Highlander: The Search for Vengeance

Proof that there need not be only one when it comes to good Highlander films.There is one more.

Twenty-one years after the original Highlander showed off potential that would never be fully realized, a decade after the TV series had hit the skids, I watched the Russian version of Highlander: The Source and completely gave up on this franchise. Then, in the midst of my throes of agony, someone tipped me off as to the existence of an anime called Highlander: The Search for Vengeance.

This movie has all the elements that make up a bad Highlander film. A post-apocalyptic future. Magic. Ghosts. But you know what? It is awesome.

The Search for Vengeance went into production right around the same time that The Source was filming. How did it turn out so well while The Source turned out so poorly? Well, for one thing, it’s a stand-alone direct to video anime, while The Source was at one point intended as a theatrical release and the start of a trilogy. As a result, I think Lionsgate and Davis-Panzer Productions kept their attention focused on what they thought was going to make them the most money, leaving The Source to take the brunt of the executive meddling and sparing the low-profile anime.

The Search for Vengeance also had a good writer: David Abramowitz from the TV series. Abramowitz had also done a script for The Source, but said script got thrown out almost entirely. I can’t help but wonder whether any elements of that script for The Source found its way into The Search for Vengeance. It seems like too much of a coincidence that the same writer would be on another Highlander project that also happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic future at about the same time without some ideas bleeding over. And if any single element of this anime was originally intended for The Source, then it would have been a huge upgrade over what the final project of that movie became.

Also playing in the favor of The Search for Vengeance is something I can only identify as the Japanese Factor. Be it due to the creative influences there, the fact that anime allows for better stories than the Hollywood studio system does, or just that I haven’t seen enough bad Japanese porn to convince me otherwise, but Japanese films always seem to be more creative and interesting to me than American films on the same subject. Take the old story of “The Little Mermaid,” for instance. In America, we get a formulaic Disney film in which a mermaid sells her voice for a chance to get hitched up to a handsome man. I’d say that’s more misogynistic than Disney usually is, but they’re really about that bad in all their films. Take the same story and pass it off to Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and you get Ponyo by the Sea, which is a cracktastic look at the themes of the original fairy tale while still being a unique tale in its own right. The Disney version is closer to the original tale, but Ponyo is by far the superior film, in my mind. It seems that way whenever America and Japan tackle the same subject – just look at the sorry excuse for a monster that the Americans put forth in their version of Godzilla, for instance. So it seems to be with Highlander. While one side of the world is producing The Source, the other side is putting together something that is actually enjoyable.

The Search for Vengeance opens with our hero, Colin, falling in battle somewhere in Scotland. He is given a burial as Colin MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, although it turns out that he actually preceded the clan’s existence by 1,000 years or so. Colin is a highlander and does gain the MacLeod name (and later a katana), but is not raised as one of the MacLeods like Connor and Duncan were. But that’s neither here nor there for right now. What’s important is that we then flash forward into the 22nd century, eliciting a groan from me. Really? Can even Yoshiaki Kawajiri make a post-apocalyptic Highlander film worth watching?

Turns out that yes, yes he can.

Why does this look so cool when all other futures in Highlander turn out to be crap?

Why does this look so cool when all other futures in Highlander turn out to be crap?

Not only does The Search for Vengeance have a post-apocalyptic future that works, but it also has a ghostly mentor for Colin. Colin’s first death occurred in a Celtic holy circle, and he was trained by the dead druid Amergan. And not only is there a distant future with mutants and robots, not only is there a ghost that possesses animals, but there is also a strong reincarnation theme that runs throughout the movie.

How does all this crap hang together?

Back when I ranted and whined about Highlander II, I brought up the sci-fi rule of the “one big lie,” where in fiction you are only allowed one big way that the setting deviates from the plot without ruining the suspension of disbelief. In Highlander, that one big lie is that immortals exist – anything beyond that is screwing too much with the audience. But there is an exception to the one big lie rule. You can have more than that one big lie if you introduce it from the beginning and make it cohesive with the rest of the setting.

