It is the futuristic year of 2000. In the real world, HIGHLANDER II‘s prediction of solar radiation creating the necessity for an electromagnetic shield over the earth has not come to pass. Instead we got President George W. Bush and Ron Howard’s upcoming HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS!.
It has been six years since HIGHLANDER III, which did not make back its production costs at the box office. But in that time the mythology of the Immortals has taken on a new life on television, with Connor MacLeod’s younger friend Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) entertaining fans through 117 episodes (not including the two he wasn’t in). Though the show ended in 1998 and its spin-off The Raven in 1999, they have clearly left behind a fan base that takes this shit seriously. From 1994-2000 there was an annual convention called “The Gathering” in Denver, Colorado, with Paul and other stars as guests of honor. From 1997-1999 there were three “Highlander Clan Cruises.” 1997 gave Australia the first of eight “Highlander Down Under” conventions. And the list goes on. Clearly this is a group of loyal fans waiting to be exploited. I mean catered to.
And so here on the cusp of the millennium we find the immortal movie series resurfacing in the Weinstein-Brothers-cheapass-franchise-exploitation era.
HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME was one of the many genre sequels released by Dimension Films in the year 2000, alongside FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER, SCREAM 3, THE PROPHECY 3: THE ASCENT, THE CROW: SALVATION and HELLRAISER: INFERNO. In the next few years they’d bring us MIMIC 2 and 3, CHILDREN OF THE CORN: REVELATION, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER and DRACULA II: ASCENSION. It was their business.
ENDGAME is, in my opinion, better than much of that crap. With its shitty ’90s credits, subpar digital FX, sometimes TV-ish lighting, gloomy keyboard score, flashbacks to things that just happened in this very movie, and overall filmed-in-Romania feel, I assumed at first that it would be a chore to get through. But once I got used to its blasphemous abdication of Mulcahy’s religious allegiance to style (or at least its crappiness compared to Mulcahy’s films), I was able to get on its wavelength and enjoy the mythology and what not.
The opening kinda explains the main appeal here: Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul, as Connor and Duncan MacLeod, emerging from a subway station together. Just hanging out, the only time in a movie, only time since the pilot of the TV series.
I assume this one only follows the series continuity, and it specifically disavows knowledge of II when Connor says in the opening text/narration that “WE ARE THE SEEDS OF LEGEND. BUT OUR TRUE ORIGINS ARE UNKNOWN. WE SIMPLY ARE.”
Connor called Duncan to come from Paris to New York. He’s clearly worried about something, but won’t say what. They split up and Connor gets back to his part 1 antique store/loft just in time to see it get blown up with poor, sweet Rachel (a returning Sheila Gish) inside. You remember Rachel – one of the great bits of mythology from the first film, the woman who works for him and looks older than him, but in fact was an orphan he rescued during World War II and raised as a daughter. If you forgot, don’t worry, for some reason home movies are showing on a TV to explain that. They both look older.
In some early-2000s-DTV-Steven-Seagal-style awkward storytelling we jump from the explosion to ten years later (does that mean we’re in 2010 now?), when Connor is locked up in a stone-and-torches type place called The Sanctuary. I assumed he’d been kidnapped, but later it indicates that he went there voluntarily right after the explosion, without so much as meeting Duncan at the bar at 8:00 as promised. Connor MacLeod is many things, but a good host to out-of-town guests is not one of them.
Anyway this Sanctuary is a cool concept. The Watchers – apparently an ancient order established in Highlander: The Series – are keeping a bunch of Immortals strapped to metal machines, fed by I.V.s, in some sort of stasis so they can protect their necks and The Game will never end, thus ensuring that your Kurgans, your General Katanas, your Kanes or your Kells will never collect The Prize.
