Monday, November 29, 2010

Movie Review: Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)

There are certain movie going experiences that we never forget. Perhaps it’s that formative movie you saw during your childhood, the first time you snuck into a movie above your appropriate age level, the movie you saw on your first date, etc. In this sense movies weave their way into one’s personal history, becoming a part of life’s narrative. This is particularly true when a movie produces a strong reaction among a set of viewers, such that it becomes a shared group experience. Then the viewing itself may live on through oral storytelling tradition, providing a tale to tell those who weren’t able to “live the experience” of seeing the film when the story was new. For example imagine being among the first in line to see Star Wars before it became a phenomenon. The crowd walking out of that initial screening shared a historic moment, and all those viewers now 30+ years on can say “we were there.” That’s a cool cinematic tale to be able to tell. However there is another side to this coin, a dark side if you will. This is for viewers who “were there” to share a trauma, the brave souls who plunged headlong into the cinematic unknown and discovered the unspeakable . . . a place called Zeist, a film called Highlander 2: The Quickening.

I will never forget the evening I saw Highlander 2: The Quickening. If ever a movie going experience qualified as trauma, it was definitely that one. It’s not just that it wasn’t very good, it’s that it failed to fulfill any of the expectations fans carried with them. The original film had come and gone in theaters quickly, likely due to its unusual and hard to market concept. Thanks to home video and word-of-mouth however, it found a new life and became a cult film in the truest sense. A rabid segment of fandom embraced its unique blend of fantasy and sci-fi, and became particularly fascinated with the mythology of the immortals. Over the course of several years it was mentioned in the same breath as other genre classics such as Star Wars and the like, becoming a benchmark film in its own right. Unlike Star Wars though, Highlander ended on a fairly conclusive note. There can be only one. If only that were true.

For the record I was as eager a Highlander fan as anyone, more than ready to line up for a second outing. In some ways it was almost unbelievable. The first one had bombed so badly that a sequel seemed like a long shot at best. Sure my circle of friends and random fans I came across thought the original was great, but how could that message make it to the financiers? For it to get a second chance was like a dream come true, forget about whether it made any sense to continue on beyond the winning of the prize. In the pre-Internet days information was not easily forthcoming, and we literally knew only that a sequel was coming – nothing more. As such speculation about plot was all over the place, with prequel being the most oft uttered prediction. After all, the first one finished the tale, so the only way to travel would be backward.

The first clue anyone in my circle had as to the reality of the situation, not to mention the first sign of trouble, was a guest appearance by Christopher Lambert on the Arsenio Hall show. All I remember now was Lambert’s introduction of the clip they had. He said to Hall, “I’m flying. I can fly now.” The clip proceeded to show Lambert flying around on a weird looking hover board, fighting an even weirder looking character in big goggles. Honestly after that clip rolled the group of us that saw it sat in our dorm living room thoroughly puzzled. It wasn’t that it was particularly awful or anything, it just didn’t mesh with the Highlander we knew. Oh there were swords alright, but that was about it. And one thing was for sure, it definitely wasn’t set in the past. When the film opened a couple of weeks later, aside from that brief clip, we walked into it cold.

What is so memorable about the experience of seeing Highlander 2: The Quickening on that cold November evening, beyond profound disappointment, was the buildup to the screening. The whole week everyone I knew on campus was filled with anticipation, talking about the big premiere on Friday night. Not only was it rare for our small college town to get a big, first run movie, but it was getting a movie many of us a) never expected to be made in the first place and b) had basically been waiting for 5 years to see. In class, at the dinner table, in the dorm living room, and anywhere else you went conversation inevitably turned to Highlander 2. On Friday the mood had built up to a fever, with some skipping class to watch the original and have pre-parties. As for me I started the day by walking over to the campus library to check out the review by Ebert. Oh boy. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever read a more scathing review from the celebrated critic. Even so I chose to ignore it as the ranting of a non-fan who refused to embrace the genius of the original. It was clear from the column he didn’t like the first outing, and thus couldn’t be counted on to give an accurate assessment.

