Looking back at Highlander III: The Sorcerer

Alex takes a look back at one of the most, er, not bad films ever made. It's Highlander III. It's better than Highlander II at least...

My introduction to the Highlander franchise came not through the original film, or the sequel, or the surprisingly alright TV series. It instead came from a promo video for Highlander IV: The Final Dimension, the music video of my favourite ever piece of music, James’ Honest Joe.

This is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, this “song” (if it can be called that) was never a single, and is obscure enough to render a music video superfluous at best. Secondly, the song does not feature in the film (despite being in the credits, I’ve yet to see a version that actually includes it). Finally, at the time there was no Highlander IV, it was, in fact, Highlander III. Yes, this is a film so completely unloved for and uncared for that even its own trailers got the number wrong. In an effort to distance itself from the awful, awful, awful first sequel, most prints of the film omit the “III” (and all omit the “IV”), and have one of the three subtitles to keep the audience guessing – The Sorcerer for the UK market, The Final Dimension for the US, and The Magician for everywhere else. The Final Dimension is a stupid title considering it’s mostly about a magic dude.

In short – Highlander II may be the black sheep of Highlander franchise, but at least people actually remember it.

Naming oddities aside, Highlander III is the single most not bad film there is. After Highlander II lowered the bar so impressively, that’s all it needed to be. Not bad. And it’s very not bad indeed. Of course, it’s not particularly good either. If you want a tagline for the next home video release, I would describe it as “like a fairly good SyFy original movie”. In fact, in its attempts to be not as bad as II, it forgets entirely to be its own film; its slavish devotion to the original means it’s entirely possible to forget this film about two seconds after the credits roll. This is about what you’d expect, considering this is from the director of the hard-hitting documentary JLS: Eyes Wide Open 3D and the video of Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Wake me up when it’s finished, please.

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Highlander III opens with a flashback, because this is Highlander. Connor MacLeod, fresh from seeing his wife Heather from the first film die of old age, travels to see Ramirez’s former mentor, the sorcerer Nakano, who trains MacLeod in the art of sword fighting and “illusion”. So we see lots of montages of MacLeod in a cave with an old Japanese dude, taking nude showers in magic waterfalls and being punked by a sword that hilariously turns into a snake. You know, standard 90s movie fare. It also introduces us to MacLeod’s signature new sword manoeuvre, whereby he can disarm his foes via an implausible special effect. And all the while he’s dressed in a kilt. Yes, MacLeod travelled all the way to Japan without ever changing his skirt or pants. Ew.

But, soon a bad man comes, by the name of Kane. You know that Kane is a Highlander bad guy because his name begins with a K. Also he likes to do bad things, like burn villages, or speak Japanese with a Shatner-esque cadence. Unfortunately, like any Highlander villain, that’s the sum of his character development. He’s like the Kurgan, as the intercutting with footage of the first film reminds you constantly, except a bit boring.

Nakano tells MacLeod that he must kill him before Kane gets there, so that Kane can’t get the power of illusion. After all, there can be only one. MacLeod refuses, however, because there can be only two! And then Kane comes in and kills him instead, absorbing the power of illusion for himself before quickening, which in this film looks positively disgusting. He quickens all over the cave, all over his henchmen, and even over MacLeod, which collapses the cave and traps him underground. MacLeod escapes, and buggers off… somewhere. Possibly Europe.

This first scene establishes the intent of Highlander III quite beautifully. Yes, it’s very faithful to the original in both tone and story, but more importantly, III actually tries to answer some questions from the original to widen the series mythology. How did MacLeod become such a good fighter after Ramirez’s death? He went and studied with Ramirez’s mentor. What power does killing an immortal actually grant you? Why, whatever magic they’ve learned. Why does MacLeod sound French? Because he spent loads of time in France (this film’s forgettable subplot). It’s to III’s credit it at least tries, even if it’s not that good.

