Saturday, June 09, 2007

There Can Be Only...II?

At least three different versions of 1991's HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING exist. I suspect that all of them suck, though this review is based on the original U.S. theatrical version, which also was released on videocassette. It’s practically a lost film today, as the VHS tape is out of print, and it’s unlikely to receive a DVD release (though you never know). The current DVD is of director Russell Mulcahy's "Director's Cut."

I saw HIGHLANDER II at Country Fair Theaters (or perhaps it was Wehrenberg by 1991), and it was terrible. Sixteen years later, this ridiculous sequel remains stupefyingly bad, starting from a senseless premise and following it through to its anticlimactic end. Most shocking, it completely contradicts much of what was previously established in the first film, where Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) defeated the last of his people in combat to become the last Highlander (“There can be only one,” remember?) and lose his immortality. HIGHLANDER II strangely posits that there are more Highlanders after all, and they come, not from medieval Scotland, but outer space! The planet Zeist, to be exact, where MacLeod and his mentor Ramirez (a slumming Sean Connery) are revealed as rebels whose attack against evil leader Katana (Michael Ironside) failed. Instead of executing them, the two are transported to Earth where they will never die. Somehow, this is considered to be a great punishment. When only one of them remains, he can choose either to return to Zeist or stay on Earth and grow old. MacLeod vows to return to Zeist, though he never does.

In 1999, the ozone layer has been depleted, and MacLeod and his friend Alan Heyman (Allan Rich) create the December Installation: a shield that completely covers the Earth and protects it from solar radiation that has killed millions of people. Unfortunately, it also shuts out sunlight, clouds, rain and the stars. By 2024, the world is dark and gloomy, though The Shield Corporation, which owns the shield, is highly profitable under the watchful corporate eye of CFO Blake (John C. McGinley, now on SCRUBS).

Meanwhile, Katana, 500 years after MacLeod’s exile, for some reason decides to send two idiot assassins to Earth to take out his old enemy, who’s aged into an elderly man and would seem to pose no threat to anyone, much less somebody on a distant planet. By the way, it isn’t established why Katana remains alive five centuries later. If the inhabitants of Zeist are immortal, why would sentencing MacLeod and Ramirez to a life of immortality be such a harsh punishment? MacLeod kills the assassins (in what is probably the movie’s best action scene), regains his youth (which occurred when the killers arrived from Zeist), and teams up with environmental terrorist Louise (SIDEWAYS costar Virginia Madsen) to defeat Katana (who has also come to Earth) and break up the Shield Corporation.

Filmed on the cheap in Argentina (though Connery allegedly made over $3 million for less than two weeks work), HIGHLANDER II occasionally showcases some very large sets, though often dark, bare ones influenced by BATMAN or maybe BLADE RUNNER. MacLeod’s fight with the flying assassins appears to have been shot indoors or perhaps a backlot, and even though it doesn’t look anything like New York City, it does give the setpiece an otherworldly feel. The clumsy editing produces several glaring continuity errors, such as the Zeist-born Katana knowing all about THE WIZARD OF OZ (!) and both Katana and MacLeod changing swords and clothes during their final battle. The occasional comic lines fall flat, as do the awful power ballads sprinkled throughout. Only Connery delivers a decent performance, and he’s barely trying. Lambert is wooden, Ironside is ridiculously broad, and Madsen barely resonates (barely has a character, really), though screenwriter Peter Bellwood deserves his share of blame.

HIGHLANDER II was reportedly butchered by the financiers before its U.S. release, which director Mulcahy disowned. The cut released in Europe was slightly different, and a more recent “Director’s Cut” substantially so, removing all references to Zeist and adding nearly twenty minutes of previously unseen footage. It's very likely that those of you who have seen this movie are unaware that the Zeist subplot ever existed, since there doesn't appear to be any way to see it today. Hopefully, you're curious to! HIGHLANDER II is one of the dumbest sequels ever made, though it isn’t at all boring. On the contrary, it’s an often fascinating example of inept moviemaking, and it does contain much to laugh at, including some woeful visual effects. Even Stewart Copeland’s score is bad.

Somehow, this movie didn’t bring the HIGHLANDER franchise to a screaming halt. Two more films followed (as well as a third so-far-unreleased sequel), as well as two television series, comic books, action figures and much more. HIGHLANDER remains alive and well more than twenty years after the first film. If HIGHLANDER II couldn’t kill it, then the franchise may prove to be as immortal as its characters.

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