Last time, I covered what went wrong before Highlander II: The Quickening was released and some of the issues that the opening of the film suffers. But there’s enough wrong here to warrant two entries. So…what other problems does Highlander II have?
Cyberpunk in My Highlander
Highlander II came out in 1991, when the cyberpunk aesthetic of a dark and gritty near future was chic. In some ways, this works. After all, the original Highlander had its cinematic roots in rock music videos, which a lot of shots borrowing from that style. So there is a certain appeal to the mash-up of medieval fantasy and modern pop culture…just as long as the costumes and character designs aren’t too ridiculously stupid.
Of course, this entry in the saga is completely lacking in any of the medieval fantasy half of that equation. While the original included sizeable flashbacks to the past, including a massive battle in the Scottish highlands, a drunken duel during the American Revolution, and (in a deleted but later restored scene) Connor MacLeod fighting Nazis during World War II, the little trip to Zeist marks the only real flashback that this film has.
The film really leans into the cyberpunk aesthetic, sacrificing any semblance of plot of sense in an attempt to cash in on that trend. This leaves gaping holes in the story, such as the fact that the enemy, General Katana, has a plan that makes absolutely no sense.
To review, Connor was exiled to Earth with the option of returning to Zeist once he gained the Prize. He chose to forego that reward in exchange to live a mortal life on Earth (and ruin most life on the planet…way to go, hero). By not returning to Zeist, he gives Katana full control of that planet. So, by the start of this movie, the General has already won. And yet, for some reason, he sends minions to Earth to kill old man Connor…despite the fact that the one thing that can give him immortality again is sending more immortals (Zeistians?) to Earth.
This is a plan that is so dumb that its stupidity gets brought up multiple times in the film. One of Katana’s own minions points out that Connor is no longer a threat and gets smacked for his efforts. After he has been restored to youth and power, Connor makes sure to point out that he was going to die a bitter old shell before Katana interfered.
Now, a film where a character’s flaw pushes the plot forward is just fine. However, just mentioning the gap in logic means nothing if it isn’t recognized and brought to a satisfying conclusion. As it is, the script reads as though some writer realized how thin the plot was and had the characters recognize that in an attempt to save face, rather than writing something that made sense.
But hey…at least the filmmakers used these developments as an excuse to have a hoverboard fight and the first quickening of the new film. After Connor kills one of his would-be assassins, the quickening gives him his youth and vitality back. He demonstrates that vitality by immediately shagging Louise, the nosy reporter who has been following him around and trying to kickstart the plot. And that clumsy pairing of characters leads us to another major reason why the sequel falls so much flatter than the original.
The Love Story that Isn’t
As much as the original Highlander was about cheesy fun, sparking swords, and Queen music, it did have a serious theme at its core. This theme is nicely summed up by a song on its soundtrack: “Who Wants to Live Forever?”
Immortality is portrayed as a curse in the original film. And the bring that notion into relief, the movie gave us not one but two love stories. In the first, we witnessed immortal Connor live an entire life with Heather, watching her grow old and ultimately die. This becomes the cornerstone of Connor’s story. He continues to light a candle for Heather on her birthday every year, for example. He also emotionally isolates himself from others, not wanting to go through the pain of loss again.
The second romance, Brenda, represents Connor’s move past that loss. Initially introduced as a threat to him because her investigation uncovers Connor’s nature, she comes to understand his pain at the same time that he finds himself falling in love with her. Connor and Brenda finally coming together represents Connor opening himself up again to the pleasures of life–though not without hiccoughs, as Connor attempts to part ways with her after they consummate their relationship.
Notably, the biggest win for Connor when he gets the Prize is that he gets to live a mortal life. He doesn’t want to live forever, and his opportunity to grow old with Brenda as he never could with Heather is his greatest reward.
The first Highlander film had heart, while the second devotes itself too much to basic action movie formula. Louise has no real chemistry with Connor, speaking to him a grand total of one time before sleeping with him. Brenda gets shoved out of the film entirely, and Connor never mentions or lingers on her absence beyond the cut (and later restored) scene where she dies. The romance in this film is only there because action movies usually have sex scenes in them, so they threw one in. Louise has far less connection to Connor and the plot than, say, Ramirez.
