What went wrong with Highlander II: The Quickening?

Christopher Lambert didn't like it. Director Russell Mulcahy doesn't like it. Audiences didn't like it. But is Highlander II that bad?

The Highlander franchise has always had one, and forgive the tautology, enormous elephant in the room, and that elephant is the first film, which was the end point of the story. The series has always been about immortals, and their battles to “be only one” (as the tagline reminds you incessantly). Indeed, by the end of the film there is only one. Or to be more exact, there aren’t any at all, as it turns out the prize is mortality (and magic mind powers or something). Thus ends the story. No more immortals.

The 80s really wasn’t the time of the movie franchise, especially with a decidedly quirky fantasy film like Highlander, so really there was no need for a sequel. Highlander was never going to sell toys, although admittedly that might be to do with the insane accents that would have made the talking dolls a difficult production job.

Worker 1: Ok, so, the Scottish one gets the French accent, and the Egyptian one gets the Scottish accent.

Worker 2: Sean Connery is the Scottish one, right?

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Worker 1: No, he’s Egyptian.

Worker 2: But there aren’t any Egyptian characters.

Worker 1: He’s the the one with the Spanish name.

Worker 2: So he get’s a Spanish accent?

Worker 1: No, he gets a Scots accent

Worker 2: What about the Scottish one?

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Worker 1: French.

Worker 2: Any others?

Worker 1: There’s the Russian one with the American accent.

Worker 2: I’m resigning.

Weird thing is though, a sequel did get made, with the same director and everything. So naturally, you’d expect something similar, with all those weird accents and flashbacks across history. Well you’d be wrong. Instead, we get we get a dystopian thriller with all those weird accents and flashbacks… well, we’ll get to those. And while remarkably stupid, it’s also remarkably entertaining. Really, it’s not as bad as you’ve heard. There’s an explosion and a sword fight and it’s really good, I swear. It’s so good in fact that…

No, I can’t do this, I can’t.

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I started writing this to try and shed a different light on this unappreciated classic, but I can’t. I really can’t. Highlander II is awful. It’s not even “so bad it’s good” territory, it skips right past that into the “so awful you can’t look away for fear you’ll both be killed” territory. And amazingly, it manages to not only be contender for worst film in the world, but it also runs the entire franchise into the ground and retcons the first film into oblivion in the space of 15 minutes. This is the film that had such bad continuity it’s arguably the world’s first reboot. For decades, this was the punchline for every bad movie joke, the bad sequel to end all bad sequels. This is a film that wishes it could be as good as Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

Not wanting to let a little thing like not having any immortals or having one of your main poster characters being dead get in the way of a good story, Highlander II almost immediately goes back over every plot point of the first film. The immortals were never immortals but in fact aliens, Sean Connery can resurrect himself (ironically making him more immortal than when he was actually an immortal), and the Highlander wasn’t actually from the Highlands but instead from another planet. It also retcons the prize to a choice between dying slowly or being executed. Also, all that bit about MacLeod first meeting Ramirez, learning his true nature and all that character development? Retcon! Turns out they already had some sort of weird civil partnership thing going on, using magic space honey. Also, MacLeod was head of the immortals, I mean “Zeistians”.

So stupid was the whole planet Zeist thing that the director cobbled together a new version years later called the “Renegade Version”. This removed the whole Zeist thing, and very crudely edited all references to Zeist to be some time in a distant past. A distant past that has access to time travel and has laser battles in the debris of crashed spaceships. This is the only version you can buy now unless you want to hunt around for an old VHS copy (yeah, you’re not the only one, Star Wars fans). I don’t own the VHS, I own the Blu-ray. Oh yes.

So, to the movie. It’s the year 2024, and the world is bathed in darkness from something called The Shield, built by Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) to save the world from a hole in the ozone layer. Yes, MacLeod used the boundless knowledge he gained from the prize to think that the problem of excess UV radiation was to block out the entire sun. Of course, it turns out that blocking out the entire sun was a bad thing and now Earth has gone to hell. Worse, the Shield Corporation has been accused of holding a monopoly (presumably preventing all the other sun blocking device manufacturers from a fair crack at the market), and in fact may be covering up the fact that everything is fine. There would be a public outcry, but MacLeod built it without an off switch, and in fact even attempting to turn it off would blow up the world. Connor MacLeod, ladies and gentlemen, our hero and saviour! 

This premise, that the Shield Corporation has the planet hostage and is making too much money off everyone to care, could be quite compelling and provide the backdrop to explore all sorts of different issues. The dystopian future setting is well designed in the Blade Runner mould (featuring the kind of set design that wouldn’t be seen until at least the Super Mario Bros. movie), the special effects are sort of alright, and Michael Ironside is as entertaining as always. At the very least it should be credited for not going down the tired rehash sequel route. You’re unlikely to ever see a film quite like it ever again. It’s just, nothing about it makes any sense at all.

