FOSSIL FILMS is a spoiler-heavy column devoted to unearthing the films that have either been lost to time, forgotten by the masses or just plain ignored. Some of these flicks will be good, some will be classics and some will be pretty bad. The standing question will be, is this movie worth being discovered (or rediscovered) or should it remain a fossil film?
PLOT: If you’re a true movie nerd, then you probably already know the story of HIGHLANDER: Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is an immortal born in the Highlands of Scotland in the 15th century. Throughout the ages, he and other immortals like himself battle each other to gain “The Prize” which is awarded to the last man standing. “The Prize” is basically the chance to become mortal and gain infinite knowledge. Oh yeah, in order for an immortal to die, you have to cut off their head.
Chances are, you’ve seen one or more of these flicks, maybe the television show and maybe even the cartoon series (no, I’m not kidding) based off the movies. Question is, have you really seen HIGHLANDER II? And by HIGHLANDER II, I mean the theatrical version that retconned the entire original out of existence and revealed that the immortals weren’t actually born on Earth, but were actually aliens banished to Earth from the planet Zeist. Once again, I’m not kidding and this movie actually exists, despite the best efforts of producers William Panzer and Peter Davis. But we'll get back to them in a bit. First, let's check out the "Zeist" cut of HIGHLANDER II...
AVAILABILITY: Hard to find, but not impossible. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that you’ve seen HIGHLANDER II at your local Wal-Mart and that you might actually even own a copy on DVD or Blu-Ray. Here’s the catch: Every version of HIGHLANDER II currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray is a variation of the 1995 “Renegade Version”.
The “Renegade Version”, a director’s cut of sorts assembled by helmer Russell Mulcahy, completely omits the “immortals are aliens” plotline, reconfigures the entire film, adds new scenes, deletes old ones, it even goes so far as to alter the effects work in the film. In 2004, another version of HIGHLANDER II was created, this time altering the effects even moreso and adding even more material. These two versions are the only ones widely available to the public at this time.
To obtain the original theatrical cut, you’ve gotta go old-school. I’m talking VHS and Laserdisc, baby. Find yourself a VHS copy of HIGHLANDER II from 1992 or the original Laserdisc release and you’ve found the original “Zeist” version. If you happen to still have a Laserdisc player, finding that release is probably the easiest way to go since there have been multiple VHS releases of THE QUICKENING over the years and you’d be hard pressed to find that original one. Not impossible (I managed to score one at a yard sale a few years ago), but it won‘t be easy.
If you really want to know the dead giveaway that you are watching the “Zeist” version of HIGHLANDER II, look no further than the opening credits. If the title screen says “HIGHLANDER II - THE QUICKENING” you’re probably watching the original theatrical version. Most of the other versions simply whittle the title down to HIGHLANDER 2.
Facts are, if you didn’t see this in the theater when it came out (I remember seeing it at the Silver Screen in Biloxi, MS) or you didn’t happen upon that original VHS/Laserdisc release, you’ve probably never seen the “true” HIGHLANDER II.
THE RUNDOWN: Now to get down to the big question: Is the theatrical cut of HIGHLANDER II any good? After all, this is a flick that famously has a 0% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was apparently so bad that the producers have twice attempted to erase the memory of it. I guess the easiest way to answer the big question is to posit another one: Do you like bad movies?
If you do, you’ll find a lot to love in HIGHLANDER II. I’m personally a big fan of bad movies, especially ones that are so gloriously bad that they transcend their awfulness and rise into the higher echelon of films that are so bad that they are good. This is definitely one of those cases.
First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room: Zeist. What the hell were they thinking? Anybody who’s seen the original HIGHLANDER knows that there is no mention of Zeist, nor is there any implication that Connor and Ramirez (Sean Connery) were rebel leaders on Tattooine…er, I mean, Zeist. None of this stuff makes sense and it serves in complete opposition to the already-established mythos. Retcon doesn’t even begin to explain the Zeist stuff. This is more of a full-scale ignoring of the original film. Hell, if the producers, director and star didn’t want to acknowledge the original film, they should’ve simply changed the character names, switched around a couple of plot elements and called the movie something else. Anything else, just not HIGHLANDER II.
And as if the Zeist stuff wasn’t bad enough, it presents tons of logic and plot holes. If baddie Katana (Michael Ironside) could send assassins from Zeist to Earth to kill MacLeod, why didn’t he do it sooner? As far as I could tell, he waited nearly 500 years and AFTER MacLeod had already obtained the prize to send his goons. More importantly, the priests who banish MacLeod and Ramirez indicate that the two of them will be immortal once they arrive on Earth which seems to indicate that they are mortal on Zeist (the dozens of dead soldiers killed by gunfire in the opening flashbacks seem to indicate that Zeistians are indeed mortal and do not need to have their heads lopped off in order to die) which makes no sense because Katana was around when they were banished and is still around nearly 500 years later! Do Zeistians have thousand year lifespans? Why banish traitors to another planet to be immortal? Isn’t that like rewarding them for being bad? And what’s the point of having them fight each other till only one is left and that one can actually return back to Zeist (yep, they even altered “The Prize”, it‘s a trip back home instead of infinite knowledge)? Hell, why didn’t MacLeod return home when he killed The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) in the first HIGHLANDER? I DON’T UNDERSTAND!
