Highlander Film Series Retrospective

So let’s take a look back at all 5 Highlander films…well 2 in this article…

Yep you heard me right there are 5 Highlander films and a TV series which I’m not covering in this video/article because I gotta sleep at some point. 

I just rewatched all 5 films over the last few days and I’m convinced that after number 1 the others only exist as some form of complex decades long Hollywood based money laundering scheme. They get really bad real quick! 

The first film has a definitive ending, they all lost money at the box office and none of them were well received critically on release in the US so just how the hell did we go on to get 5 movies in this franchise, one of which is legitimately in contention for being one of the worst direct sequels ever made, let’s start at the very beginning…

Highlander

Highlander is a 1986 British Fantasy adventure directed by Russell Mulcahy who also directed the Shadow which I reviewed only 2 or 3 weeks ago.

The genesis for the film came about whilst the writer Gregory Widen was a student at UCLA doing an undergrad writing assignment for his screenwriting class. He based his initial draft on Ridley Scott’s the Duellists, with Widen saying of the inspiration:

“The idea of the story was basically a combination of a riff on The Duellists  –  guy wants to finish a duel over years – and a visit I made both to Scotland and the Tower of London armour display, where I thought, ‘What if you owned all this? What if you’d worn it all through history and were giving someone a tour of your life through it?’ That scene is basically in the movie.”

After reading his assignment his tutor suggested he send it to an agent, Widen subsequently sold what was to become the first draft of the Highlander for $200,000.

I  bet we wish we could all sell our homework for 200 grand…

The initial draft of the script differed hugely from the one we got on screen, being more dark and violent. With MacLeod being more brooding and tortured by the years of violence he has witnessed and there being no final gathering and prize the immortals are fighting over, the film being a singular battle in a much wider war between the immortals.

On release the movie was a financial failure only gaining back $12.9 million on a budget of $19 million. 

Being a success in the UK and Europe both commercially and critically but failing on both fronts in the US.

It holds a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus being that: 

“People hate Highlander because it’s cheesy, bombastic, and absurd. And people love it for the same reasons.”

I’ve seen Highlander on numerous occasions yet going into this I had only a few definitive memories in my mind of it. The line “There can be only one”, the fact Sean Connery is a Scottish person playing a Spaniard and Christopher Lambert is a Frenchman playing a Scottish person pretending to be an American for most of the film…and the amazing fight scenes where people get their heads chopped off.

So I was really shocked when the film opens with an epic 10 minute sword fight where like 50 cars explode. A guy gets his head chopped off and we see the quickening all in the opening 10 minutes. 

I would have sworn the film opened with Connor McLeod dying at the clan battle, coming back to life and then Ramirez training him, Kurgan then killing Ramirez who I thought was in way more of this than he actually is too. 

He’s in 4 scenes max, with the death of Ramirez then introducing us to the quickening. Before we time jumped forward to New York and the gathering where we got a bunch more sword fights between Connor and Kurgan and various other immortals. In other words I remembered this film being in chronological order.

But no! That’s the first thing that jumped out at me about the Highlander on this rewatch. The plot is all over the place, pace wise and narratively. The opening is an epic sword fight that would be most movies climax and we have no idea who either of these people are, then we are introduced to the main character in a flashback!

The plot carries on in this fashion for its whole runtime jumping between present day and the past, so I can see why I got so confused as to what the plot actually was for this.

Also pace wise it makes this film kind of slow in the middle compared to what maybe we would usually be used to. A modern action film normally opens by introducing the characters, then sprinkling action set pieces throughout the narrative every 15 to 20 minutes or so. 

Highlander opens on a climactic fight scene, has one or two small fights that randomly pop up and then closes on a climactic fight scene. With pretty much the whole of the 2nd act just being narrative setup for who Connor MacLeod is and the battle between the immortals.

That’s not to say it is boring because it is not. It’s actually quite fast paced with the modern era story and then the flashback origin story being interwoven together well even if it kind of leaves large and fairly obvious plot holes sometimes, not that these ever subtract from my enjoyment of this film. 

It’s a fairly unique take on the genre and one that most filmmakers wouldn’t have taken.

The other thing that will jump out straight away is Christopher Lambert is an awful actor! He has no emotional range, he just looks perpetually confused on screen. 

Added to that his accent is all over the place occasionally he sounds mildly Scottish, mildly! But for the vast majority of it he sounds exactly like someone who only just learnt how to speak English and isn’t quite sure how to pronounce any words, never mind in a Scottish accent.

Which is not a surprise because guess what! Lambert got the part after the Director Russell Mulcahy was flipping through a magazine and saw Lambert and thought he looked perfect for the part. 

The Small detail that he didn’t actually speak English didn’t put him off and he actually hired Lambert based purely on his look.  Lambert then spent months having 8 hours of tutoring, 4 hours of English in the morning and 4 hours of swordsmanship in the afternoon to prepare for the part.

The other members of the cast are fantastic though. Connery as the Spaniard Ramirez who is actually a 2,500 year old Egyptian sounds exactly like Sean Connery with zero fucks given about his accent but he is like Sean Connery in most films, really very good. 

