written by Dan Owen.
Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander didn’t decapitate the competition at the 1986 box office. The action-adventure about immortal warriors embroiled in a lethal knockout tournament, because “there can be only one”, cost $19M to produce but only grossed $12.9M. However, it found an appreciative audience on home video and quickly became a cult favourite, particularly in Europe.
After years of pressure from foreign investors, an unlikely sequel was released in 1991, Highlander II: The Quickening. Unlikely because, of course, the first movie concluded the story of immortal highlander Conor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), after he chopped the head off his final opponent.
There was nowhere left to go with MacLeod’s centuries-old story, if one had any intention of approaching a sequel logically. But greed trumped logic when it came to getting another movie made. Russell Mulcahy returned with a larger budget of $30M, but Highlander II only made slightly more than its predecessor — $15.6M.
Critics eviscerated Highlander II, but even fans were disappointed and frustrated it twisted the established mythology out of shape. If the original was a romantic fantasy with stylised swordplay and a rockin’ Queen soundtrack, the sequel was a dumb sci-fi dystopian thriller without the thrills.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If you don’t take it out and use it, it’s going to rust.” — General Katana.
There are many reasons Highlander II wound up being a ghastly creative mess and box office failure. Christopher Lambert only agreed to reprise his role if Sean Connery (whom he’d bonded with on Highlander), could also return as flamboyant Egyptian mentor Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez. Investors were also keen to get Connery back, if only for the star-power he lent the project. The fact Ramírez died in the previous film was a massive barrier to this happening, but the problem was dumped on the laps of the writers.
Producers Brian Clemens and William N. Panzer set about crafting a story that could somehow involve Ramírez, with Peter Bellwood getting sole credit for the finished screenplay. They opted for an unconvincing retcon where it’s revealed, through flashback, that Ramírez and MacLeod once drank a magic potion to tether themselves together — so not even death could separate them. Got that?
This leads us to the two biggest sins of Highlander II’s insane narrative; the nonsense that MacLeod had forgotten everything before his life in 16th-century Scotland, and the stupid reveal the Immortals are extra-terrestrials from the planet Zeist. The latter was by far the most controversial change.
“The question we were most asked by fans after the first film was, ‘where did the immortals come from?’ It made sense to answer that question in the second film. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the fans didn’t really want to know their (the immortals) origins because then the romanticism and mystery of the story was stripped away.” — William N. Panzer, co-writer/producer.
I don’t think having the Immortals originate from another planet is an inherently bad idea. It’s not mentioned in the movie itself, but early versions of the script apparently explained the Immortals are such because a day on Zeist equals a hundred years on Earth.
For me, the biggest annoyance is how Highlander II awkwardly reunites MacLeod and his “dead” friend Ramírez. Flashbacks to Zeist reveal they were once rebels against a warmongering leader, General Katana (Michael Ironside), but all the new information we’re given about their friendship as rebels doesn’t wash. How did these two men know each other before the events of Highlander, where we saw them meet for the first time?
Connery’s convoluted return isn’t even necessary because Ramírez adds so little to the story. Lambert may have enjoyed partying with the legendary Scottish actor again, this time in Buenos Aires, but Ramírez doesn’t elevate MacLeod’s character in any meaningful way. Their onscreen reunion doesn’t even last long, with Connery pocketing $3M for six day’s work mostly filming comical preludes of Ramírez interrupting a production of Hamlet, going to an upmarket tailors for a “set of clothes”, and flying across the Atlantic on an old-fashioned passenger jet. If Ramírez’s hadn’t been shoehorned into the narrative, the film would be improved because he’s unnecessary baggage. Although perhaps it would have been worse if they’d trumpeted the return of Connery (who had only ever reprised James Bond before this) and reduced him to a few flashbacks.
“Christ almighty, what a disaster.” — Russell Mulcahy, director.
Highlander II: The Quickening was shot in Argentina to save money because the Peso was weak against the US dollar. But according to 2004 documentary Highlander II: Seduced by Argentina, the movie was badly affected by the country’s financial difficulties at the time. The production had been lured overseas by Argentine producer Alejandro Sessa (who promised the use of enormous studio sets for cheap), but it soon became clear the native crew weren’t up to the challenge of working on a movie of this size. The producers shipped in workers from the US and UK to help keep things together, which in the case of the latter caused tension on set because of the lingering animosity between the peoples of Argentina and the UK after the Falklands War in 1983.