Highlander II and Highlander: The Source were telling additional lies on top of what had already been established and built upon the foundation of the first movie or the TV series. They put the audience in a mode where we were expecting a continuation of what came before, and instead we got a big bucket of fresh crap. The Search for Vengeance dodges that problem. It’s an anime, which allows almost anything to happen without ruining the visual coherency of the film – live action films don’t get that luxury, especially not ones with special effects that are done as poorly as the Highlander movies. More importantly, though, The Search for Vengeance stands completely separate from anything else in the franchise. It doesn’t even link itself to the first movie, much less the TV series or any sequels. It doesn’t contradict those things, but it never references them. This movie is its own entity – effectively a parallel universe from the rest of Highlander, which means now we don’t have to question where Connor is, or whether Zeist is still canon. This is fully Colin’s story, not Connor’s and not Duncan’s.

Yes, the giant tank rolling down the streets of a ruined New York City is totally necessary.

Yes, the giant tank rolling down the streets of a ruined New York City is totally necessary.

The other thing that makes the setting work is that the futuristic world we’re in is necessary for the plot. Highlander II could have been another Connor versus evil immortal story and didn’t really need the Shield nonsense involved. The Source…well, it didn’t make any sense at all, but the post-apocalyptic world that still had cell phones, the Internet, and luxury sedans certainly didn’t help. The Search for Vengeance needs the setting it has. Why? Well, let me delve into the themes behind the film in order to explain.

One of the problems that took hold late into the franchise was that Highlander became all about twisting around the rules of immortality. Endgame established that the rules were bunk. The Source established that the whole idea of “there can be only one” was essentially a nonsense phrase. The Search for Vengeance goes back to the heart of Highlander, focusing on the three big themes that made the original movie so good: love, loss, and history.

Colin's love, Moya.

Colin's love, Moya.

The story of The Search for Vengeance is of Colin, a Celt leading his clan into battle against the Roman forces led by a man named Marcus Octavius. His clan has no chance, but is glad to fight for their freedom. Colin’s lover Moya attempts to save the clan by pleading with Marcus for their lives, to which Marcus crucifies her on the same night that his forces slaughter Colin’s. Colin then goes after Marcus for vengeance, only to discover that Marcus is an immortal. Marcus easily handles Colin in battle, but the horse that Colin was riding on drops him on holy ground, preventing Marcus from taking his head. Upon awakening after his first death, Colin learns of his immortality and, despite promising to Moya that he would not pursue vengeance, seeks out on a 2,000-year long hunt to kill Marcus.

Colin himself is a pretty unemotional and bitter protagonist, but he softens up as the movie progresses. He constantly gets his ass kicked by Marcus through the movie, getting a save from the heavens every time. But key to his ultimate showdown with the Roman is Colin’s motivations. In the futuristic setting, Marcus has taken over the ruins of New York City and is hoping to rebuild Rome – by first killing all of the “barbarians.” When Colin earns the trust of the people who need him, he begins fighting for someone instead of something, enabling him to finally save the day.

What makes the setting essential to the story is Marcus as a character. In the original movie and much of the series, immortals were products of their time. The entire franchise came about when Gregory Widen looked at some medieval armor and wondered what the man who wore it would be like if he was still alive. Even 500 years after his clan exiled him, Connor is still “Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod.” The Kurgan is a villain mostly because he is from a barbarian clan that lived for cruelty, and he took that philosophy into the modern day. Similarly, in this movie we have Colin the eternal Celtic warrior fighting for what he lost. For his part, Marcus is the first sympathetic antagonist we’ve seen in a Highlander movie. His goal for centuries is simple: he wants to rebuild Rome. He is an eternal Roman, seeing the world as needing the art and order of his homeland. His methods change with the time, ranging from fighting in feudal Japan to joining Hitler in World War II, but he is always pursuing the rise of the next great empire. And in the ravaged world of the distant future, his vision is arguably necessary – the world has fallen apart and he seeks to put it back together. It’s only his methods that are questionable, as he seeks to unleash a virus that will kill off the old generation and allow him to rebuild as the rightful ruler of the new world. Marcus’ plot is big, and he needs a big setting to do it. This movie isn’t about immortals hiding among us, but rather seeking to rule us. The setting allows the story to happen.