After a full day of Highlander screenings and parties, I got together with my group and headed out to the theater for the evening show. The waiting area was packed! Regardless of what ultimately took place when we got in the theater, it was a heady moment of wish fulfillment. Somehow fandom had managed to inspire the production of a sequel to an unpopular film, and now we had all gathered to share in the realization of that dream. This was to be the grand start of a new franchise to rival our childhood favorites such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, etc. We were at the beginning and would be able to tell the tale to others – “we were there.” The anticipation was palpable, almost unbearable, and finally we were let into the auditorium.

I have no recollection of the previews. I remember the THX logo coming up (still a novelty at that time) and people cheering. Then things started to happen too fast. There was old MacLeod at the opera, and then he started talking about remembering Zeist. Then we were quickly sent back in time to another world where Michael Ironside lived, never a good sign. Then he squeezed some eels and sent MacLeod and Ramirez into the future. Next we learn MacLeod has built an ozone shield and that rebels are trying to shut it down. Flashback to Zeist and Michael Ironside is sending two spiky-haired henchmen who laugh like hyenas to kill MacLeod in the future where he is now old and mortal. MacLeod kills them and then yells really loud, which results in the resurrection of Ramirez. And all this in about 20 minutes!

Not that it took that long before I was officially off the case. Honestly as soon as he uttered the word “Zeist” I had a sinking feeling, and shortly thereafter I knew Ebert was right. In fact I remember my friend and I turning to each other at the same time when he said the Zeist line with puzzled looks. It was amazing how fast we all went from cheering and clapping to outright dismay. I’ve never seen an audience turn so quickly and dramatically during a screening, with the possible exception of Episode I. Even in that instance though there were enough things done well (e.g. the pod race, the final lightsaber duel) that the experience didn’t turn ugly. Highlander 2 was an exercise in shellshock, with each new scene bringing additional upset. Yeah “we were there” alright.

After that the legacy was tarnished and the damage was done. Then a few years later we found out, via the new invention called the Internet, that the makers of Highlander 2 were putting together a revised version to fix all the problems. Short of scrapping the whole thing I wasn’t sure how such a feat could be achieved, but they were calling it the “most radical rethinking” of a film ever (or something to that effect). If it meant repairing the good name of Highlander then I was all for it. Eventually it was released on video as the “Renegade Version,” and indeed it was a “radical rethinking.” Gone were all references to Zeist, and the film had been re-edited with new footage added. Apparently when it was cut for theatrical distribution it was taken out of director Russell Mulcahy’s hands. As a result sequences were placed out of order, and whole pieces of exposition removed. The reconstruction put the narrative back together properly, and sure enough things did make a little more sense.

But more sense does not necessarily a great movie make. I’m sure in its own way Ishtar makes sense, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to laud it as a work of genius. Yes the removal of the Zeist references help the film fit in better with the established mythology, and yes the proper sequencing keeps the narrative on track, but the end result is still an unsatisfying piece of work as a follow up to Highlander. The first film was a swashbuckling adventure that was both fun and absorbing, whereas the second outing was a dystopian nightmare that provided nothing but gloom and inappropriate humor (e.g. John C. McGinley’s evil exec, the spiky haired henchmen, etc.). Worse still it ripped off qualities of the first film and did so poorly. Michael Ironside’s General Katana is nothing more than a bad Kurgan clone (which I don’t believe is his fault, but rather a bad script), we get a quick repeat of MacLeod falling in love with a mortal (Virginia Madsen) that is absolutely ridiculous, and Ramirez is awkwardly brought back to dispense sage advice, to name but a few glaring problems. So “renegade” or not Highlander 2 just didn’t cut it.

Amazingly despite the financial failure of the sequel, the series managed to chug on and become a full blown franchise. A television show was launched that developed a following, two feature films came along later, and more recently a DTV outing arrived that makes everything that came before look like genius. This of course doesn’t even consider video games, novels and other tie-ins. Yet none of these have ever held a candle to the first film. Here’s the part that’s going to come as a shocker though – for my money the only other entry that merits any consideration is Highlander 2: The Quickening! You see to me the television series, and I know it has its followers, was always a lackluster affair. Adrian Paul on his best day couldn’t compete with Lambert’s portrayal of MacLeod, and the production always seemed cheap. The films forget about it. The third film was a total ripoff of the original, with Mario Van Peebles substituted for Clancy Brown, and did nothing to advance the mythology. And Highlander: Endgame rewrites things so that Lambert can get killed and never win the prize?!? Sorry I’ll have none of that.