That last one would be Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne, PASSENGER 57, FULL ECLIPSE, ONE TOUGH BASTARD), who we learn from flashbacks used to be Connor’s friend but betrayed him by burning his mother (June Watson, THE DEATH OF STALIN) as a witch. Trying to save her, Connor stabbed several prison guards, Kell, and Kell’s adopted pops, Father Rainey (Donald Douglas, BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY). Now Connor has learned that Kell is also an Immortal and has gathered some of the others to come after him. As usual, we’re told that if it can only be one and the one turns out to be this particular asshole then the world is totally doomed.
A goofy thing you gotta forgive in this one: lots of new flashbacks to centuries ago, but with Connor 14 years older than he once looked in those eras, not to mention the 1980s.
The second (and possibly best) action scene is when Kell’s team of immortal biker weirdos with spiked helmets show up at the Sanctuary and battle their security – guys with machine guns and jackets with hoods like monk robes – to get in. And the gas tank of one of these bikers gets shot and explodes, so he dismounts with a flying double kick and goes right into a short but beautiful fight of pure Hong Kong style and speed.
This character is named Jin Ke, and he’s able to make such an entrance because he’s played by MOTHERFUCKIN DONNIE YEN!
Jin Ke is based on a real historical figure, Jing Ke, famed for his 227 BC assassination attempt on King Zheng, who later became the first emperor of China. In that sense, HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME is a companion piece to Chen Kaige’s THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN (1998) and Zhang Yimou’s HERO (2002), the latter of which Yen was in but, unfortunately for my fan fiction editing project, plays a different character.
Yen is credited as ENDGAME’s martial arts choreographer, and I don’t know if that only means his scenes, but it definitely means this one. You know, it’s one of those scenes where even the way he takes off his helmet seems to be a martial arts movement, and then he throws it in the air and does a flying kick and hits a guy in the head with it.
I probly don’t have to say that I don’t consider ENDGAME to be half as good as Yen’s next movie BLADE II, where he filled a similar role as choreographer/supporting player. But I do think it’s a better showcase of his skills.
Anyway they get in with their mysterious hooded boss (Kell), who is always introduced with a closeup of his platform shoes with crucifixes on them like he’s some kind of goth.
He says he’s looking for Connor MacLeod, and proceeds to massacre the defenseless shackled Immortals of the Sanctuary.
Damn. Gone too soon. R.I.P. Connor MacLeod.
So the story shifts to Duncan, who in his flashbacks seems to have hung out with Connor all the damn time. It’s weird how little this has been mentioned before. He goes to look at the wreckage of Connor’s home, and I’m assuming they couldn’t have had the original location or set or whatever, so it’s impressive how convincingly they re-create both the loft and the vault.
While he’s there, Duncan is attacked by someone named Faith (Lisa Barbuscia, ALMOST HEROES), who was formerly named Kate when she was Duncan’s wife hundreds of years ago. Then the motorcycle guys show up again. Including the best one.
When Duncan sees Jin Ke he gives him some of the respect one ought to give Donnie Yen, saying, “Some say you are a man of honor.” When Jin Ke later says “Honor is not in the weapon, it’s the man,” Duncan honorably puts down his sword so they can kung fu each other. It’s good shit, but the best part of this scene is not the fighting, it’s the moment after Kell shows up and interrupts. As he’s making an evil speech one of the bikers, Carlos (Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Dame Dash, PAID IN FULL), just straight up shoots Duncan six times! Duncan falls out a window, screaming, and gets impaled. And then Carlos says:
Not even sword guy. Swords guy. I love it. While Kell is busy threatening Carlos for what he did, a van of Watchers pulls up, chainsaws the rebar that Duncan is impaled on, and takes off with him. Which would be awfully kind of them if they weren’t planning to Sanctuary him against his will.
(What happens to Carlos involves a laughable visual effect that reminded me of THE SPIRIT. But I don’t know. It’s kind of adorable.)
