A Kind of Magic #3: Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)

One of the reasons I started this site is because I wanted to champion stuff that our culture at large dismisses. A big part of that involves taking a deeper look at "bad" movies and conveying the things that I enjoy about them. You can usually see the humanity and enthusiasm of the people who made them under the cheesy effects and crappy scripts. With that being said, Highlander II: The Quickening is one of the worst movies I've ever seen, made without any love or care at all.

Highlander II was made for all the wrong reasons. The first movie wasn't much of a financial success, existing mostly as a cult film that earned its reputation overseas and on home video. But it looks like after a few years had passed, the producers guessed that there was enough of an audience that a sequel could be profitable, and that seems to be the ONLY reason this thing was made. The story from the original 1986 film had been tied up in a neat little bow by the end, which meant that any future storytelling would go directly against everything that had been previously established. You can watch Highlander 2 and see how the producers shrugged and did it anyway. 

Nothing about Highlander II is good. I don't want to get too deep into the story itself because that way lies madness, but I do have to at least hit the high notes to point out how messed up it is. The movie takes place in a future where the ozone layer has been depleted and a giant force field--a shield--has been erected above Earth. The consequence of this is that the sun's light is absent from this world and an entire generation has grown up without ever knowing life outside of the shield. There's no nature, no beauty, just ugly concrete and darkness (like this movie itself). Meanwhile, Connor MacLeod, the winner of The Prize from the first movie, has grown old. When he's attacked by immortals who basically teleport in, he gets a Quickening and is suddenly young again. PLUS Ramirez, the character played by Sean Connery in the first movie who also DIED in that movie, is somehow resurrected.
None of this makes any sense. What also doesn't make sense is that the geniuses behind this movie thought it would be wise to give us an origin for the immortals of Highlander, revealing that they come from a planet called Zeist. They were rebels and outlaws on Zeist, and have been beamed to Earth where they must fight each other as some sort of penance for their rebellion. In later re-cuts and special editions by the director and the producers, all references to Zeist have been removed, with the rebellion set in the Earth's distant past. I guess this is a past with space ships and advance technology? Oh, and TIME TRAVEL capability? This isn't Star Wars and these hard sci-fi concepts are a slap in the face to the romantic historical fantasy from the first film. There's another, similar movie from 1991 that saw characters from the past traveling to the future to very different results. It's called Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, and it's so much more watchable than Highlander 2.

The movie was shot in Argentina at a time when that nation's economy was in free fall. The shooting itself didn't go well. Production costs soared. Actors were injured. A crew member fell of a crane during photography and died. An assistant director sued Sean Connery for sexual harassment. Christopher Lambert lost all of his money to investment scams by local con artists. Mulcahy tried to have his name taken off of the movie (which would have given it an "Alan Smithee" credit), but was told that if he did so, he would be sued. If you listen to pretty much everyone involved talk about the movie, from director to producer to star, they all point out that the movie's financiers ultimately pulled the plug during shooting, shutting down production, which they say ruined the movie.
The bottom line is that, while the financiers did pull the plug, NOTHING that was either scripted nor filmed was any good to begin with. This was not a masterpiece that was messed up in the editing process by financiers who didn't care anything about the original movie. No, this was a project that was doomed from the start by creators who didn't care anything about the original movie. Even without the Zeist crap, the script sucks. Whether the origin of the conflict began on another planet or in Earth's distant past makes no difference. It's completely disloyal to the world that had already been built. Setting the film in a future straight out of Blade Runner is another huge mistake. What's appealing about these characters is that they exist in HISTORY and battle NOW, not in a future that we can't relate to. Furthermore, bringing back Sean Connery makes no sense. His character was dead, and no Quickening from the previous movie had brought him back. We're just supposed to buy that an immortal can return from the dead after, what, about 450 years? A kind of magic? More like a kind of hot garbage.

Michael Ironside (Turbo Kid), an actor who doesn't give a dook and who plays the big heavy General Katana in this movie (clever name, guys; I see what you did there) has been pretty blunt in recent years about how everyone involved in this movie was in it for the money and they all knew that the script was awful. It was a paycheck film. They tried to get Clancy Brown to return in a cameo that would reprise his role from the first movie, but he turned them down. I presume he then told disconnected his phone and changed his address. Christopher Lambert was so unhappy with the way things were going that he threatened to walk out during the production, but was convinced (read: threatened by his signed contract) to stay.
Again, everyone involved in this thing tries to pass the buck on to someone else, but they're all responsible. There's a documentary feature on the special edition (or the "Renegade Version," I can't recall) where producer Bill Panzer lays blame at the money men, but guess who was one of the people of came up with the whole Zeist thing in the first place? Yep. Here's an observation from yours truly: entertainment producers are almost always creatively bankrupt. They are rarely artistically or creatively motivated, so they don't understand the boundaries of good taste or restraint. More often than not, producers are the money guys who help things get made but have very few ideas about actually making things. Producers chase trends. For instance, there's a hover board action sequence in Highlander II because Back to the Future II had come out shortly before this movie and hover boards were cool. When producers get caught up in storytelling direction, watch out. It's worth nothing that Highlander: The Series didn't really get good until David Abramowitz  basically took the reigns from Bill Panzer.

There are usually good things to be found in even the most flawed production, but I can't think of anything good to say about Highlander II. The plot makes no sense, even based on the original script that the filmmakers claim was ripped out from under them. The setting is ludicrous for this movie series. The immortals of the first film have been replaced with cartoon characters from the past (or from another planet). The action scenes are ostentatious and straight out of a Three Stooges short. The idea of living forever being something that's bittersweet gets short shrift. Christopher Lambert is wooden, in old age makeup and out of it. Sean Connery is phoning it in for his $3.5 million paycheck (for nine days of work!). The lead actress, Virginia Madsen (Candyman), gets assaulted by our hero against a wall. John C. McGinley (Scrubs) is doing an Orson Wells impersonation, poorly. Michael Ironside couldn't be more over the top. Okay, you know what? I found something good, and it's Michael Ironside. Though he's no stranger to bad movies (he's on a first name basis with them), he's usually the reason to watch them. I suppose that's doubly true here, since he, by his own admission, is seeing how over-the-top he can go. It's hard not to like Michael Ironside. He has IRONSIDE in his NAME.
The bottom line is that this is a pretty deep low for a franchise that has quite a few deep lows. As bad as the final film in the series, Highlander: The Source, actually is (and it's really, really bad), it at least tries to flesh out the mythology as it had been built over the years. Highlander II did not, and bombed so badly that even home video couldn't save it. In the years between the original theatrical and VHS release of this movie and the revisionist cuts of the later 1990s and 2000s, even the most devoted Highlander fan turned their back on this movie. The repeated attempts to legitimize it with alternate cuts have also failed, and it remains a cautionary tale of what can happen when producers have no organic or compelling reason to make the movie they create. There's literally NOTHING of substance in this movie. There are no ideas that make you think anyone cared. There are no performances delivered with care or skill. It's not watchable in a corny way. In fact, it's not fun at all; it's a long and tedious chore of a film. As a result, this movie nearly killed the Highlander franchise. It would take the TV series in 1992 to finally begin washing the bad taste out of people's mouths. In order to do this, they had to completely ignore anything and everything that happened in this movie and go back to the original concept. We're probably all better off because of it.

In the next column, we'll dive head-first (ha ha) into the pilot of the series itself and take a look at what does and doesn't work. Until then, don't lose your head.


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