Back in the present (well, 1994), the Japanese have built an experimental power station over that series of unstable caves Kane is trapped in. Obviously, they bore too deeply, and release Kane and his two henchmen. I’m bored too, what a coincidence. They come out, and want revenge on MacLeod, who didn’t actually do anything to Kane except fiercely running away, but shhh, it’s better motivation than in Highlander II. So, there can be only four! Or, three, as Kane murders one of his own henchmen for no reason at all, except for another quickening scene (they paid for that effect dammit, and they’re going to use it).

Kane clearly forgot why they were trapped in that cave in the first place, him and his violent quickenings. This quickening arouses Connor’s spider sense while he’s having a father-son pony ride, which actually makes sense, since he still has the prize and therefore knows everything. Continuity! Also, I forgot what the son is called. It’s okay, he disappears until the plot requires him again. I’m going to call him Popo. He’s not really Connor’s son, he’s just some kid he found in the desert. No, that’s actually the backstory.

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MacLeod then decides he must go to New York, because that’s where the gathering was, so logically Kane should be compelled to go there too. More continuity! In the same outfit as the first movie. Continuity! Of course, because it’s New York, MacLeod is shot immediately, but he’s immortal, so whatever. Continui… wait, what? Yeah, in one slight retcon, MacLeod won the prize, but not mortality. It’d be easy to dismiss this as a mistake, but it does get mentioned again quite deliberately, so I’m going to say that he wasn’t fully mortal because Kane was still around. You know what, after Highlander II, I’ll buy it.

MacLeod is rushed to hospital, where his lack of injuries qualifies as a mental illness and he is sectioned. Yes, apparently the crime rate in New York is so bad that madmen just line the street, pretending they’ve been shot. Of course, it’s rendered pointless when he convinces “Napoleon” to make a distraction so he can escape out of the asylum’s unlocked, unguarded door. Really, the only purpose of this scene is to get him to the hospital’s laundry room, because henchman #2 is there. Why is he there? How did he get there? Why is Kane not with him? Shhhhh, just go with it or they’ll start talking about Zeist again. So, they fight, MacLeod pulls his patented disarm special effect, and bam, there can be only two. Again. MacLeod quickens, all over the bedsheets.

The police find the body, and in another nice piece of continuity, immediately assume this beheading has something to do with all those other ones, and decide to question John Nash. You know, MacLeod’s pseudonym from the first film. Continuity! The cop in question has a chip on his shoulder about all those beheadings, and is determined to bring Nash in, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence. Which is weird, come to think of it, since he did actually kill a lot of those people, you’d imagine there’d be at least some evidence, especially with all those immortals quickening over the crime scenes.

So far, we’ve had a basement swordfight, some flashbacks, a police investigation. Seems like all we need is some bland, blonde love interest and we’ll have rehashed everything from the original. Enter the weirdest part of the film.

Also in Japan is archaeologist Alex somebody or other, who is investigating the legend of Nakano. And naturally, she’s set up her lab in the exact centre of the power plant, because there’s only one set and she’s an idiot. She gets aroused by an odd bit of tartan she found, and marginally aroused by a carving of “there can be only one”. I’d wash my hands if I were you, Kane quickened all over that. Twice.

Meanwhile, in the past, the same actress is Sarah somebody or other, a random English noble. Connor fancies her because they have a pony ride together, and then a roll in the hay straight from a Channel 5 Friday night movie. Yes, I know Channel 5 cleaned up that filth years ago, but come on, it’s lots of half clothed writhing and the occasional “holy Ramirez, you’re making me quicken!” Then, some guy pretends to be Connor so he doesn’t get guillotined, because it turns out these flashbacks were in France or something. The end. No, seriously, these flashbacks have nothing at all to do with the film. They just wanted to cut down on their casting budget a bit and fill time.

