Upon first glance, it’s easy to see why Highlander became such a cult phenomenon that spawned three theatrical sequels, a live-action TV series, and an animated TV series. The film’s mythology about a race of immortals, sword fighting to the death until “there can only be one” is an intriguing premise, and the film’s visual style and soundtrack by rock legends Queen should equal a rollicking good time, or at least a guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, unlike the film’s heroes and villains, Highlander has not aged gracefully over the years, and the film’s sequel, Highlander 2: The Quickening, lives up to its reputation as being incoherent and overall pretty awful, no matter what director’s cut of the film you happen to watch.
With that said, there are still some things to like about the original movie. First off, director Russell Mulcahy has a fun visual style that lends itself well to this type of fantasy film-making. The film’s Scottish landscapes are stunning and have a great touch of authenticity to them, and a lot of his urban work in the movie’s modern sections has an edgy sensibility that actually reminded me of The Terminator at times. These sequences in modern day (for 1985) New York show a city riddled with urban decay, with machine gun wielding vigilantes driving the streets and sleazy motels full of trashy hookers. It’s in this type of environment where you could believe that heroes and villains could battle to the death almost unnoticed.
Also, thematically the picture is rich with possibilities and ideas, especially when focusing on the journey through time of our immortal hero Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert). These are actually some of the strongest portions of the film, showing MacLeod watching loved ones die over time and basically wandering through humanity’s history over the centuries. It’s these flashbacks that give the film its mythic weight, and could have the improved the movie even more if these ideas could have been expanded. If more of the picture could be like the movie’s most entertaining sequence, a comedic duel in which Connor must face off against a foppish French lord, the movie could be a bonafide cult classic instead of just being a middling oddity.
The movie would just play better overall with more humor and introspection, but the film’s entertainment value only comes in fits and starts, and many times a good scene will be squandered with something overtly silly or over the top acting. For instance, the opening sequence has a rather impressive crane shot that flies through the air during an old-school AWA wrestling event at Madison Square Garden, ending with a close-up on our leading man. During the ruckus he sneaks off the parking lot where another swordsman is waiting, and the two duke it out.
Now while the sequence and choreography start out ok (especially be ‘80s standards), Russell Mulcahy seems to let the sequence and his style get away from him. His awareness of the space being used is off and the character’s reactions aren’t always carried to their logical conclusions. Sure, the camerawork here is nice, but when a bad guy tosses MacLeod’s sword under a car and then our hero goes to get it, the villain shouldn’t be wandering around looking for Macleod because he’s the one who tossed the sword over thereto being with and should know where his opponent is going. Then this Director’s Cut inserts random shots of the bad guy doing back flips, which may have looked cool at the time, but now just makes the sequence seem inane. This may sound like nitpicking, but this is the opening fight scene of the movie, which is supposed to draw you into this story and keep you interested, but instead just makes you roll your eyes
right off the bat.
To make matters worse, in hindsight maybe it wasn’t a good idea to base your whole franchise around a Frenchman who is supposed to be a Scottish warrior. I know this was the ‘80s and our biggest American hero at the time was actually an Austrian, but Lambert’s accent seems to steal any credibility from the actor when he’s wearing a kilt, and his screen charisma just isn’t enough to carry the rest of the movie. Sure, Clancy Brown and Sean Connery are both having fun in the movie’s heavy and mentor roles, respectively, but even those two are playing for the cheapseats most of the movie, leaving the audience without a grounded main character to hold on to.
What we’re left with isn’t a terrible movie, but it doesn’t feel like it’s fully cooked either, and definitely doesn’t feel like the jumping off point for a franchise that has lasted two more decades. Even more amazing is that the franchise wasn’t killed off after Highlander 2: The Quickening, shown here in the Renegade Cut, which was not fully finished until 2004. Footage is edited tighter, alternate shots were used in some scenes, and digital effects even help the experience, but the end result is still a very big mess of a movie.
Now, I can say I do appreciate the kind of reckless abandon with which returning director Mulcahy makes this movie, at least at the movie’s outset. Taking place decades in the future, Connor MacLeod has saved the Earth from solar radiation emanating from the hole in the ozone layer by creating an electromagnetic shield that encompasses the planet. The look of this future world is the sort of post-Blade Runner-Brazil production design that could only come from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, and for this picture it does a decent job of creating mood. There’s a dingy weight to the picture’s urban environments, especially during the movie’s showcase action scene with MacLeod fighting off two flying villains with hover-boards.