Oh yeah…about Ramirez…
A Stupid Kind of Magic
“It’s a kind of magic” is not only the title of an excellent Queen song recorded for Highlander, but is also a line used by Connor to explain to a terrified young girl how he can still be alive after getting gunned down by Nazis. The “magic” in the first movie is immortality; that’s the film’s one big lie. In the sequel, the “magic” is…anything that bails the writers out of a conundrum.
In Highlander II, Ramirez comes back not in flashback, but because he and Connor went through some ill-defined bonding ceremony on Zeist. This bond allows them to be rejoined as long as Connor calls his name…which he does just prior to becoming immortal again.
The film gives no explanation as to why just saying Ramirez’s name resurrects him, or why it never happened before. It’s been 400+ years since Ramirez’s death, has Connor really never said his name? I know he said the words, “Ramirez didn’t cut you deeply enough” to the Kurgan in the original, but that’s in Christopher Lambert’s signature rasp. Was it a volume issue? Maybe he had to really bellow it so Ramirez could hear him all the way in the afterlife.
Similarly, Ramirez dies later in the movie by expending all of his lifeforce in another ill-defined burst of magic. The biggest problem with all of this isn’t even that the movie never provides a real explanation, but that it never takes any of the magic seriously. It’s never rooted into the story as part of the world or planted early on for payoff later; it’s just pulled out to resolve a scene or make a joke and then never mentioned again.
The European edit of the film takes things one step further, with what has been dubbed the “Fairytale Ending:”
Here we see Connor inexplicably transform into some sort of space ghost and fly off to Zeist with Louise. How and why? We don’t know. Connor brushes it off by saying, “It’s a kind of magic,” thus calling back to a much better film and a song that doesn’t deserve to be sullied by being mentioned in this movie. I actually think this is the ideal ending for Highlander II, because it embodies the film: rushed, nonsensical, and uncaring.
Anything that could be an emotional touchstone in this film gets glossed over in favor of rushing to the next scene. Connor and Louise hook up, rush to a scene where he talks about Zeist. Ramirez and Connor reunite after centuries apart, cut to them joking around like it’s only been a few weeks. Ramirez dies again, no time to stop it’s time for the climactic battle. The movie never takes the time to find an identity, nor does it show any regard for character or consistency. If the filmmakers cared so little about it, why should the audience get on board?
A Painfully Derivative Movie
Good or bad, Highlander was at least unique. Its sequel, by comparison, is painfully derivative. More than that, it’s derivative of multiple things at the same time. It tries to be a Blade Runner knockoff. It tries to be a parable about global warming (with the apparent lesson being that the Earth will fix itself, so we don’t really need to do anything). It throws in a “fish out of water” scenario with Ramirez, but only for the sake of a joke or two before tossing that entirely.
Surprisingly, Highlander II borrows very little from its predecessor. The sole exceptions seem to be the concept of immortality, the need for swordfights, and one bizarre tendency that almost all Highlander sequels follow of having the villain kill a bunch of people by driving a vehicle super recklessly.
This is the Kurgan tormenting Brenda in Highlander:
And this is Katana’s arrival on Earth in Highlander II:
Of course, in the first film this was a buildup to Connor’s climactic battle with the Kurgan, and the villain was tormenting Brenda as a way to get at our hero. In this one, it’s done just to show how bad Katana is, I guess…as though being an evil alien warlord didn’t prove that already. But that (and the bizarre Wizard of Oz reference that Katana makes…does Zeist get cable?) is typical of a film that has no point to make but a checklist of derivative scenes to run through.
Roger Ebert summed up Highlander II nicely with these lines:
Highlander II: The Quickening is the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I’ve seen in many a long day – a movie almost awesome in its badness. Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come, this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre.
Say what you will about Roget Ebert, but the man had a prophetic moment right there. It is thirty years since this movie was released, and it is still the example of a shitty sequel. No matter how bad other sequels are, people take comfort in the knowledge that it is not Highlander II.
For some reason though, Highlander II didn’t manage to kill this franchise. Attribute it to the power of the first film, which somehow kept fans interested even after this cinematic equivalent of someone pouring chum in your eyes and ears. There was still much to come for Highlander. Some of it was good, some was bad, and yes, one was even worse than this film, but all of it thankfully ignored the mess that is Highlander II.
Images: Davis/Panzer Productions