Whew. That was rough. Sorry about that. I jotted down nearly two pages of plot holes, flaws and poor editorial decisions while watching this pic and I needed to get them out. Well, some of them, at least. If I were to spend the next two pages ranting about what didn’t really work in this flick, I’d simply list a plot synopsis and call it a day. HIGHLANDER II is that fucking weird.
But, if you can manage to look past the script that was seemingly written by a monkey hopped up on PCP-laced bananas, you’ll actually find some pretty cool stuff lurking about. Easily the most amazing thing about this flick is the set design. Director Mulcahy definitely knows his visuals and the entire look of this film is bit like METROPOLIS crossed with BLADE RUNNER. Actually it's more like METROPOLIS and BLADE RUNNER had a baby and they filled that baby with gasoline. To describe the sets in this flick as explosive would be an understatement. Also, most of the set are entirely practical, meaning that these are actual actors running amok in a giant playground. No green screen here.
One of the biggest set pieces in the entire film is the battle between MacLeod and Katana’s henchmen Corda and Reno and it absolutely batshit insane. For thing, MacLeod is an old man at the beginning of the fight and a run-in with a gas tanker transforms him into young Macleod (don’t ask). For another, the duo of henchmen are flying around using hover boards left over from the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE movie with Dolph Lundgren and they are also sporting jet packs. Did I mention that a train just magically appears in the middle of the city (wonder if it's the manifestation of MacLeod's dead wife, like in INCEPTION) long enough for MacLeod and one of the goons to have a little sword fight? Did I also mention that when MacLeod dispatches of those two (was there any doubt?), the “quickening” that hits him is so powerful that it nukes half of the damn city and brings back Ramirez from the dead?!?
Incidentally, if MacLeod had the power to bring back Ramirez from the dead just by saying his name, why didn’t he just say his name after the Kurgan killed him in the first film? And what the hell is up with resurrecting him by just saying his name? Does that mean MacLeod hasn’t spoken the name of his best friend not one single time since he died nearly 500 years ago?
Speaking of Ramirez, he’s the best part of the film. That’s probably the reason that none of his scenes were deleted from the alternate cuts of HIGHLANDER II and it’s probably the reason that Connery signed on to do appear in this mess in the first place. He’s basically a cameo that gets more to do than the lead and looks worlds better while doing it. Granted, none of his scenes mesh well with the rest of the film (Ramirez seems to be running through a reverse version of A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT as directed by the Zucker brothers, while MacLeod is stuck in an early 90s sci-fi eco-thriller), but that doesn’t change the fact that Connery seems to be having a ball here.
Ironically enough, performances aren’t really the problem with HIGHLANDER II. Some of the plot developments that the characters have to muddle their way through semi-derail some of the work here, but everybody seems to be giving their all. More appropriately, all of the cast know they are in a big-budget b-movie and they act accordingly.
Lambert makes for a suitable, if generic, leading man. This definitely isn’t his worst appearance as the character (that distinction is easily reserved for HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME), but it really isn’t his best either. This is MacLeod: The Abridged Version. There’s a little pathos early on, a few nods to his tortured existence as an immortal, but it’s mostly washed away in favor of him kicking ass, making out with Virginia Madsen and delivering one-liners. For this movie, the performance works. However, had this been the performance he delivered in the first HIGHLANDER, the series would’ve ended there.
Oh, by the way, one of the biggest things that irritated me in this flick was the decision to have MacLeod go all Rambo on the baddies rather than Errol Flynn. Most of the fight scenes in this flick (at least, the ones that involve the baddies) are shootouts rather than sword fights and that is a fatal error when making a HIGHLANDER flick. HIGHLANDER is all about the badass sword fights, not generic gun battles.
Back to Madsen, she’s pretty. That’s about it. Her character (who’s apparently supposed to be a badass eco-terrorist) is woefully underwritten and reduced to nothing more than sex appeal once young MacLeod reappears. All versions of HIGHLANDER II attempt to wedge in a romance between her and MacLeod and none of them actually succeed. Ironically enough, the “Zeist” version works a little better than the other ones in this department simply because their romance takes a back seat to the action. In the “Renegade Cut”, however, this ill-advised plotline runs throughout and actually re-incorporates a laughable RED SHOE DIARIES-esque sex scene (moments after the two characters met, no less!). Basically, if you dig the romantic elements of the HIGHLANDER series (What the hell is wrong with you? HIGHLANDER is swords and immortals, baby!), aim for the later versions of this flick.