Luckily some characters from the TV show, the Watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes, HARMONY CATS) and the Immortal Methos (Peter Wingfield, CATWOMAN), rescue Duncan. When he doesn’t know the answer to the question “How many Quickenings have you had? How many heads have you taken?” they show him the official Watcher files on a laptop. According to their database, Connor has 262 confirmed Immortal kills, Duncan has 174, Kell has 661. They act like the higher number is automatically the most powerful, but I believe this is bad science. Since Immortals absorb the power of their vanquished opponents, that means that when Connor killed the Kurgan he was also absorbing the power the Kurgan got from killing Ramirez, Sunda Kastagir and whoever else he’d killed, and whoever any of them had killed. So the numbers don’t tell us much at all if Connor has killed all the most prolific killers while Kell has only killed a bunch of chump newbies. It’s anybody’s guess.
Duncan thinks “something doesn’t make sense” and insists on seeing Connor’s body, and he goes to a cemetery for some good old fashioned graverobbing, but luckily Connor just steps out and reveals himself still alive. Viva Connor MacLeod! (The Sanctuary scene led us to believe he was killed, but now it seems Kell let him go so he could toy with him or something.)
Connor is broody and pessimistic in this one. I like that when Duncan finds out about him killing the priest all those years ago he tries to be there for him. “Connor, with time anything can be forgiven, you taught me that.” And then we learn that the reason Duncan had to be taught that, and the reason that Faith hates him so much, is that he did something a long time ago that was real hard to forgive. This also explains something about the rules of immortality that, if it previously existed in the movies, I never picked up on. It turns out that you can be born an Immortal but just grow old and die like anybody else. The immortality has to be triggered by a violent “death.” And Kate was a potential Immortal so after their wedding Duncan, you know, stabbed her. Without consent. Without explaining that he was Immortal and she could be too. That’s why she hates him. She still feels like she should’ve had some say in that.
(This actually seems like a reworking of the way Highlander: The Raven ended. In the final episode, “Dead On Arrival,” male lead Nick Wolfe was about to die from poison, so Amanda shot him to trigger the immortality she secretly knew he had. He didn’t appreciate it, chewed her out and walked away.)
There’s a very dramatic turn in this one that I didn’t really see coming. Duncan goes to a rooftop thinking Kell is there, but it turns out the Immortal he senses is Connor, who’s acting kind of crazy and pulls his sword on him. Connor explains his theory that Kell is too powerful for either of them to defeat alone, and they can’t fight him together because the rules of The Game only allow one Immortal to challenge another, therefore one of them has to kill the other in order to be powerful enough to beat Kell.
Sound logic, but you’re thinking I don’t know, this is Connor MacLeod, do I really believe he would kill his friend to gain power? We’re talking about a guy so honorable that earlier in this very movie he chose not to save the world by killing Kell just because doing so in a graveyard has always been considered an illegal move. But quickly you realize that oh shit, no, he’s trying to get his friend to kill him to become more powerful. Suicide by Immortal.
Paul is quite good in the scene, trying to refuse Connor while sword fighting, literally begging him not to make him do it, ultimately being egged into it. It’s much more sad than cool. But it’s kind of cool. Connor smiles before dying from a move he personally taught Duncan. And we see him zooming through hundreds of years of good memories (from this movie only).
So it’s sad, but it’s a heroic death for our boy and he doesn’t have to give up his Quickening to some asshole. My one issue is, what happened to being an old man in 2024 who has to blow up The Shield? It’s confusing enough that this movie was made in 2000, one year after The Shield was built, yet there is daytime. Are you telling me there’s no Planet Zeist, no forgotten past, and no 2024? I don’t suppose Connor ever did Ramirez’s Zeistian ritual to connect himself to Duncan and give himself the ability to come back from death if his name is called?
Ah, shit. R.I.P. Connor MacLeod again. For real this time.
When Duncan finally duels Kell it’s in one of those abandoned factory/warehouse type places that many movie characters choose to have fights in, but there’s extra atmosphere when they find themselves in a foggy room with chains hanging everywhere. I wondered if this was a set also used for a HELLRAISER.
