A Kind of Magic: Highlander II, part one

Okay, let’s get this over with.

Highlander II: The Quickening. When you’re talking about crappy follow-ups to good movies, you’re talking about Highlander II. 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 even remotely tolerable.

The saddest part? Highlander II isn’t even the worst movie in this franchise. That honor goes to Highlander: The Source. 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 Wrong Kind of Magic

The original Highlander actually turned out to be a box office disappointment. However, it performed well enough overseas and video, and acquired enough of a cult following, to warrant a follow-up. And, since the franchise has been the only worthwhile project that has ever come from Davis-Panzer Productions, the company seemed 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?

Well…let’s just say that things got off-track quickly.

We’re all Christopher Lambert now.

Remember how I said that everything went right in Highlander? Well, fortune landed the other way in Highlander II. 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. The studio secured Sean Connery again as the biggest star in the film, but that meant they had to find a way to write the previously-beheaded Ramirez into the script somehow.

So if they’re randomly bringing back previously-dead characters, what about the Kurgan, who brought so much energy into the first film? Well, it turns out that they did try to lure Clancy Brown into the movie…sort of. According to Brown himself,

They were very cagey with me. They sent me the first 20 pages which was like a teaser and then wouldn’t send me the rest. I didn’t see the movie but there was some kind of contest, some kind of game going on, some kind of chase. Connor MacLeod was fighting bad guys and triumphing. Apparently Kurgan was one of those guys and I said, “This doesn’t make and frigging sense at all, and if you don’t give me the rest of it I can’t do it.” They said, “Well, we’re not going to give you the rest of it.” I said, “Okay, then pay me a lot of money and I’ll do it with this nonsense that you just showed me.” They said, “We’re not going to pay you any more money.” I don’t know why I would do this silly thing? I ran into Christopher [Lambert] later and told him. He said, “Why aren’t you doing it?” I said, “Chris, it seems stupid to me. It doesn’t seem like a good idea. They’re not going to pay me so I’m not going to do it.”

Thus, Michael Ironside came in as the new villain. God bless Michael Ironside, but he has a penchant for appearing in very, very bad movies. In this case, it didn’t help that he got stuck playing a lite version of the previous guy.

Meanwhile, the B villain, played by John C. McGinley turned in one of his worst performances ever, trying to make himself sound like Orson Welles. As the normally superb 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. 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.

Burning Through the Goodwill Quickly

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.

In retrospect, I guess these guys should have been a tip-off.

Part of the film’s problem lies in its setting. While Highlander was an urban fantasy, its sequel decided to rip off a Blade Runner aesthetic and take a dive into the dark future. And the cause of this dark future? Our hero Connor MacLeod himself.

At the end of the previous film, Connor won the Prize: the ability to read people’s minds and shape the world as he desires. In Connor’s case, the Prize would presumably be used for good. That’s why it was so imperative to keep it away from the Kurgan, who would have plunged humanity into an era of darkness.

Well, it turns out that it didn’t matter who won the Prize, because Connor’s big contribution to humanity literally causes an age of darkness. In order to prevent mass death due to a depleted ozone layer, Connor borrows from the supervillain handbook and creates 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’s always a bad sign when a sequel has to throw out everything about its predecessor in order to even get started.

Twenty-five years later, Connor is no longer immortal and has basically given up on life. The film then goes into its first flashback, which is a cornerstone of the franchise. But unlike the historical flashbacks that helped to ground the original movie in our world, all the trips down memory lane in Highlander II bring Connor’s mind back to another world entirely…a little planet called Zeist.

The Dread Planet Zeist

 What is Zeist? Why, it’s where the immortals come from, of course.

No, really.

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.

It’s hard to tell if this is a moment of self-realization from Panzer or if it’s him pushing some of the blame onto the fanbase, arguing that the real problem with the film is that they listened too much to fans. Either way, I think it misses a key issue: the problem isn’t so much about the loss of romanticism and mystery as it is that space aliens from the planet Zeist made no sense at all. Nothing in the previous material screamed for the addition of random space aliens.

But 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 immortals come from Zeist doesn’t answer any questions; it only brings up more.

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 an imperfect solution, but t it would have at least explained how the Kurgan knew exactly where to find Connor in the first film. Was the reveal even in the original draft stupid? Yes, absolutely. But at least it had some kind of explanation one that answered more questions than it raised.

Or Was it Time Travel?

If you haven’t seen Highlander II except on DVD, then you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about with all this Zeist stuff. 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 EditionHighlander 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.

But a distant past that still had a spaceship.

Yeah…they replaced the space aliens explanation with time travel. But that makes even less 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 time travel into this mess?

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 One Big Lie

As mentioned earlier, the flashbacks to that planet are the only flashbacks in this movie. That means that there is nothing familiar in this film. Despite its fantastical premise, Highlander was grounded in our reality. It was a story told with immortals, but it was really a story about us as mortals. The flashbacks made Connor and the other immortals part of our history. 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.

The difference even shows through in their battle stances.

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. The first Highlander film presented a conflict between the romantic and the crude, the loving and the callous. The sequel tries to replicate that by having General Katana act akin to the Kurgan, but never gives us any real grounding or relationship for Connor. The thirty seconds of flirting between Connor and Louise before they have sex doesn’t count.

With no grounding, Highlander II lacks a way to make the audience care about the 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 what I consider to be an important 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 all came from that 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.

The startling thing is that all of these problems become apparent only fifteen minutes in. The more the film runs, the more issues arise. But this rant has already gone on long enough for now, so we’ll have to cover the other problems with Highlander II next time.

Images: Davis/Panzer Productions

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