“It’s weird how they built a huge franchise off of the first film. I can’t quite understand it. It’s like they say in the film ‘There can only be one. ‘ In a genre film you can create any scenario you like, but once you break your own rules, the audience feels betrayed, which is what happened with HIGHLANDER II.”–Russell Mulcahy to Money Into Light, 2016
“The more cornered we were, the more stupid things we had to come up with.”–Christopher Lambert
I missed out on being disappointed by HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING with the rest of the world in 1991. Somehow I never watched the HIGHLANDER movies until the 21st century, at which point I’d lived many years knowing part II had been universally rejected and mocked. And when I did watch it it was the re-edited and 19-minutes-longer “Renegade Version” put together for DVD in 1997, and I’ll be honest – I liked it! I’ve always been one for weird, not-taking-the-easy-road sequels like BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, BATMAN RETURNS, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME, BRIDE OF CHUCKY, RETURN TO OZ, JASON X, etc. So I was into the idea of Connor MacLeod in a dystopian future city working with rebels to, uh… blow up a shield around the earth, because it’s not necessary anymore. I mean — sure. Why not?
In 2004 the Renegade Version was further altered with (thankfully well-integrated) digital FX, and, like the STAR WARS Special Editions, has become the only cut available on DVD and Blu-Ray. And these special editions all changed the infamous HIGHLANDER II reveal that the Immortals actually come from another planet called Zeist. That seems like important information to understand, so I knew that for this rewatch I had to go to the original theatrical cut on VHS. I needed Zeist.
And on second viewing yeah, okay, I get it, this is a ridiculous sequel. It tells us that oh yeah, this guy Connor McLeod (still Christopher Lambert) who didn’t understand why he was an Immortal, actually he must’ve forgot he got sent there from Planet Zeist as punishment for rebelling against General Katana (Michael Ironside, VISITING HOURS) and the whole immortality/The Gathering thing was part of the sentence but also The Prize is they can either choose mortality on earth or return to Zeist. And this guy Ramirez (still Sean Connery) he actually already knew on Zeist and by the way Ramirez told him to just call his name if he ever needed him, even after death. So it turns out yelling his name once or twice can resurrect him. Seems a little too easy.
The first film was self-contained. It had such a nice, neat ending to his story. And even the title, referring to this one guy coming from the highlands, makes it hard to try to build into a larger universe of Immortals. (For example, how does the villain in this one know to call him “Highlander”? Why is that a relevant description to a guy who just got here from Zeist?) Of course, many clever sequels have made us forgive those sorts of cheats. But the stretch they take here feels kind of insulting.
On the other hand, happy endings aren’t always ever after, and even without immortality you could end up a widower growing old watching the world destroy itself, as McLeod does after his wife Brenda dies from the empowered-by-lack-of-ozone-layer sun. And there’s something pretty cool about putting Lambert in old man makeup by Academy Award winner Greg Cannom (VICE) that goes away after he gets Quickeninged again by decapitating two obnoxious Zeistian thugs that Katana sends after him.
Also, being from Zeist explains why the actors don’t fit the supposed nationalities of their characters! I love that!
But there’s a muddled, aimless feel and those goggled, giggling attackers (Pete Antico [Abraham Lincoln in BLACK DYNAMITE] and Peter Bucossi [STREET HUNTER]) kinda remind me of SUPER MARIO BROTHERS: THE MOVIE. There’s much too much wackiness between Katana coming to earth (scaring people on a subway, terrorizing a cabbie [Phillip Brock, AMERICAN NINJA]) and Ramirez coming back to life (he interrupts a performance of Hamlet, gets confused by an airplane, etc.) There’s also a weird joke that the safety video on the plane scares him because it shows the passengers in terror and a plane crashing and blowing up. I don’t know what that’s supposed to satirize. When one of the best scenes is Sean Connery hitting on a lady on an airplane that might be a problem for your action-sci-fi-fantasy movie. I don’t even understand why we needed to see him travel or what he’s talking about, I just like how genuinely into him she looks.