You see, turns out Connor MacLeod was the leader of the resistance back on ZeistPast, a resistance against General Katana. Why? We’re never told. We do know that MacLeod became leader after Ramirez married him, because Ramirez says something like “hey, you know who’d make a good resistance leader? This guy, right here, my husband, Connor MacLeod”. Oh, and by the way, even though they’re from Zeistpast they’re still called MacLeod and Ramirez… let’s just say it’s a kind of magic. Anyway, five minutes into this resistance, everyone’s dead because MacLeod’s great plan is “run slowly at the men with laser cannons and hope for the best”. So, they’re captured, and sentenced to exile on future Earth where they will be immortal and have to go round beheading people. Yes, the punishment for treason on Zeist is immortality some place nicer. No wonder the rebellion seems to involve 80 percent of the population.

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General Katana, on the other hand, doesn’t like this. He doesn’t like this so much that he forgets about it entirely. Then, one day 500 years later he turns on his TV and decides he needs to kill MacLeod for some reason. You see, General Katana is an immortal too, so he… doesn’t like immortals? I don’t know. In the original cut they don’t even try to make sense of the timeframe, they just make out that he’s some evil dictator. He decides to go through with this plan even when his henchman points out MacLeod is not only mortal now but practically dead, and an easier plan would be to let him die of old age. But Katana decides to send his henchmen anyway just to make sure, who make MacLeod immortal again by accident because shut up that’s how it works. And then MacLeod yells “Ramirez” for some reason and now Ramirez is alive again. Because shut up, that’s how it works. After this, Katana decides he should do it himself, and his plan to kill MacLeod involves hijacking a train and driving it at 800mph through a wall, and then hanging around the Shield Corporation, because… MacLeod might just turn up there one day for no reason. 

I haven’t even mentioned Virginia Madsen in all of this, who becomes Connor’s love interest after knowing him for approximately three seconds. She plays a terrorist commando. You know, in any other film that might be a stretch, but this is Highlander II, the film that makes ITV2 look like BBC4. She’s on the run because when she saw a security camera she took her helmet off, because that’s how terrorists work. Her terrorist activities involve looking at the monitor that says “the obviously evil Shield Corporation is evil, hahahahahaha” and then being the damsel in distress for the rest of the film. At one point she’s left alone with a jammed gun, but it’s treated as peril, and then never mentioned again. In the original ending, she flies into space, using magic.

Dr Cox from Scrubs is in this too, doing an awful Orson Welles impersonation. Let’s just say it’s a wonder they had the balls to call him Dr Cox after this film. (He gets his testicles crushed).

Did any of that make sense? If it did, I’m not doing this right. Nothing in this film makes any sense at all. Characters magically know everything about everyone, scenes jump from one to the next with no continuity, and everyone looks bored. Sean Connery in particular is on autopilot, and this is the guy who literally phoned in the opening narration for the first film, while on the toilet, no less.

As mentioned earlier, I own the Blu-ray of this. They don’t even sell it in this country – I had to import it off eBay at considerable expense. In true B-movie fashion, this HD remaster is clearly taken from an upscaled VHS tape, although there are a few new special effects sequences showing people arriving from space. This is in the version that had all references to space taken out. I’ll give you one thing, at least this film is consistently awful. 

The director – Russell Mulcahy – requested his name be taken off the film, and walked out of the premiere after 15 minutes. Christopher Lambert threatened to do the same. After choosing to film in Argentina, everyone involved was held to ransom when Argentina’s economy tanked and hyperinflation began to erode the potential profits. At this point, the insurance company seized control of the film and got the lawyers to threaten everyone with legal action if they ever badmouthed the film. Then they took control of editing and tried to make… God knows. I’m not sure there was ever a decent film here to begin with, but eventually we were left with whatever this is. A film so bad everyone involved disowned it. A film so bad that even a director’s cut that introduces plot holes and bad dubbing is considered a vast improvement.

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Amazingly, it didn’t destroy the franchise. Far from it. The 90s saw a Highlander explosion, with a new film, a TV series (that got its own films in the 2000s), novels, video games, and even a cartoon series. They all have one thing in common, though – they all pretend that Highlander II never happened. They all also have to retcon the ending of the first Highlander as well, though, but that’s a given. In fact, retconning the previous entry became a Highlander tradition, as Highlander III retcons Highlander II, and in turn the Highlander TV series retcons the whole lot. In fact the only thing that is constant about the franchise is that it continuously retcons itself. So the upcoming reboot is hardly anything new.

Do you know what the really sad thing is? Highlander II isn’t actually the worst Highlander film. Not by a long way. But I’ll tell you this, I might have bought the Blu-ray for this, but I’m not buying a Blu-ray for any of the other sequels. You know why? Because there can be only one.

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