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So, Alex whatsherface tracks down Connor from that bit of tartan, to Nash’s Antiques, which he apparently owned in the past. That’s some weird accounting right there. There’s also a bit where she meets the cop from earlier who warns her that “Nash” is dangerous and goes round beheading people. And got Brenda killed in a car crash, apparently. She doesn’t care, and neither does the audience, because the cop storyline goes as far as the flashback storyline does: nowhere.

Connor avoids her, goes and does some judo practice, and then they finally start chatting. Then, for no reason, Kane turns up, and they fight on trampolines. Connor says they can’t fight because there’s a shrine in the museum and immortals don’t fight on holy ground, but Kane is having none of it, and on a trapeze, no less. He breaks Connor’s sword, then turns into a bird and flies away because… it’s a bit holy? In fact, the only thing about that scene that makes any sense is the damn trampoline in the museum.

So, swordless, and in love with this Alex woman because she looks like that Sarah woman from the unrelated flashbacks, he sods off back to Scotland. Why? Because he buried his own anvil and forge in the Highlands, just in case he ever needed a sword. What about that huge private collection of swords he has? Shhh, remember, they could start talking about Zeist at any moment. But, it doesn’t work. Turns out bonfires and bits of rusted castle don’t make very good swords, knowledge MacLeod apparently didn’t get in the prize.

Fortunately, Alex thingy found some magic metal in her dig, and tracks down MacLeod again, realising that he’ll need it for some reason. What follows is the most epic sword forging/sword swinging/standing on a hill holding a sword montage you will ever see ever. And then more Channel 5 sex. This one has a bum in it and everything. Unless you’re watching the version that doesn’t have the bum in it.

Meanwhile, we’d all forgotten MacLeod had a son, but Kane tracks him down. Well, I say tracks him down. Popo just phones him and leaves his name, number, and list of worst fears, because he’s an utter moron and 10. Naturally, Kane convinces him to fly unescorted to New York so he can kidnap him, and scare him by driving at 800mph through some illusions. You know, a bit like when the Kurgen did the same thing in the first one. This would be peril, had we seen his son more than once, and if any of this were real. As it is, it’s the setup for the endgame.

So, Connor returns to New York to face off with Kane in that wonderful staple of bad action movies, an abandoned factory. But because we still need filler to reach the 90 minute mark, at passport control he’s arrested for beheading that guy in the hospital. The exchange is pretty much like this.

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Cop: You’re under arrest for murder.

MacLeod: But my son has been kidnapped by a madman! I have proof and everything, look!

Cop: Really? I think it’s far more likely you’re a 500 year old immortal from Scotland who goes around beheading people with a katana in basements.

MacLeod: Do you have proof?

Cop: Well, no.

MacLeod: Can I go now?

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Cop: Fine, and you’ll never hear about this murder investigation ever again.

So, eventually, he gets to the factory. And… it’s awesome. No kidding, no hyperbole, it’s absolutely brilliant, because MacLeod just absolutely wails on him for about five minutes straight to industrial metal. Then he cuts Kane in half (which he literally walks off), has a bit of a illusion fight with a fake bridge, wails on him for another five minutes, and then cuts his head off. What it lacks in style (and it really lacks in style), it makes up for in sheer balls. I’m going to say that this is my favourite sword fight in the Highlander movies, just because it’s so different to any fight you’ll see. Naturally, Connor quickens so hard he lifts himself off the ground.

Connor travels to Scotland to put flowers on Heather’s grave, and then drives off into the sunset, with Alex whoeversheis and his son. The end. And there it is. The one Highlander sequel that’s just about alright. It’s a proper feature film, it has some decent 90s morphing effects, but more importantly it’s not Highlander II. It’s not very good, sure, but that’s not what Highlander III needs to be. It needs to be at least respectable, and it is. It’s also very faithful to the original and quite entertaining, in a cheesy B movie way. Probably best enjoyed with cheap booze for maximum effect.

Of course, right at the death there’s a lightning strike on the grave, hinting at another immortal being around. You know, just in case someone were dumb enough to make yet another Highlander film.

What? They did? Oh, crap. Why couldn’t there be only one?

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