Another strange touch, though I’m not really against this one, is that the Queen song “A Kind of Magic” now exists in the world of Highlander, not just on the soundtrack, and MacLeod likes it enough to play it on a diner jukebox. I wonder if he remembers that that’s what he said to Rachel some 80 years ago. The rock soundtrack is one unique HIGHLANDER element that is sadly abandoned in the sequels. At least they got Stewart Copeland to do the score, and he does some weird synthy parts.
Katana follows in the Kurgan tradition: he has a giant sword, he pushes everybody around, he’s not made for these times, he misbehaves for a while, he confronts MacLeod in a church paying respects to a lost wife. The other villain is David Blake (John C. McGinley, POINT BREAK), corrupt CEO of The Shield Corporation, who conspires to keep the shield up forever even though they’ve discovered that it’s no longer necessary. Weirdly, McLeod was the co-creator of the shield, so, like Forrest Taft in ON DEADLY GROUND, he has an old man friend on the inside (Allan Rich, AMISTAD) as a whistleblower. This also has made him famous, and sometimes people recognize him in public and give him shit because the shield causes the sky to be red and for it to be night at all times.
One person that spots him in public is Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen, CANDYMAN), T.S.C. employee turned leader of the environmental terrorism group Cobalt, trying to blow up the shield. She tries to get his help, then witnesses him turning young from The Quickening. Eventually they become co-conspirators/lovers. He tends to fall for blond mortals with very specific expertise. He still has his vault, so she sees his 1902 football team photo and his 1855 ship log. That’s the Immortal version of a new girlfriend finding your old yearbooks.
Katana is an okay villain I guess. I think Ironside could have pulled off a more complex and interesting evil character than this, but obviously he’s also a strong choice for this type of generic fantasy movie dictator.
After this viewing I decided to watch the Blu-Ray version. Mulcahy had wanted to take his name off the theatrical release, which was re-edited by the bond completion company, and reportedly walked out of the premiere after 15 minutes. The current version may somewhat return to his vision, but I think also alters some widely hated aspects with the benefit of hindsight and technology – most significantly, of course, Planet Zeist. The flashbacks are still in there, but Ramirez calling out “Free men of the Planet Zeist, hear me” becomes “Free men of the planet, hear me.” Now it’s on Earth during a forgotten past that’s both medieval and technological (like MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE). The crashed airplane where the rebels meet is repainted into some old, exotic buildings.
Katana’s men and even MacLeod are still seen holding machine guns, though they don’t fire them. New priest dialogue explains that here, Immortals like MacLeod and Ramirez are feared and exiled to the future to kill each other. I guess The Prize is just a built-in way to reduce the prison population.
Before their sentencing, Ramirez had identified MacLeod as a chosen one to rise up against Katana, and did a magic ritual that bonded them. This mythology seems more sensible than the Zeist version, but it doesn’t match up to part 1 any better. Maybe I missed something about their memories being erased? I don’t see how this can fit with part 1’s depiction of MacLeod meeting Ramirez and learning about immortality and The Game and everything for the first time in 16th century Scotland.
And on second thought it introduces new time travel related problems that make less sense than in the Zeist version. Katana and the priests on Zeist watching a video monitor of MacLeod on earth was standard, but now they’re in the ancient past watching a live feed of the future? They decide go after MacLeod because he hasn’t yet chosen whether he would take the mortality or the trip back to Zeist if he won. Why do they care, and how does this even work? Shouldn’t they check further into the future to see if he makes up his mind, or if he even wins? Could Katana fast forward a little and see himself in the future getting killed by MacLeod?
But it’s still a much better movie just by the way it opens. Replacing MacLeod’s clunky narrated shield backstory with a little bit of text, it goes right to the long, incredible credits shot moving down a giant statue in 2024 New York, landing on a plaque commemorating 25 years of the shield, then moving into the opera house. It’s immediately clear that this was Mulcahy’s intended opening because of the way it mirror’s HIGHLANDER’s in Madison Square Garden. Instead of watching wrestling from the cheap seats now he’s an old man watching an opera from the balcony. Well, sleeping in the balcony, and then waking up. The stylized set and costumes of the opera cause him to flash back to the past – let’s call it the Zeist Age – glorifying MacLeod (I think… or is that Ramirez?) as some kind of sci-fi Lawrence of Arabia.
