Highlander II: The Quickening, part one

Yes, it's real. And it's terrible.Okay, let’s get this over with.

Highlander II: The Quickening. When you’re talking about crappy sequels, you’re talking about Highlander II. It defines the concept of a good movie getting ruined by a lousy sequel. It is easily one of the worst sequels of all time, and even all the monkeying around with director’s cuts decades later has failed to make it a tolerable movie.

And you want to know the saddest part? Highlander II isn’t even the worst movie in this franchise. That honor goes to Highlander: The Source, which we’ll be discussing later. Believe me, I’m not looking forward to it, either.

But one trainwreck at a time. Let’s go over Highlander II, both its successes and failures. Nah, I’m only kidding; there are no successes to discuss.

The original Highlander actually turned out to be a box office disappointment. However, it performed well overseas and sold well on video, eventually turning a profit and justifying a sequel. And, since the franchise has been the only worthwhile project that has ever come from Davis-Panzer Productions, the company became determined to milk it for all it was worth and then some. Thus, a sequel was put into motion, with a budget eclipsing the original and a ton of marketing behind it. They picked up the original film’s director, Russell Mulcahy, to continue the work. They also got Peter Bellwood, who had helped rewrite Gregory Widen’s original script for Highlander. They brought back Christopher Lambert, and they brought back Sean Connery. So with so much of the original talent back, the film should have just picked up where the first one left off and given us a grand old time, right?

Ah, dear reader, never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to fuck things up.

Remember how I said that everything went right in Highlander? Well, in Highlander II, everything went wrong from the get-go. The movie was filmed largely in Argentina, a country whose economy had tanked and whose ridiculous inflation levels drove the film over budget. Once the film went over budget, the bond company took over and basically told Russell Mulcahy how to do things, to the point that Mulcahy sued to get his name taken off the credits but failed because he was not a member of the Director’s Guild of America. Christopher Lambert refused to have a part in the movie unless his buddy Sean Connery was brought back, which meant that Ramirez had to be ham-handedly written into the script. Clancy Brown turned down a chance to play the Kurgan again in flashbacks, and Michael Ironside was cast as the new villain. God bless Michael Ironside, but he has a penchant for appearing in very, very bad movies. Meanwhile, the B villain, played by John C. McGinley (aka Dr. Cox from Scrubs) chose to turn in one of his worst performances ever, trying to make himself sound like Orson Welles. As McGinley himself later explained it:

I was infatuated with Orson Welles’ filmography at the time, so I wanted to see if I could make my voice as low as his, and I succeeded. Nothing in the text supported that choice, though, so in the film, I look like a jackass. I don’t look like a tough guy, I look like an idiot actor trying to toy around with his vocal apparatus.

During the production, Christopher Lambert threatened to leave again as the film neared conclusion because the experience was so miserable. This is a guy who has done stuff like Mortal Kombat and Adrenalin: Fear the Rush, but Highlander II is what made him want to bail. The only thing keeping him on the project was his contract. I think it’s the one time that Lambert’s agent didn’t manage to pull off a miracle for his client in regards to this franchise. Even after the film was in the can, Russell Mulcahy stormed out of the theatre during the premiere after the first fifteen minutes in protest over his lack of control in the project.

That said, based on the rough draft of the script, there was still plenty of stupid to go around in the film before Mulcahy lost control. It’s impossible to lay blame with any one person on a movie this bad. All anyone knows is that the film sucked big time, and folks knew it was going to suck even before they had wrapped up production.

So we have an explanation of what was going on behind the scenes to make the movie so bad. But the only way to really judge the film is to look at the final product. In the case of Highlander II, nearly every single scene is fraught with problems. So let’s take a deep breath and dive right in.

The movie opens in the dark future. Thus we have our first big problem: Highlander II in not a Highlander film. It’s some crappy ripoff of every cyberpunk movie ever made that happens to have Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery in it. Highlander is a very simple franchise to do: you have good immortals, you have bad immortals. Good immortal fights bad immortal. The first movie did it. The series did it…well, sometimes. Hollywood loves its formulas; why did we need to jump into the dark future?

As we get briefed on this future, more problems with the film reveal themselves. The premise of Highlander II is that Earth’s ozone layer became so depleted that it basically started scorching life off the planet. Connor MacLeod, armed with the absolute knowledge granted to him by the Prize in the first film, came up with the idea of the Shield, a field that would cover the Earth and block out the sun.

Yes, Connor MacLeod, mankind’s savior and the man possessing centuries of experience, chooses to block out the sun.