And then the value of the Peso plummeted so much the production was headed for financial ruin. To avoid that happening, the insurance company activated a contractual clause — giving them creative control of the project from the producers and director, in an attempt to assemble something that would stand a better chance of making more money.
This is possibly where the idea of making the Immortals aliens came from, or at least where a once-abandoned idea was revived. Maybe it stemmed from a misguided belief adding more sci-fi was the best way to appeal to teens. But could anyone explain why men from outer space have names like MacLeod and Ramírez?
Mulcahy confronted the producers over the nonsensical changes being made so late into shooting, but he didn’t get his way and was locked out of the editing process. He tried to remove his name as credited director, meaning this was close to be being another “Alan Smithee” effort, but to no avail.
However, in a strange legal quirk, the Australian director was allowed to recut the movie for its UK premiere on 12 April 1991, thanks to Nigel Green of Entertainment Productions granting him this privilege. This meant the UK theatrical cut of Highlander II was 8-minutes longer and followed the original script more faithfully. Months later, on 1 November, Mulcahy walked out of the US premiere after 15-minutes because the opening presented the Immortals as beings from another world.
“Nicely played, MacLeod, but the game’s not over yet.” — General Katana.
Only after Highlander II became a box office flop did Mulcahy get a chance to reinstate more of his original vision, by correcting some mistakes and undoing some changes. He negotiated the rights to the movie, raised money to shoot extra scenes, improved the visual effects, re-coloured the picture, re-edited the footage, and put together an 18-minute longer ‘Renegade Version’ released on VHS in 1995. Most notably, all mention of aliens and the planet Zeist were gone, requiring new dialogue in the council chamber that spoke of “the future” not “Earth”.
But even with many unpopular developments erased, other problems arise from the Mulcahy’s preferred backstory with the Immortals being an ancient human society. I mean, why are there derelict spaceships in the distant past? How do they have advanced technology capable of sending people through time into the future? Why does time travelling turn people immortal and cause them to lose their memories? And if it’s indeed a form of punishment to be thrown forward in time to compete for ‘The Prize’ as an Immortal, surely there are better ways to punish criminals? Granting them immortality away from their harsh desert home feels like a reward!
The alien explanation was certainly a preposterous slap in the face for the fans, but only because it was never baked into the original concept. The ancient civilisation origins doesn’t make sense because of the anachronistic technology being used… but the alien backstory doesn’t far much better because it’s incompatible with the established myth. It’s a no-win situation. Put simply: a desire to explain the Immortals backfired and should have been avoided.
“Enough of this useless banter, I will be on my way and leave you to converse with your skull. Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.” — Ramírez.
To be fair to Highlander II, the storyline shows glimmers of promise in the first act, where it’s at its most entertaining. If one ignores those controversial flashbacks, of course! It’s certainly an unexpected way to continue the Highlander story, jumping to the year 2024. And I like how the opening mirrors the first movie’s beginning, with MacLeod again having his memories stirred as a spectator in a crowd. Last time, it was a 1985 boxing match at Madison Square Garden that triggered flashbacks to his time in 16th-century Scotland… and now it’s a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung that reminds MacLeod of his true origin (either as an alien or ancient human, depending on what version of the movie you see).
MacLeod, having won ‘The Prize’ 40 years ago, hasn’t been immortal during that time and has aged into a frail old man. If you had a tough time understanding Lambert’s peculiar accent last time, good luck now he’s adding a croaking rasp to portray his advanced years.
MacLeod’s also become famous (or infamous?) for helping create an artificial electromagnetic shield that covers the Earth, protecting the planet from solar radiation as the ozone layer disappeared. (The possible loss of the ozone layer was an emerging hot topic in the late-1980s, as I recall.) The unassuming highlander became mankind’s saviour in 1999 when The Shield was first activated, but his invention led to 25 years of an electrical mesh hanging permanently overhead and blocking out the skies and stars. People should be thanking MacLeod for saving them from terminal skin cancer and death, but instead everyone’s become bitter about the terrible view and like to pick fights with him in bars about it. Perspective, people!