That the whole sequence is set to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung helps make it feel effectively epic. And in this iteration they remove the laughable “Yes, yes I remember,” voiceover where MacLeod seems to be suddenly remembering his life on another planet that had slipped his mind.
I like the odd detail that the roof is leaking in the opera house and many seats are covered with tarps. Though I wonder if that was to save money on extras.
Going from VHS to Blu-Ray is a huge visual leap. The widescreen, the high resolution and the improved FX (though I miss the blazing red skies) make for another great looking Mulcahy movie. The cinematographer this time is Phil Meheux (THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, Max Headroom, GHOST IN THE MACHINE, GOLDENEYE, MASK OF ZORRO, CASINO ROYALE). Suddenly the battle with those giggling, porcupine-haired assholes from the past seems way cooler. This time I loved the part where they’re fighting on an automated train with wagon-like wheels, and the guy falls off and gets his neck run right over, severing his head. There’s this beautiful shot following the sparks of Quickening electricity from his neck stump to a random can on the street to another piece of metal to a car to another car until it reaches MacLeod. (I learned from the extras that they were animating it to look like a creature and that they were very happy with it and didn’t change it for the new version.)
Since that Quickening makes him younger and more agile he’s able to steal the dead guy’s hoverboard to chase the guy with the winged jetpack, which is an exciting RETURN-OF-THE-JEDI-speeder-bike type high speed FX chase scene.
Not dumping out all the backstory at the beginning makes for a better tale. People are asking him “Are you MacLeod?” before we find out that they know him because he was involved with creating the shield, so it’s more of a compelling reveal than when he just blurts it out in narration. (Some street toughs run away when they realize he’s MacLeod, so maybe his reputation is more than scientific.) And there’s an added scene where Brenda (Karin Drexler) on her death bed from radiation sickness makes Connor promise to do something about the sun killing everyone. The camera slowly pulls back showing that she’s surrounded by other beds, like a military hospital. But then it keeps going further and further and no, this is like a giant hangar filled with row after row after row of people dying from the sun. The RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK warehouse of people dying from the sun.
And finally it ends on a sign that says “AREA F.6 SOUTH SOLAR RADIATION WARD.” So, you know, this is one of many.
(For the theatrical cut the producers plopped the epic part of the shot, minus the setup that makes it great, into the prologue.)
But don’t worry, MacLeod finds love again. There’s an added scene after killing the two flying guys. Louise watches the fight, sees how young he now looks and asks “Who are you?”
“I’m Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, and I cannot die.”
And then they kiss and he spins her around and they fuck up against the wall to an orchestrated version of Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” from part 1.
In the post-coital scene at his place she tries to goofily summarize how his immortality and de-aging works, kind of the same way they make fun of the mogwai/gremlin rules in GREMLINS 2, except in this case they’re including new additions to the rules that were made up for this installment.
For me I think bringing Ramirez back from the dead is the most ill-judged part of the movie. I know I’m absolutely alone on this, but just like with INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and THE ROCK I really don’t find Connery’s “I’m being funny now” scenes to be half as charming as the rest of the world seems to. I mean, there’s a trying on suits montage set to the William Tell Overture. He pays for it with an earring. Can you believe it? What a rascal! They certainly aren’t entertaining enough comic interludes to justify the flimsiest ever excuse for bringing a dead character back to life. The guy has been dead for 500 years and all MacLeod had to do to bring him back was say his name? But only this one time so now he wasted it?
On the positive side, I do enjoy the way they break into the prison together (they get themselves shot by the guards at a checkpoint, play dead and get brought into a morgue inside). And I like that Ramirez Obi Wans himself by using his lightning powers to save them from a giant futuristic fan that’s lowering down onto them. I don’t know about “Amazing Grace” playing on bagpipes as he does his magic – that’s a little corny.
But I just love that it’s a giant fan because
1) as my friend Wil pointed out, the giant fan is the natural enemy of people who can only die by having their heads cut off, and
2) I noticed in Mulcahy’s music videos and I think in RAZORBACK that he sure does love the image of a big spinning fan with a light behind it. In fact, the CEO of The Shield Corporation’s office is in front of a window with a giant fan behind it.