Missing from the backstory here is Brenda, Connor’s love from the first movie. In the original cut, she was just gone – so much for growing old with her. In later reedited versions, it is revealed that she died of skin cancer, which convinced Connor to go through the idea of erecting the Shield. This isn’t a terrible plot point per se, but it always bugs me when the events of a sequel film render a major part of the original moot. The same thing happened with Blues Brothers 2000, where we find that the events of the first film didn’t matter because the orphanage got sold anyway, or in Men in Black 2, where we discover that Agent K’s long lost wife went and divorced him a few months after they got back together again. Highlander spent a lot of time building up the relationship between Connor and Brenda, and then it gets tossed away like garbage in Highlander II. At least the recut versions acknowledged her existence, but even that isn’t much of an improvement.

The Shield was put up in the dark future of 1999 (or 1994, depending on what version you’re watching), and then we flash forward to 2024, where the world is covered in darkness and Connor’s invention has basically doomed humanity to an endless cycle of urban violence and decay. The irony is completely lost on the characters in the film – Connor fought for the Prize because allowing the Kurgan to get it would have plunged humanity into an eternity of darkness. So what does Connor do with the Prize? He plunges humanity into literal darkness by blocking out the sun. We are mere minutes into this film and it has already done its best to shit all over the original. And the big kick to the nuts isn’t even here yet.

At an opera, Connor, now an old man, has a flashback. Flashbacks are the cornerstone of the Highlander franchise. They are also badly misused here. The main problem with the flashbacks here is that they do not occur on Earth, but rather on a planet called Zeist. What is Zeist? Why, it’s where the immortals come from, of course.

Yep, the big reveal of the immortals’ origin is that they are space aliens banished from Zeist, given immortality on Earth, and forced to fight until only one remains. Bill Panzer, co-producer of the film and one of the gents who helped write the script, had this to say about revealing the origins of the immortals:

The question we were most asked by fans after the first film was, ‘Where did the immortals come from?’ It made sense to answer that question in the second film. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the fans didn’t really want to know their (the immortals) origins because then the romanticism and mystery of the story was stripped away.

I’m not one who believes that a production company owes anything to its fans, since in theory fans will stop paying for a bad product, but this is an infuriating quote to me. It’s basically saying, “We tried giving fans what they wanted, but it turns out they’re too stupid to know what they want.” Yes, Mr. Panzer, it made sense to explain where the immortals came from. But fans weren’t pissed off at this reveal because the romanticism and mystery got stripped away. They were pissed off because your solution was to make them space aliens from the planet Zeist. Do you have any idea how stupid that sounds? That’s the type of shit you see in bad sitcoms, not in a goddamned cult franchise like Highlander. Space aliens?! Where is the name of all that is holy did the first movie suggest that space aliens should ever be a part of this franchise?!

Space aliens. Just…just give me a second.

Deep breath…relax.

Fucking space aliens.

Anyway, that’s the story of the immortals. Ramirez was the leader of a revolution on Zeist against the evil General Katana, and had chosen Connor as his second-in-command. The two were captured as insurgents and sent to Earth. It really leads to so many holes in the plot. For example, why did Ramirez identify himself as an Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard in the first movie if he was really an alien? Why Did Connor have no memories of this whatsoever until just now? Why are the names Ramirez and MacLeod used on an alien planet that has no Spanish or Scottish equivalent? What about the fact that Ramirez is obviously not Ramirez’s real name in the first film, since he was originally Egyptian? And why does the Prize involve the ability to read minds (an ability that Connor never uses after creating the Shield, by the way)? Why would the Zeistians give their criminals the equivalent of absolute power? And where the hell did the rule about no fighting on holy ground come from? The revelation that these guys are from Zeist doesn’t answer any questions; it only brings up more.

Christ on a cracker. Space aliens…

To be fair, the original script did explain things a little better than this, but the explanation is one of many things that got chopped out of the film. Here’s an excerpt from the rough draft of the script:

JUDGE: 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 you will 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.

For years, we have sent men to Earth, scattered throughout their history. Men like you who have no place here in Zeist. They will find you, and try to kill you. You will fight each other down through the centuries. In our traditional way with this (he holds up a sword).

The only release from your Earthly immortality will come if your head is cut off from your body. And when one of you is finally the last of us on Earth, he will claim the Prize. He will have the choice of growing old and dying on Earth, or returning to Zeist.