As a villain, Marcus is effective. As a character, he is arguably better-rounded than Colin, with complex motivations and goals while Colin is single-minded in his quest for revenge. Everything about Marcus screams Rome – even his futuristic tower has Roman elements to its architecture, and he is constantly working on some sort of art of music. He even has gladiatorial battles in an arena. Marcus is a consummate immortal – the times change, but he remains the same. It’s also worth noting that he is his own villain – he’s the first movie bad guy in this franchise who isn’t trying to rip off the Kurgan. We get no evil laughter, no kidnapping loved ones for car rides, no over the top villainy. Not coincidentally, Marcus is the first Highlander movie villain since the Kurgan who doesn’t suck.

Marcus is the very definition of affably evil.

Marcus is the very definition of affably evil.

As I mentioned, one of the other big themes of Highlander is history. The flashbacks are essential to the franchise, and the story suffers when we don’t get flashbacks. Highlander II featured only flashbacks to Zeist, with no grounding in the real world. The Source featured no flashbacks to speak of, and The Raven didn’t really pick up until it incorporated flashbacks appropriately into the story. The Search for Vengeance not only uses flashbacks extensively and appropriately, but it grounds us in the real world even when we’re dealing with the distant future. It wisely uses New York City as its setting, because there are few cities in the world that have as distinctive a skyline. Just seeing New York City ties the audience in, driving home how significant the apocalypse was to bring such a massive city crumbling down. It’s a lot more meaningful than the random blue screen effects we got in previous future-based movies or the vague, badly drawn setting of the animated series.

Yes, it's got lots of anime style.

Yes, it's got lots of anime style.

In terms of style, the movie is one of those love it or hate it things. Yoshiaki Kawajiri is the guy responsible for Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and his fingerprints are all over this film. It’s got a ton of anime style to it, so if you like that, this film is awesome. If you don’t, then some of the stuff is downright silly. We’ve got an immortal that fights with a chainsaw. Colin is borderline superhuman, able to block bullets with his sword (he has had 2,000 years of combat training, though). The characters’ outfits, especially for the women, are ridiculous. But it all falls under the general anime style that I’ve learned to love, so I appreciate every over-the-top self-indulgent bit of it.

I saved this movie for the last in my rants because I knew I’d need a palate cleanser after The Source. And this movie is it. The animation is beautiful. Computer graphics are used well. They even give a cameo to Jim Byrnes, who voices two characters here – one, appropriately, who is a badass that lost his leg.

Sadly, there probably won’t be any other Highlander animes. Davis-Panzer supposedly ticked Kawajiri off by making some last-minute cuts to his film. Most of what got cut was a Amergan giving Colin the full rundown on immortality, a la Ramirez in the first film. In the western world, most people who watch this film are already familiar with Highlander and don’t need to be told again that fighting on holy ground is bad, immortals can’t have children, and so on. I’m personally okay with the cuts, but it’s also a matter of the producers biting the hand that fed them – Kawajiri made a great Highlander movie, guys. Let him have his cut. Fortunately, the director’s cut did come out in 2008 and was the cut released in Japan.

An additional reason why there won’t be another anime is that Davis-Panzer Productions probably want to keep the franchise on hold until the remake can get done, potentially allowing them to reboot the franchise without the baggage of the bad movies out there. Personally, I’d rather see another potentially good anime than what will likely be a disappointing remake, but c’est la vie. The Search for Vengeance works great as a stand-alone story, and I’m happy with it being the last Highlander-related movie I ever see.

So there we have Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. It is made of awesome, and serves as a nice way to forget the abominations that are Endgame and The Source. It is also an example of why I keep coming back to this franchise – the good is really that good, making the atrocious other films almost tolerable if it means we can get something of this quality in the end.

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