For my money, FIRE WITH FIRE is the hottest Madsen has ever been. It pisses me off to no end that flick isn’t available on DVD yet. What’s the deal, Paramount?
And then there’s Michael Ironside as Katana. Is Katana as badass as The Kurgan? No. Nobody is as badass as Clancy Brown in the original HIGHLANDER. It’s a fact of life. Hell, it’s a movie law, wedged down between “Don’t mess ever mess with Charles Bronson” and “Don’t wear a red uniform in STAR TREK”. If you look at the movie law books clearly, it states “The Kurgan is the most badass of all HIGHLANDER villains”. There are bylaws that talk about how he might be one of the greatest villains ever, but I won’t get into all that because were talking about HIGHLANDER II which blatantly disregards the first one, remember?
The easiest way to describe Ironside here is to say he was hungry. Dude chews the scenery like it was made out of fucking chocolate and he doesn’t let up till his belly is full and his head has been lopped off. Is it a good performance? Oh hell no. Katana makes no sense. He’s from the planet Zeist and yet he knows how to drop punch lines that incorporate things that exist on Earth? And what was the point of him derailing a subway train? Did he just feel the need to murder dozens of men, women, children and babies?
Yeah, you could argue that these things make him badass. And sometimes being an uber-badass doesn’t really need explanation. And I guess that since we’re talking about Michael Ironside here, I could give the character a pass on that front. Okay, I’ll do that. Katana is badass, but makes no sense as a character. There’s your critique of his performance.
Honestly, I could go on and on for hours about how HIGHLANDER II doesn’t work in any of it’s many forms, most of which is the “Zeist” edition. Visually, the movie is stunning and the performances are all pretty good for the material that the actors were handed. However, that is were the compliments end and the insanity begins. Anything involving continuity, plot, character, intelligence and basic storytelling capabilities is horrifically damaged in this flick. It would seem that the people that actually hated the original HIGHLANDER the most were the people who made it.
The easiest way to sum up the entire movie is to describe the final battle between Katana and MacLeod. Apparently, in the original cut of HIGHLANDER II, there were two different fights between these two, one that took place earlier in the film in MacLeod’s building and the final one at the shield generator. At some point during the editing of this pic, somebody somewhere decided that the final fight was a little short and they simply wedged the two battles into one long duel. This wouldn’t normally be a problem if, oh yeah, the two scenes matched, which, in this case, they don’t.
When the fight begins, MacLeod and Katana are wearing trench coats, MacLeod is fighting with the sword he took off one of the goons earlier in the film and the fight is taking place in the middle of the city. However, once the second half of the fight kicks in and the two are in the shield generator, Connor is suddenly wearing a significantly smaller jacket and is now fighting with his standard katana (where he retrieved it from is a source of much amusement to HIGHLANDER fans).
Madness, I tell you. And let’s not even get me started on the whole “shield” thing. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to figure out how a shield that protects the Earth by blocking out harmful solar rays and sunlight, yet kills all of the plants and trees (which produce oxygen), was a good idea.
Oh, and as an extra bit of insanity, here’s the original ending to the “Zeist” version. Reportedly, this ending is also used for the television edit of HIGHLANDER II which actually combines elements of all three cuts of the film along with this incredibly daft ending into one huge supercut of the film which, I’m guessing, makes even less sense.
I get why Panzer/Davis buried this film. The theatrical cut of HIGHLANDER II is a mess. Thing is, it existed and to pretend that it didn’t is ignorant. Even Ridley Scott admits that the theatrical “happy” version of BLADE RUNNER exists and he even went so far as to include it on the mega DVD set that came out a couple years back. With all the alternate cuts and multiple DVD/Blu releases of HIGHLANDER II, it just doesn’t make sense they wouldn’t pony up some dough and give this an official release. Money is money and people would probably check this one out, even if only for curiosity.
IS IT WORTH DIGGING UP?: That depends. Are you a HIGHLANDER fan? If you are, then you need to see this, even if only for completist sake. Are you a fan of “so bad, but good” movies? If you are, then you definitely need to see the original “Zeist” version of HIGHLANDER II. Matter of fact, you need to see it, the “Renegade Version” and the special edition. All three are very different from each other, all three are riddled with problems and all three are deliciously mad.
However, if you’re a fan of movies that make sense and you not into the whole ironic “love bad movies” movement, I’m gonna suggest that you give this one (and all of the alternate versions) a pass. Just to be safe, you probably should avoid the HIGHLANDER series as a whole. Every subsequent sequel and spin-off since the original has basically rewrote the mythos for their installment. Continuity is not a strong suit for the HIGHLANDER series.