France.)  It really wouldn’t have taken much work to fix this issue, simply have Ramirez and Connor have different names on Zeist, but all one has to do is watch the movie to see that minimal work was put into writing this thing.

The next logistical problem is that Ramirez and Connor didn’t recognize each other in the first movie despite the fact that they were the best of friends and had a bond stronger than brotherhood through The Quickening.  To be fair, this was explained in any early draft of the script where Connor and Ramirez’s sentence was described in more detail: “I sentence you to exile from Zeist. You will be transported to the planet Earth. Each of you to a different time and place. There to be reborn. Once you have grown to the age you are now, time itself will take on a new meaning for you. One year on Earth is like one day on our planet. So on Earth you will be immortal. Furthermore, your memory of this planet and your lives here will be gone. Until the time of the Gathering.”  That still doesn’t quite jibe with the Highlander mythology but it could more easily be adapted to it than the line that ultimately ended up in the film which implies that Ramirez and Connor were just dropped on Earth and everyone around had some sort of false memory where Connor’s “family” would remember him from childhood despite the fact that he didn’t have one on Earth.

The plot-holes really are irrelevant.  Every entry in the franchise has plot-holes but you can organize the films and shows (not counting the ridiculous animated series) into a rough order that kind of makes sense.  Plenty of fans have rationalized that each movie takes place in an alternate timeline.  The point is, fandom has endured greater challenges than a plot involving space aliens.  Zeist is the most interesting thing about the movie, the real problem is everything else.

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Allegedly, all three of the film’s lead actors hated version of the script that was ultimately shot.  Lambert tried to drop out but was forced to stay by contract and Michael Ironside was quoted saying, “Yeah, listen, I hated that script. We all did. Me, Sean, Chris… we all were in it for the money on this one. I mean, it read as if it had been written by a thirteen year old boy.”

Maybe Mulcahy remembered nothing but a series of sword-fights set in different times periods from the first movie but at least that formed a plot that had anything to do with immortals.  Highlander 2 is bewilderingly about corporate corruption and pollution.  Connor MacLeod was involved in making a shield that protected the Earth from deadly ultraviolet rays after the ozone layer had completely disappeared.  Much of the plot revolves around Connor and Eco-terrorist Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) trying to shut down the shield because the ozone layer has returned and the corporation that runs The Shield (led by a particularly weaselly John C. MicGinley) is covering it up because the lie is making them money. Note that there’s no mentions of immortals or sword-fighting in there.

The B-plot involves General Katana (Michael Ironside) sending two assassins, and eventually himself, to Earth to kill Connor presumably because he fears that now that he’ll return to Zeist to get revenge.  What’s unclear is why Katana didn’t send assassins 30-some years ago when Connor first claimed The Prize, or just before he claimed the prize, or 500 years ago when he first came to Earth.  In general, Katana’s motivations make little to no sense.  Connor himself even mocks the idiocy of the plan stating that he had resigned himself to dying an old man, but Katana’s intervention restored his immortality and reminded him of who he once was.  By acting at all, Katana brings about his own demise which would be an interesting narrative thread if it was fully developed to be about the character falling prey to his own paranoia and hubris, but other than that one line by Connor it’s not addressed at all.

Most perplexing is the second sub-plot involving the return of Ramirez.  If you were to make a cut of this movie that only involves Ramirez’s scenes it would be a story where he interrupts Hamlet, barters jewelry for a fancy suit, watches the most horrifying airplane safety video ever, hits on the lady sitting next to him on a plane, gets in a friendly sword fight with Connor, gets shot a bunch busting into a prison with Connor, and then disappearing in a flash of light as a giant fan is about to fall on him.  Other than being charming as hell, Ramirez doesn’t actually do anything in the course of this movie beyond tell Connor that he can use his accumulated life to basically use the force. And even that is totally pointless since Connor’s use of this out-of-nowhere ability could just as easily be done by him stepping into The Shield’s beam when he receives The Quickening from General Katana since that reliably destroys everything around him any other time that it happens.

For that matter, Connor himself does very little in this movie except show up when there are Immortals to fight.  He basically has a bunch to do at the beginning of the movie and then waits it out until the final act.  There are other cuts of this movie that split Connor and Katana’s one big sword-fight into two smaller ones and add a fistfight on top of a moving truck but they don’t really address the issue that Connor MacLeod is an observer for the vast majority of the film.

Of course bad writing isn’t just limited to plot-structure.  Seemingly every line in this film is either for comedic effect or exposition. In the opening Connor’s partner Allan says, “They’ll remember this day for a thousand years, the day we protected the planet form the sun.”  Later, after the film has established that The Shield has been up for 25 years, a new reporter say “And now for the weather.  The temperature 97, with humidity constant at 97.  No rain, no clouds, no thunder, no lightning, no nothing.  As usual under The Shield.”   Are we to believe that this guy reads that every night just to be a dick?