Anyway I approve because it follows the Mulcahy rule that it’s more important to look cool than to make sense. Also there’s a gimmick that Duncan knows how to push buttons to make certain chains rise up to pull a sword or person away.
ENDGAME uses the standard, somewhat acceptable sequel move of making up new shit that you didn’t know could happen before to jazz up the climax. So right before Duncan defeats Kell (SPOILER), Connor speaks through him and Duncan’s face even morphs into Connor’s for half a second. Kell’s death is kind of sudden but also enjoyable because he gets a pretty funny dummy-falling-off-a-ledge-and-whacking-against-things plummet into a vat of boiling liquid. Unfortunately when Duncan gets his Quickening there are some FX shots that look much more ridiculous than even what they did on the TV pilot.
I mean, they must’ve been up real late the night before the deadline when they okayed those shots. And I wonder if it was even worse on the big screen? On the commentary track the producers talk about finishing some FX for video and removing some that looked bad.
There’s plenty of goofy shit in this movie. One that made me laugh is that there are two different parts in the movie where they indicate that a main character has been killed by Kell in a massacre, and they’re out of the movie for a while, but later show up and explain that for some reason he chose not to kill them. So in my opinion, even though they didn’t show it, Donnie Yen’s character Jin Ke was not actually killed. We don’t believe he just sat there, do we?
(NOTE: I have been told that in some version he cuts his own head off to prevent Kell from getting his Quickening. In the one I watched he’s just implied to have died off screen.)
Another one that made me laugh is kind of ridiculous to even bring up, but I suppose I’m a ridiculous person. At the very beginning of the movie Duncan orders ketchup on his hot dog, then as he walks away complains about the volume of ketchup.
Someone who has lived for so long and in so many places is certainly allowed to have his preference, but I tend to agree with Dirty Harry on this issue:
So I thought it was funny that the producers discuss this on the commentary track. They note that somebody in New York wouldn’t order that, claiming it was Paul’s personal hot dog preference.
There are some nice nods to the first film. There’s a second unit driving shot where you see the Silvercup building from a distance (on the commentary I think they say this is one of three shots reused from the first movie). In addition to Gish returning as Rachel, Beatie Edney is in a bunch of the flashbacks as Connor’s second wife Heather MacLeod. Which reminds me, Duncan has Connor buried with Heather. I get it, but I still feel for Brenda, his wife who he settled down with after temporarily winning The Prize, who died either from sun radiation (according to II) or a car accident (according to III).
Having overseen the Highlander motion picture and television empire for a decade and a half, Panzer-Davis Productions did not enjoy the controlling and arbitrary methods of Miramax. The Weinsteins, of course, made them shorten the movie, just as they’d done and would continue to do with master filmmakers from all around the world. Luckily, they were allowed to put 14 minutes back in for the DVD’s “-EXCLUSIVE NEW CUT-” with “More Action, More Steamy Scenes, All-New Ending!”
In other ways the instincts of the two producer factions seem to have overlapped. I assumed they’d cast Yen based on an awareness of his work in Hong Kong. Nope – they just wanted a hot martial arts guy, and called around to the relevant magazines to ask who that was. They also wanted a wrestler, any wrestler, so Connor and Duncan beat up WWE’s “Edge” (Adam Copeland) in a flashback.
Rookie director Doug Aarniokoski is the first HIGHLANDER movie director not to come from the music video world. Instead he’d worked his way up as an assistant director for Full Moon (DOCTOR MORDRID, TRANCERS III, PREHYSTERIA!, REMOTE, DOLLMAN VS. DEMONIC TOYS, PET SHOP) and then Miramax via Robert Rodriguez (FOUR ROOMS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS, THE FACULTY), as well as being second unit director and co-writer of PUPPET MASTER 4 and 5. He has since directed the 2008 John Skipp & Craig Spector scripted ANIMALS under a pseudonym, and he wrote and directed that Paz de la Huerta movie NURSE 3D (2013), but like so many working directors he’s moved mostly to television (Criminal Minds, Sleepy Hollow, Arrow, The Flash, Limitless, Star Trek: Discovery).