But the show stealer is Clancy Brown as the Kurgan. He’s just so deliciously evil throughout and steals every scene he appears in, being both menacing but at the same time also being mild comic relief a little bit like an 80’s Bond villain.

Connery recorded the opening dialogue in his bathroom. That’s why it’s so echoey and the producers just didn’t care because it was good enough and they wanted to save money. 

Which is the other thing that hit me rewatching this, at times this film is stunningly beautiful and looks like real money was spent on it. 

From the stunning vistas of the Scottish Highlands to the rat like neon maze that is New York city. With Mulcahy giving the film a very distinct directorial style borrowed from music videos.

The climactic battle between McLeod and the Kurgan looks exactly like it could be from an 80’s MTV video with the protagonist and antagonist silhouetted against a vast candy coloured warehouse window. It looks pretty stunning.

And at other times it looks so, so cheap. Like in this scene here…it is so obvious that Clancy Brown is wearing a makeup scar on his neck and a skull cap to cover his real hair. My brain is screaming at me as I watch, “could they not afford a makeup artist that day or something”!

There aren’t a huge amount of action scenes in Highlander but the ones we do get are quite epic and are clearly where the majority of the film’s budget was spent. Like I said previously the first fight goes on for around 10 minutes and sees about 50 cars explode. A castle falls to pieces in another and the climactic fight sees a rooftop collapse and flood around MacLeod and the Kurgan before they fall through the roof into the MTV music video scene. 

The practical effects used to make all this happen absolutely hold up although the effects for the quickening don’t hold up quite as well.

All while this is going on Queen is pumping above it because yep they did the soundtrack for this film, with some absolute classics such as “Who wants to live forever” and “A kind of magic” being used. I rarely talk about soundtracks because I’m not that musically inclined but I know when a soundtrack adds to the experience of a film and this is one of those times.

So that was the Highlander which I can absolutely see why it has become a cult classic, put aside it’s been a favourite of mine for decades at this point, it has a definite unique directorial style, fast pace, an interesting premise and narrative and some absolutely epic 80’s action scenes all with some of the most baffling casting choices of all time thrown in for good measure!

Even though the first Highlander movie wrapped up it’s self contained story in a very definite tight-bow at the end, 5 years later we got Highlander II: The Quickening which is highly regarded or should that be lowly regarded as one of the worst movies ever made being a rare holder of a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so is it as bad as it’s reputation suggests? Let’s take a look back and see…

Yep, this movie makes one of the cardinal cinema sins in my eyes. It tries to explain the unexplainable.

The original movie had a fairly simple premise. Immortals exist; they fight each other when only a few remain; they will feel some pull to a far off and distant land where they will fight until there is only one left and he will claim the prize…

Now I am not the kind of person who pearl clutches at movies butchering the lore for fictional characters in films, but I do expect them to stay internally logically consistent within themselves. 

So let’s explain exactly why this movie is so logically inconsistent with what came before and even within its own plot…and is an absolute trainwreck of a moving picture.

Text card to open Act 1…we all know I love those…so we are off to a great start!

The year is 2024 and in 1999 the world’s ozone has been so depleted that a shield has been placed over the world to protect it from solar radiation but some suspect that the ozone layer has repaired itself. 

So it’s a near future commentary on what was at the time a present day problem, so far okay I guess, this is Plot A essentially.

We open the actual movie with MacLeod still played by Christopher Lambert as an old man. Which straight away in the opening scene contradicts everything we knew about him from the first film. He was immortal and won the gathering at the end of that film which meant he was essentially immortal forever, he won the prize! He was the only one!

Then we get a flashback to the planet Zeist and Ramirez and MacLeod are rebels leading a rebellion against Captain Katana played by Michael Ironside. They lose the rebellion and are sentenced to being sent into the future on the planet Earth where they will become immortal but must fight all the other criminals that the planet Zeist has sent to Earth until there is only one. Yeah they explain the immortals and they are Aliens, this is plot B.

The last one standing will have a choice to make, either stay on Earth and age and die gracefully or return to the planet Zeist and his crimes will be forgiven.

Now this raises several important questions. How the fuck are Ramirez and MacLeod known as Ramirez and Macleod on an alien planet and Macleod is even known as the Highlander, do they have Scottish Highlands on the planet Zeist!

How when they got to Earth did they not recognise each other as they’d been friends for years on Zeist and why were they born as human babies and had childhoods and forgotten they were alien criminals sentenced to fight to the death in some sort of bizarre battle royale?

All of which becomes even more mind bendingly baffling about 4 scenes later…because all of a sudden Captain Katana decides to send two minions into the future to Earth to kill Macleod.

Even his minions say this when he orders them to do it: (minions this is stupid)

Yes exactly he will die in a few weeks just leave him. What is your motivation here to kill him when he’s so close to actual natural death after he’s been on Earth for over 500 years at this point! There’s no logical in film reason or just any logic to this at all.

So back to the original point here, the porcupine guys appear on Earth as fully grown porcupine guys with future tech. In other words they aren’t reborn as babies from a human mothers womb remembering nothing like MacLeod and Ramirez supposedly were.