I guess now I can understand why these guys are such bastards, having to spend their days (which look like nights) in depressing office setups like that.
Now I think we need to address the big question: why the hell does the story of the Highlander end up being about the ozone layer? Did Mulcahy, screenwriter Peter Bellwood (returning after rewriting part 1) and story-by-ers Brian Clemons (CAPTAIN KRONOS – VAMPIRE HUNTER) and William M. Panzer (one of the producers), just feel strongly about the environment? Or I guess about methods used to save humanity from environmental catastrophe eventually becoming unnecessary but being continued in the name of greed? It all seems a little random. The part I like is the idea that if you can live forever but everybody else dies from radiation burns then the world is gonna become a huge bummer. That’s a legitimate extrapolation from the Immortal concept.
Also it forces me to wonder if/how Immortals could survive a nuclear war since it likely wouldn’t decapitate them.
I think the hardest thing for me to swallow at first was that MacLeod helped design the shield. It seems so out of character from anything we know about his past or that we see him doing even in this movie. They don’t really make this clear, but I’m guessing it connects to his explanation of The Prize at the end of the first film. He told Brenda, “It’s like a whirlwind in my head. But if I concentrate I know what people are thinking all over the world. Presidents, diplomats, scientists. I can help them understand each other.” And maybe this ability helped him to… design a giant pyramid that will last a thousand years that creates a laser grid around the planet that absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. As you do.
(This power is never specifically addressed, though, and there are times when mind reading could probly help him out.)
Also in the first film there are a few voiceovers by Ramirez, which might be memories, but at the end when he tells Connor about his “power beyond imagination,” it really seems like a visitation. So that sort of sets the stage for him coming back in this one. I guess.
I think overall if I have to choose one or the other, my feelings toward HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING are still mostly positive. It’s a clunky mess full of dumb “what were they thinking?” shit, but I enjoy its misjudged ambition, its moments of DUNE-like sci-fi craziness…
the various examples of Mulcahy visual goodness…
…and the filmatism of the best sequences like the opera house and the street battle. If you want to call it a fiasco I’m not gonna argue with you, but I give it points for strangeness, ambition and partial slickness.
1991 was the year of one of my favorite sequels ever – in fact, a sequel to a movie that seemed to be an inspiration for the original HIGHLANDER – TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. And THE QUICKENING is definitely no T2! But most of the sequels that year were not as earthshaking. You had THE NEVERENDING STORY 2: THE NEXT CHAPTER, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE, F/X2, THE NAKED GUN 2 1/2: THE SMELL OF FEAR, PROBLEM CHILD 2, RETURN TO THE BLUE LAGOON, CHILD’S PLAY 3 (the worst of the series in my opinion), AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST and FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (I kinda like it, but I’m weird). Besides T2, about the only 1991 sequels now held in high regard are BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY and I think STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. HIGHLANDER II is definitely not the best of this group of films, but it’s one of the oddest and most interesting.
In honor of the artistic boldness/recklessness of HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING, I have introduced the new PLANET ZEIST 500 YEARS AGO t-shirt/button design to my line of customizable lifestyle products available at Vern’s Fleamarket. That’s right, HIGHLANDERLAND is a multi-platform event!
p.s. Since I wasn’t following this series as it was released I really didn’t realize that THE QUICKENING came out the same year as Mulcahy’s RICOCHET. Now there’s a movie that puts his energetic filmatism and silly, over-the-top tendencies into an effective package.
Other action films released in 1991:
LIONHEART, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER, AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION, THE HARD WAY, IF LOOKS COULD KILL, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE, OUT FOR JUSTICE, TOY SOLDIERS, F/X 2, HUDSON HAWK, ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, THE ROCKETEER, POINT BREAK, V.I. WARSHAWSKI, DOUBLE IMPACT, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, COMPANY MAN, THE HITMAN, THE LAST BOY SCOUT
Other sci-fi films released in 1991:
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Other fantasy films released in 1991:
THE NEVERENDING STORY II: THE NEXT CHAPTER, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, HOOK
I think this list proves that alot of weird, crazy, arguably misjudged movies came out in ’91. THE QUICKENING wasn’t alone.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.