In another poorly explained development, General Katana, despotic ruler of the planet/city that MacLeod and Ramírez were exiled from centuries ago, suddenly decides he doesn’t want MacLeod to return home, so dispatches two assassins called Reno and Corda to slay the old codger. Quite how MacLeod was going to return home isn’t explained, but he’s clearly opted to grow old and die of natural causes anyway. He won the Prize way back in ’85, guys, I think we know what decision he made!
Reno and Corda themselves mention the illogic of Katana refusing to just wait for MacLeod to die of old age, as he’s been waiting patiently for decades already… but Katana just wants what he wants, now. So try not to think about it, audience.
Of course, it’s a huge mistake on Katana’s part. When his two henchmen arrive to kill MacLeod, they’re still no match for their prey thanks to a combination of his good luck and combat muscle memory. And once the two shrieking goons are flukily dispatched, MacLeod absorbs their immortal energy (“the quickening”) and re-emerges from flames with his more recognisably younger physique… and a slightly more intelligible accent.
“Great. I always wanted to meet the guy that turned the world to shit.”
Up until this point, Highlander II’s on shaky but sporadically enjoyable ground. The movie’s creative peak is unquestionably the action set-piece where a wrinkled MacLeod fends off those two assassins, who also arrived armed with high-tech anti-gravity boots and a backpack glider. Uh, which all ancient societies had in the centuries before the Roman Empire was formed, I’m sure. Maybe it’s easier to go with the stupid aliens explanation after all..?
Mulcahy constructs an effective and entertaining sequence with this sword fight mixed with aerial combat. The action takes place around a Blade Runner-esque city precinct that looks great on camera, but the scene also benefits from use of practical wires and harnesses to enable the actors to whoosh around in midair.
This was achieved in the days before CGI would make such a set-piece relatively easy to pull off, with the production employing the team who provided the flying effects for Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978). It looks surprisingly good for something pre-digital, even if high-definition now reveals a few telltale wires. It reminded me of similar effects used in Back to the Future: Part II (1989) during Marty McFly’s hoverboard chase, and it’s frankly the only moment in Highlander II that creates genuine drama (can a decrepit MacLeod decapitate two physically superior men who can also fly?), with impressive visuals to go along with it. For a few minutes, Highlander II actually feels like a fun, cool, $30M action movie.
And from there, the movie goes into a creative nosedive.
“Okay, now let me just see if I can get this straight. You come from another planet, and you’re mortal there, but you’re immortal here until you kill all the guys from there who have come here… and then you’re mortal here… unless you go back there, or some more guys from there came here, in which case you become immortal here… again.” — Louise Marcus.
What rubs people up the wrong about Highlander II is its wilful ignorance of the mythology, as it’s simply not interested in continuing the idea of immortal beings co-existing with humans. Instead, The Shield becomes the basis for the whole story, once MacLeod hooks up with Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen), a former employee of the Shield Corporation who believes the ozone layer has repaired itself but the company refuse to deactivate The Shield because the project generates huge revenue. Highlander II is about a futuristic corporate conspiracy, with MacLeod and Louise teaming up to bring down the Shield and restore the beautiful natural sky above everyone’s head.
Once General Katana arrives on Earth to kill MacLeod himself, and Ramírez is resurrected by MacLeod literally yelling his name into the heavens, those aspects of the story lead to clutter. It’s a sci-fi story about two eco-warriors bringing down a corporation putting profit before people, whereas the first Highlander was focused on the idea of immortals locked in deadly combat over millennia. Here, there are sequences when being immortal proves tactically useful (like when MacLeod and Ramírez allow themselves to be torn apart by bullets from armed guards inside a car), but the story never tries to explore more about the living with immortality. Perhaps there was nothing meaningful left to explore in the idea, which is more evidence for why Highlander should have remained a one-off cult favourite.
“Most people have a full measure of life, and most people just watch it slowly drip away. But if you can summon it all up at one time, in one place, you can accomplish something glorious.” — Ramírez.
As a fan of the original, when I first saw Highlander II the experience was more confusing than angering. I was only 12, so thought I’d misunderstood something about the first movie, or overlooked seeds of the extra-terrestrial explanation for the Immortals. But even convincing myself it had always been about aliens, what was happening with these characters in the story wasn’t interesting and definitely wasn’t much fun.