Add to that MacLeod obviously kills the two minions in an alright action set piece. They actually legitimately stole the flying skateboard idea straight from Back to the Future by the way. The first guy’s death turns MacLeod back into a young man, which had this porcupine dude just stayed back on the planet Zeist MacLeod would have been dead in two weeks. 

The second quickening ends the first act and directly leads us into the opening of the second act with the most inexplicable part of this plot, because as MacLeod is experiencing the quickening he screams Ramirez’s name and that causes a bolt of lightning to bounce off the atmospheric shield and deflect to Glencoe Scotland, and Ramirez appears…

This is never explained. They even said early in this film if you have your head removed from your neck that’s it you are dead otherwise you are immortal. But apparently nope.

Act 2 is a bit of a drag actually. We see MacLeod start to investigate the shield that circles the Earth which it turns out he built with the help of another guy. Yep, MacLeod, an antiques dealer in the last film, built an atmospheric shield to protect Earth from solar radiation, but at this point thats the least stupid plot beat so far.

As it turns out John C McGinley is the boss of the shield corporation and he is in fact hiding the reality that the shield is now pointless and not needed, which MacLeod’s new girlfriend Louise who is a terrorist hell bent on destroying the shield already suspected.

MacLeod met her as an old man turned into a young guy and screwed her in an alleyway all within 5 minutes of this film! That’s the level we are dealing with.

Captain Katana decides he is the only man that can kill MacLeod so he also transports himself to Earth, where he crash lands through a subway train roof. Takes control of it and drives it at over 700 of whatever this speed is meant to be, because this train is clearly going incredibly slowly and the footage is just sped up, and Yep this is it for action in the second act.

The third act opens with Katana joining forces with the evil corporation because he correctly suspects that MacLeod will attack the shield. Which he does.

Ramirez just as inexplicably as he appeared literally disappears in a flash of light and fire. Equally as unexplained as his actual appearance in this film. 

The actual real life reason he does appear is because Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert had become good friends in real life and Lambert refused to sign up to the project unless Connery was brought back…

What follows is a bunch of fairly poor in comparison to the first film action scenes and sword fights although both Lambert and Ironside were injured filming them, Lambert losing part of a finger and Ironside suffering a chipped tooth, resulting in MacLeod killing Katana, destroying the shield kissing Louise and everyone living happily ever after! 

Yeah, this plot is a hot mess of festering dog shit. Allegedly the plot is such a mess because the movie was shot in Argentina. Part way through the shoot Argentina suffered one of its semi-annual recurring periods of economic chaos and hyper-inflation meaning the investors and completion bond company took control of the film from the director Russell Mulcahey and changed the story.

I’ve covered a lot of films where the studio has interfered but those films have a nugget of quality at the centre of the plot and you can see where the studio ruined it. This plot is irredeemable. It just makes no sense at all in terms of the story that came before but even more importantly within its own narrative. 

Nobody has any logical motivation for the things they are doing throughout and most of the things that do happen are contradictory to things that happened already within the same plot.

The two plots, the evil corporation plot on Earth and the immortals are aliens plot have no reason to exist within the same narrative together and in fact for 2 acts are for all intents and purposes like two films have been randomly cut together when some intern dropped unprocessed film on the cutting room floor, before uncomfortably combining into one in the 3rd act. Convoluted would be an understatement.

Neither has enough narrative oomph to actually exist separately too, there really is nothing to grab hold of plot wise here.

Lambert himself obviously sensed this was a festering turd and tried to get out of the film towards the end of shooting but couldn’t due to contractual reasons. Russell Mulcahy the director actually walked out of the films Premier 15 minutes in!

Even the acting is pretty special and by special I mean awful. At least Christopher Lambert can clearly speak English this time but he’s still got the emotional acting range of a plastic mask. 

Michael Ironside is a fantastic actor but here he isn’t just chewing the scenery he appears to have snorted all of the cocaine in Argentina and is gurning madly throughout with a wild manic energy only the truly drugged or insane can muster.

Even going as far as making his voice as deep as possible to sound like Orson Welles a fact he now deeply regrets.

John C McGinley seems tame in comparison but is himself also chewing every piece of scenery in arms reach. Sean Connery is basically given nothing at all to do except buy a new suit.

That’s not to say this film doesn’t have it’s positive points though. The budget here was an increase on the original being $34.5 million although it only recouped $15.6 million at the box office and that increased budget has been put to great use in parts.

There are some fantastic miniatures, matte paintings, sets and practical effects on show. Russell Mulcaheys distinctive style of direction and cinematography are also very much to the fore giving New York a very Blade Runneresque feel to it, which really does sell the dystopian future they were going for.

So does Highlander II: The Quickening deserve its reputation as one of the worst movies ever made? Yes and no. Yes because obviously the plot is an absolute trainwreck and no because there is enough here admittedly largely rubber necking at the ensuing trainwreck unfolding before your eyes but it’s never boring and I have to admit I kind of have a soft spot for this!

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One thought on “Highlander Film Series Retrospective

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