Unfortunately, nothing else in the movie really works at all. First up, the film makers decided to expand the mythology, but end up undercutting everything that was kind of loved about the first film. No longer is the Highlander and his race of immortals born on Earth, but instead they’re revealed as aliens from the planet Zeist who have been banished here until they kill each other off, the lone survivor allowed to return to his home planet or live out the rest of his days on Earth if he chooses.
Does this sound convoluted? It is.
To make things worse, rules set down in the first film are summarily done away with or made unnecessary, characters killed off in the first film come back for no reason, and the movie sort of meanders around from fight to fight, with set pieces standing in for story to keep you interested while the actual plot of the film remains a bit of a mystery. This actually gets worse and worse as the movie goes along, because the individual sequences that have a lot of energy at first either get too ridiculous in a bad way or too expository for their own good. Even though it looks like the principles are having fun here, there’s no actual human emotion being portrayed onscreen at anytime, other than a sort of hyper-speed acting that makes it seem like the actors could keel over from a caffeine overdose at any moment.
While the original Highlander simply suffers from not aging gracefully, Highlander 2 is and has always been terrible. This Renegade Cut is perhaps less terrible than the original theatrical experience, but in any form the movie is pretty far from being considered good. While each film here has its few merits, the negatives start to really pile up as you break the pictures down, and there’s just no getting around just how miscast Lambert is as the lead in these movies. Perhaps one of the various TV series may have solved a lot of the problems that pop up in these entries, and might even hold a real reason to follow the Highlander mythos after all, but unfortunately these first two films are little more than wasted potential.
It’s amazing how Blu-ray is able to give new life to some older films, making it seem as if they were made yesterday. This is not the case with either of these movies, and while there are times the format makes these pictures look crisp in a way they never have before, each film is wildly inconsistent, especially the second one. The first film suffers from this less, but even in the movie’s first few minutes we go from a gorgeous transfer of the opening crane shot to a washed out look at the next scene’s parking lot environment. The second film has alternate footage interspersed into the movie, and the takes are really rough looking/barely DVD quality, much less Hi-Def, making the disparity is even worse.
Perhaps the audio quality on these discs is enough of an upgrade for fans, but with the video quality being so unpredictable, the experience is actually quite distracting.
Commentary Track – There’s nothing really wrong with director Russell Mulcahy’s track on the first movie, other than some spaces where he goes silent. Other than that the track is good at conveying what his experience was like making the film.
Deleted scenes – There’s six minutes of unused footage here, but none of it has any sound.
Highlander 2 Extras
Seduced in Argentina – Just shy of an hour, this is probably the best account of the making of this movie and the various reasons for its failure. This is a prime example of a runaway production, with the movie going way over budget and the film’s insurance company eventually taking control of the project. With plenty of interviews and behind the scenes looks, this is the best feature on either disc.
The Redemption of Highlander 2 – Want to know how the 2004 Special Edition came to be and what differences it entails? This is where you find out.
The Music of Highlander 2 – In the tradition of having Queen write the soundtrack for the first film, composer Stewart Copeland of The Police wrote Highlander 2’s score, which may actually be one of the best facets of the movie.
The Fabric of Highlander 2 – This 10 minute featurette looks at the work of costume designer Deborah Everton and the bizarre garments for the film.
Shadow and Darkness – DP Phil Meheux is featured in this piece, which looks at the movie’s cinematography, which is often moody and done well taken by itself.
Deleted Scenes – Just under six minutes, this is rough footage that never made it in.
Original Cannes Film Festival Promotional Reel – It’s almost better to simply watch this promo, which makes the movie look way cooler than it actually is.
I know that there is a strongHighlander contingent, but based on these two movies I can’t imagine a series that could really deserve its following less than Highlander. On top of that, the prints on these two movies are quite suspect, though the second movie’s BD is packed with features.
Lionsgate presents Highlander 2-Film Set Anniversary Collection . Directed by: Russell Mulcahy. Starring: Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery. Written by: Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, and Larry Ferguson. Running time: 225 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: February 1, 2011.
Tags: Christopher Lambert, Highlander, Sean Connery