Mulcahy’s 2004 ‘Special Edition’ is most people’s preferred cut, as it adds further improvements to the earlier ‘Renegade Version’. For instance, the Shield grid goes from being a garish orange miasma to an electric blue mesh.
I’m still amazed the director shot a fight atop a moving car on a mountainside in 1994, convincing Ironside, Madsen, and Lambert to return for the stunt three years after the movie bombed, but both versions offer improvements that create other problems. You can fiddle around the edges to remove mistakes, but Highlander II remains a fundamentally flawed movie in too many ways to ever fix entirely.
And yet, the ‘Special Edition’ Highlander II has a strange appeal as a bad movie that’s been enhanced years after the fact. It’s a fascinating misunderstanding of what people liked about the original, doomed because of dumb star demands, a bad script unable to achieve what everyone wanted, Lambert only being able to shoot at night due to all-day hangovers, and a torturous overseas shoot where the director’s vision was compromised once anxious moneymen stuck their nose in.
I don’t think Mulcahy would’ve rescued this sequel from calamity if he’d been given complete artistic control, however. There are too many foundational problems with the concept, and perplexing weirdness happening in the margins he must have agreed to. But that’s also what makes Highlander II a hilarious piece of trash cinema, particularly in how characters behave and react to what’s happening. There’s a taxi driver who becomes perversely overjoyed when Katana smashes up his cab with a sword, and a cringeworthy moment when Virginia Madsen gives a joyous line reading of “OUT-STANDING!” as MacLeod runs a man over.
“Remember, Highlander, you’ve both still got your full measure of life. Use it well, and your future will be glorious.” — Ramírez.
Bizarrely, this debacle didn’t spell the end of the Highlander saga. A Canadian-French TV series produced 119 episodes between 1992–98, starring Adrian Paul as another immortal MacLeod called Duncan. In some circles it’s more highly regarded than any of the movies. A female-led spin-off followed, Highlander: The Raven, with Elizabeth Gracen in the lead as Duncan’s former lover Amanda, but it wasn’t as well received and got cancelled.
In 1994, the success of the TV series gave the franchise another shot at big screen success with Christopher Lambert again reprising his role. Highlander III: The Sorcerer (or The Magician, or The Final Conflict, or The Final Dimension, depending where you live) wisely ignored the events of Highlander II… but it was a stale retread of the original. It failed to end the box office curse, only clawing back $13.7M of a rumoured $26–34M outlay.
6 years later, Adrian Paul and Christopher Lambert were then united onscreen as the cousins MacLeod for the $25M-budgeted Highlander: Endgame (2000). This somehow managed to get a theatrical release, possibly because of optimism the public would be interested in its “crossover event”, but it was another box office bomb and only grossed $15.8M.
Finally, ignoring two animated versions from 1994 and 2007, Adrian Paul headlined his own $13M Highlander TV Movie on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2007. Highlander: The Source was intended to be the start of a small-screen trilogy, but the end product was universally panned by critics. And despite decent enough ratings for the channel, The Source finally put the long-running franchise out of its misery.
Whispers of a big budget remake have been swirling around for over a decade now, especially since Hollywood started updating old ’80s hits for a new generation. Highlander never once proved itself at the box office, but there’s clearly something about the concept that holds a spell over people. Even if you’re not particularly keen on these movies, including the original, most people admit it has a cool and memorable premise and lore.
Chad Stahelski, who directed John Wick: Chapter 2, is involved in putting a new Highlander together. The John Wick films themselves have similarities to Highlander, as they too concern a subculture of ‘superhuman’ killers living alongside normal people. The Continental Hotels, where assassins are forbidden to kill, even parallels how Immortals aren’t allowed to kill on holy ground. All we need now is Keanu Reeves to be cast as Connor MacLeod, affecting an atrocious Scottish accent to rival Christopher Lambert’s.
Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari (Ant-Man and the Wasp) have been polishing an existing script by Noah Oppenheim (Jackie, The Maze Runner), with some reports claiming the Highlander remake could be Stahelski’s next project after John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019).
Originally published at www.framerated.co.uk on August 12, 2018.