Additionally, the Kurgan was revealed to be a soldier sent by Katana to make sure that Connor and Ramirez could never win the Prize. This is the part that Clancy Brown turned down because he didn’t want to do the prosthetics and makeup required of the Kurgan, but it would have explained why in the first film the Kurgan knew exactly where to find Connor. Was the reveal even in the first script stupid? Yes, absolutely. But at least it had some kind of explanation – not a satisfactory one, but one that answered more questions than it raised.

If you haven’t seen Highlander II except on DVD, then you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about with all this Zeist crap. After all, it’s never mentioned on your copy of the film. That’s because the movie was re-edited in 1995 into the Renegade Edition, which should have been called the Damage Control Edition. Highlander II almost killed the franchise, but Highlander: the Series managed to salvage it. By 1995, the franchise had fans again and Mulcahy was brought back to do a director’s cut that stayed closer to his vision. The end result, in my opinion, is still pretty bad. A bit more explanation is given to the story, but a lot of what got added back in was just action scenes, and this movie needed some emotion and humanity, not more action scenes. Regardless, the biggest change was that, in response to fan backlash, all reference to Planet Zeist was cut out. Instead, the Zeist scenes remained intact, but instead of happening on Zeist, they happened in the Earth’s distant past.

Yeah…they replaced the space aliens explanation with time travel.

That makes even less fucking sense! What prehistoric time period in Earth’s history had automatic weapons and spaceships?! Why does Connor have to worry about General Katana if he’s in a future where Katana is already long dead?! Zeist at least had some explanation given to it in the original script; why not just put in some dialogue giving the proper explanation instead of raising even more questions by introducing fucking time travel into this shit?!?!

Okay…sorry. Deep breath…relax.

Anyway, before moving on, I’d like to say that I don’t even know why a director’s cut was needed for this film. It’s an incoherent mess from the get-go, and no amount of polishing can make it anything else. Furthermore, by 1995, everyone was already pretending that Highlander II never happened. The series ignored it and its aliens/time travel explanation. Highlander 3 ignored it, picking up a few years after the Kurgan died with no Shield or ozone depletion in sight. Everyone was happy pretending this movie was a bad dream; why did we need to revisit it?

The other problem with the Zeist thing is that the flashbacks to that planet are the only flashbacks in this movie. That means that there is nothing familiar in this film. Highlander worked because it was grounded in our reality. It was a story told with immortals, but it was really a story about us as mortals. The flashbacks grounded the story in our history, and the present day was our world. The basic conflict was over who gets to judge humanity: Connor, who loves our world and represents the romantic side of the human race, or the Kurgan, who only loves violence and represents our baser instincts. Moreover, Connor in his final battle was actually on the verge of losing to the Kurgan before Brenda interfered and distracted him. He was saved because he loved mortals enough to form relationships with them, while the Kurgan had nothing but contempt for them. In Highlander II, we have none of that. There is no way to make the audience care about this story. The movie’s present day is a bleak, unrecognizable urban wasteland, and the flashbacks to the past occur on an alien planet (or a distant past that never existed, depending on which cut you watch). The movie stopped being about mortals and became about immortals – or rather, aliens from the planet Zeist.

The final problem with the aliens/time travel explanation is that it breaks a core rule of writing science fiction and fantasy, which is that you are only allowed one big lie. The willing suspension of disbelief requires that the audience is given our world with one big difference, and then everything else that differs from our world must flow from that one big lie. In the case of Highlander, the one big lie is that immortals walk among us. Everything the first movie introduced – sword fights in New York City, gaining an opponent’s knowledge and power after killing them, not fighting on holy ground – all came from that one big lie, and it made some degree of sense because of it. In the first few minutes of Highlander II, we are given a total of three big lies – we have the immortals, but we also have a dark future where the sun has been blocked out, and then we have aliens from Zeist on top of it all. It is too ridiculous by that point to maintain a suspension of disbelief, which means that the film becomes a parody of itself almost immediately. An audience just could not have all that stuff thrown at them and still take the movie seriously.

Oh man…I have now screamed about this movie longer than I spent discussing the entire first film in my previous rant. And you know what? I’m less than fifteen minutes in. I need to take a breather and schedule a lobotomy before going on. Stay tuned…I’ll be back with more stupidity from the planet Zeist.

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One Response to “Highlander II: The Quickening, part one”

  1. I’ve often wondered why Highlander gets flack for turning its lead character into an extraterrestrial, but Dragon Ball doesn’t. I mean, Goku wasn’t originally intended to be a monkey-tailed space carrot, but you don’t see people dissing DBZ for pulling a Zeist.

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