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I’ve spoken before about Christopher Lambert’s weaknesses and strengths as a leading man so here’s that again, verbatim.  Christopher Lambert has an extremely limited range that basically consists of wry chuckling and a haughty knowing look that takes advantage of his caveman brow and intense eyes.  He does have a certain indescribable charm and a unique gravelly voice that puts him head and shoulders above other actors in his range, but he can’t really sell any emotion other than bemused disdain.  I think, save for the success of Highlander, he owes his career to the fact that Rutger Hauer occasionally turns down roles.

For a character who does nothing of value, Ramirez is an enjoyable part of the film.  Sean Connery was still pretty much at the top of his game at this point and his handful of scenes are enjoyable, if goofy.  I could totally buy an audience that paid to see Hamlet loving him showing up in the middle of the stage and heckling the lead actor.  And the montage scene of him getting a tailored suit as the William Tell Overture plays belongs in a completely different movie, but is amusing.

The stand-out performance of the film is unquestionably Michael Ironside.  Highlander had already set a pretty high precedent for over-the-top villains with Clancy Brown as The Kurgan but Ironside set forth the tradition that the villain of each sequel would somehow be even more broad and nutty than the previous one (I’ll tackle the endgame of that in a future column.)  I’m certain that the reason Michael Ironside was even hired for this movie was the characters he played in Scanners and Visiting Hours, both of which had Kurgan-like qualities to them.

But, as discussed above, Michael Ironside hated the script so he opted to pull a Nicolas Cage and just play the whole thing as broadly insane and stupid as possible.  “…I’d never played a barbarian swordsman before, and this was my first big evil mastermind type. I figured if I was going to do this stupid movie, I might as well have fun, and go as far over the top as I possibly could. All that eye-rolling and foaming at the mouth was me deciding that if I was going to be in a piece of shit, like that movie, I was going to be the most memorable fucking thing in it. And I think I succeeded.”

Ironside definitely succeeded in being the most “memorable fucking thing” in the movie.  I had to make tough decisions picking which ridiculous face screen-captures I wanted for this.  Ironside dominates every single scene he’s in, the man has a scenery chew-off of John C. McGinley, and he wins!
Katana is a bad character in a bad movie but among the few reasons I feel this movie is worth watching (the other things being the set-design and the bonkers hoverboard fight Connor has with the two batshit bird-men) Michael Ironside is the main draw.

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Now, the theatrical cut of this film was such a wreck that Russell Mulcahy reportedly walked out after 15 minutes.  He later got to make his own cut that split up some scenes, dropped others in other spots in the movie, and fleshed things out a bit better.  He also cut out any mention of aliens or the planet Zeist, instead having Connor and Ramirez sent to “the future” rather than Earth. But the flashbacks still contain a crashed spaceship and laser guns.  I’m told that later editions of this “Renegade Edition” digitally fixed painted out some of these things but they still don’t explain how the bird-people show up with laser guns and hoverboards.

The Renegade edition does make a few things more clear and adds some more action beats.  We see Brenda from the first movie dying of radiation poisoning, we see Connor and Louise discover with their own eyes that the ozone layer is repaired, and the opening takes a little bit less time to get going.  Ultimately, though, I think I prefer the theatrical cut because most of the new footage is padding and the only plot-holes the Renegade Edition patches are ones that you can figure out for yourself if you think about them enough.  Most of the problems of this film couldn’t be fixed with editing anyway.  Frustratingly this cut of the movie is the most common one now so seeing the Zeist version of the movie is prohibitively difficult.

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Random factoids: Lambert apparently insisted on using real swords for this movie but has very terrible eyesight which resulted in him cutting his finger down to the bone, dislocating Michael Ironside’s jaw, and later nearly cutting Ironside’s thumb off.  Sean Connery managed to get sued for sexual harassment in only nine days of filming.  The movie features a weirdly heavy amount of Wendy’s product placement.  Ramirez dies for no reason as he clearly has ample time to escape the giant descending-fan room.  Even though Ramirez is an Egyptian impersonating a Spaniard, nearly every scene involving the character is accompanied by bagpipe music and the suit-tailoring montage involves a character repeatedly trying to put a Tartan vest on his suit.  Katana’s giant extendable sword by all rights should break clean through the blade of Connor’s much smaller and more brittle katana.  Among the relics of Connor’s long life that he has collected in his attic is a picture of him on an old-timey football league that we know was taken in 1902 because the year is printed on all their jerseys and the football sitting in front of the picture.

Highlander 2 is a mess but it has a few redeeming qualities.  The set design is very neat and iconic, looking like a cross between Tim Burton’s Gotham City and Blade Runner.  I would definitely recommend that you watch the theatrical cut rather than the Renegade Edition.  A third British Cut apparently was released that mixes most of the best qualities of the theatrical and Renegade editions but there has been no official release of this version stateside and I was not able to find a copy of this cut on even the shadier corners of the internet.  The movie still isn’t quite as bad as people make it out to be and definitely doesn’t hold the title of “worst Highlander film”, we’ll get into what that is next time.

THE SHILL
Highlander 2 is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant.

NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“When people think you’re a bit of a cabbage, they tend to underestimate you. That’s good for keeping a head on one’s shoulders when you’re immortal.”

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