ENDGAME’s story is credited to Eric Bernt (SURVIVING THE GAME, VIRTUOSITY, ROMEO MUST DIE), Gillian Horvath (Associate Creative Consultant from Highlander: The Series who also oversaw the show’s tie-in novels) and producer William N. Panzer. Screenwriter Joel Soisson was another guy who made his bones in low budget genre fare – he was 2nd unit director and line producer of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2, producer of MANIAC COP 3 and THE PROPHECY, etc. Since ENDGAME he’s been a prolific contributor to the world of DTV and DTV sequels as writer of HOLLOW MAN 2, writer/producer of the DRACULA 2000 trilogy, and writer/director of THE PROPHECY: UPRISING, THE PROPHECY: FORSAKEN, PULSE 2 & 3 and CHILDREN OF THE CORN: GENESIS.
I’m not surprised to read that, like THE FINAL DIMENSION, ENDGAME didn’t even make back its production budget in theaters. Even more predictable: critics at the time hated it, something I don’t think would’ve been changed by seeing the presumably more coherent longer version. Honestly, its 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is high for the series – FINAL DIMENSION is at 5%, THE QUICKENING at 0%! – but most of the circa-2000 reviews I’ve been able to find still online make a big show of looking down on the series, the mythology, and movie violence in general. I couldn’t find any that mention Donnie Yen by name. A no-longer by-lined review from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was typically dismissive of the action:
“But it quickly goes astray with fight scenes laden with too many bullets, too many explosions, too many sparks, lightning bolts and weird lights–and too many impalings. The martial-arts choreography is rendered unimpressive by the fact camera tricks were obviously used to speed up the action.”
Those dreaded “camera tricks.” So not everybody was into the Hong Kong shit.
Surprisingly, Kevin Thomas of the L.A. Times does offer that it “looks sensational.” Which I was thinking I disagreed with because I keep remembering that CD-ROM looking Quickening at the end, but as you can see in the other screen grabs most of it looks pretty nice. Cinematographer Douglas Milsome was actually a camera operator on HIGHLANDER. He’s one of the few guys who worked extensively with both Stanley Kubrick (as a focus puller or “lighting cameraman” on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BARRY LYNDON and FULL METAL JACKET) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (as cinematographer of LEGIONNAIRE, SECOND IN COMMAND, THE HARD CORPS, UNTIL DEATH, THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL and FULL LOVE), which makes him kind of perfect for this series. He also shot DESPERATE HOURS and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES.
I don’t blame all those normal people for not being into ENDGAME. But after going through the series and enjoying the ongoing adventures of the MacLeods I liked seeing them together seeming like real friends in a weird-ass hybrid of movie and syndicated television show, falling into such a weird stew of plot twists and colorful side characters, fumbling to keep up with then current, now dated trends. ENDGAME is not good, exactly. But it’s something.
Other action movies released in 2000:
ROMEO MUST DIE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, GONE IN 60 SECONDS, SHAFT, X-MEN, THE ART OF WAR, THE WAY OF THE GUN, BAIT, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, THE 6TH DAY, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, PROOF OF LIFE, VERTICAL LIMIT
Other fantasy movies released in 2000:
Though the Highlander movies series is not necessarily thriving by this point, it’s managing to scrape by as the genres it belongs to are dwindling.
P.S. I would’ve mentioned this in the Highlander: The Series review if I’d realized it at the time, but Adrian Paul was actually directed by Russell Mulcahy once, years before HIGHLANDER even existed. He played a matador in the 1982 Duran Duran video “My Own Way.”