This brings us back to Highlander 2. Viewed in the “renegade” format, the film is just a disappointing/sometimes confusing entry that fails to satisfy. The tone and setting do not mesh well with the original, making it seem like a sequel belonging to another franchise. It has a Blade Runner type of environment that is completely disorienting as a successor to the mean streets of 80’s New York City, much less the Scottish highlands. Furthermore we are introduced to an old MacLeod who has squandered the prize by creating a shield to protect the Earth from gaps in the ozone layer?!? On one level it’s a fascinating and dark premise that MacLeod would botch the prize, but the shield comes off as so ridiculous that any cool factor of taking the franchise in an unexpected direction is diminished significantly. In a way this downturn of events makes Highlander 2 a kindred spirit with the likes of Alien 3, save for the fact that the latter kept a tone that anchored it as belonging to the rest of the series. Depressing and glum can work if you keep things consistent and follow through.

Of course it should come as no surprise that the “renegade” cut feels out of step, as it was crafted by extracting a key plot point – Zeist! The removal of all Zeist references was a calculated maneuver by the filmmakers to pacify upset fans, but Zeist was not a mistake (as a side note you may recall this sort of thing happens all the time in Seagal DTV movies, where space aliens are removed and referred to as mobsters, etc.). Zeist was a consciously crafted story element that attempted to explain the origin of the immortals and the nature of the prize. On one level I can understand the desire to do this, as there is curiosity generated by this point of mystery. It would be interesting to know who they are and where they come from. When asked about the whole thing in the original Ramirez responds “why does the sun come up” or “are the stars just pinpricks in the curtain of night.” Who knows. The fact is if you’re going to purport to know you’d better come up with something more brilliant than Zeist and General Katana, lest you risk upsetting a legion of fans.

That being said I still prefer “The Quickening” to the “Renegade Version.” While I appreciate the fact that the latter corrects certain sequencing issues, the removal of Zeist is nevertheless evident throughout the film. Something always seems off with the story. Beyond that issue though, the film is actually weaker for not having the courage of its original convictions. Minus Zeist Highlander 2 is just a blah sequel with pretty looking sets and big explosions, and therefore totally forgettable. The addition of Zeist makes Highlander 2 something special, it makes it an utter disaster of epic proportions. As such it becomes watchable as a curiosity, a spectacle of sorts. And make no mistake it is a beautiful failure. This was a lavish $35 million production. The sets and effects are nothing short of spectacular on every level. They are unfortunately not served by a good plot or performances, but there is no fault to be found from a technical standpoint. The train yard battle between MacLeod and Katana’s henchmen in particular is a visual feast that can hold its own among the best blockbusters. It’s also one of very few reasons I occasionally return to the film after all these years.

In the final analysis I would submit that if you have sworn off Highlander 2: The Quickening (non-Renegade), you should have another look. I’m not saying you’ll find a good movie or come away having discovered a lost classic. It’s still a bad movie and a worse sequel. What you will find is a spectacular failure, a wonder for the eyes, and the second best Highlander film among an array of flotsam. Unfortunately you’ll have to track it down on VHS or laserdisc as it has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Only the Renegade Version has received treatment on the latest formats. Chances are The Quickening, much like the original Star Wars trilogy or THX-1138, will never be released again in favor of the altered version. It’s a shame because the Renegade Version doesn’t tell the full story, and will leave future generations puzzled. On the other hand it will add to the mystical oral storytelling quality, allowing those “who were there” to regale the uninitiated with tales of Zeist, broken cinematic promises, and bitter disappointments.


Daniel said...

ya know Jim I have only sat through the first Highlander. I might have to double feature this one day and catch up on all the bad of the second movie.

Jim Blanton said...

I know Rob would strongly disagree with me, but I highly recommend doing so. Highlander 2 is really fascinating for all the things it is not, and amazing (no kidding) production design. As I said I recommend "The Quickening" over the "Renegade Version" to get the full effect : )