Don't get me wrong. I loved Highlander when I was a kid. I even followed the film series enthusiastically up until part three, which came out when I was eleven. Eleven was apparently too old to enjoy Highlander sequels anymore. Or so I thought....
You know the tagline even if you don't know the movies: There can be only one. Why can there be only one? When the French Christopher Lambert (playing a Scot) asks questions like that, the Scottish Sean Connery (playing an Egyptian) replies with another question: "Why does the sun rise?" That's a cheat—in reality we all know why the sun rises, but we'll never really know why Immortals have to fight. Probably because someone thought it would be pretty bad ass.
To outsiders—and for nearly twenty years I was one of them—Highlander's popularity can be a bit mystifying. Let's get some of the bad stuff out of the way. Here's the biggest problem with the original Highlander: there are no answers. None. Zilch. The sooner you accept that the better because there's a decent movie lurking beneath the cheese. And who doesn't like sword fights that produce roughly as many sparks as a bumper car grid?
Yesterday, I watched the original film. The Queen music was awesome, the beheadings were satisfying, and the bad guy (played by the grossly underrated Clancy Brown) is a totally bad ass "seven-foot tall lunatic."
The rest isn't Shakespeare. Let's say you're a Trans-Am-driving gun nut who happens to pass a dark alley in which two strangers are sword fighting. Do you A) drive to the nearest payphone and call the cops or B) get out and shoot at these people? If you chose B, you belong in this movie.
The pacing is a bit rough, too, while the acting is just good enough. Even so, you're going to be scratching your head and making MST3K quips throughout. So when the movie was over I popped in the Blu-Ray edition of Westworld and all but forgot about Highlander. Then I went to bed where distant memories of the infamous sequel began to haunt me.
I remembered Sean Connery was in it and (minor spoiler coming up) just had to know what kind of movie magic they spun to bring his character back to life. I had frequently read how awful the movie was, which was at odds with how much I enjoyed it as an eight year old. So this morning I shelled out four bucks to rent it on demand.
I may never be able to enjoy another movie again.
Highlander 2 (1991)
See, other movies are not as good because other movies aren't Highlander 2. Other movies don't have the mysteriously likable Christopher Lambert, Michael Ironside, and Sean Connery—the trifecta as far as I'm concerned. Other movies are too logical, make too much sense, and have way too much taste, which is ultimately their undoing.
Every movie I have seen since I watched Highlander 2 has fallen flat.
I've said before I enjoyed Johnny Mnemonic in spite of how badly it managed to butcher its source material. Turning Molly Millions into a damsel in distress was unforgivable, but come on: it's the film that both managed to bring cyberpunk to the mainstream and kill it at the same time. I just take enormous pleasure in the 90s' ridiculous vision of the future. (See: everything from Van Damme's Cyborg to Billy Idol videos.) None of this stuff could even come close to holding a candle to the set design in Blade Runner, but it's as comforting as an old sweater nonetheless.
Highlander 2 is set in such a dismal future world. For the most part it's a pretty convincing one, though a little on the rich side, and it looks like they got more bang out of their budget than Freejack and Johnny Mnemonic combined. Some of the movie was even set on an alien planet at one point, but those versions of the film have been buried. All this jumping around takes the series out of the domain of fantasy and ushers it into science fiction, where I'm most comfortable.
When we first see Lambert's MacLeod, he's elderly and speaks in a hilariously phony voice. Why is it so high-pitched? Chalk it up to a brave yet misguided acting decision if you must, but never mind that. Just look at how big budgeted this all feels. The opening crane shots in and around the grand opera house are like nothing you'd see in a typical B movie.
That's because there was a shit ton of money spent on the production. Rumor has it the people who put up that money are partially to blame for the film's "problems."
The theatrical cut, the version I saw on Pay-Per-View when I was eight, corn-holed the entire mythology of the original film within the first few minutes. It accomplished this by asserting two things: one, the Immortals were (surprise!) aliens all along and two, MacLeod and Ramirez didn't meet for the first time in the original Highlander, but a long, long time before that.
Luckily for the director, this bit of contradictory dialogue had been filmed with characters who spoke telepathically, without moving their lips. The obvious fix was to phase out the original version and rerecord the dialogue. In the subsequent versions, and I'm not sure if I saw the director's cut or the newer "Renegade" version, all verbal references to the aforementioned alien planet are edited out of the dialogue... but the visual references remain. That way audiences are led to believe, if they're still paying attention, that it's not an alien planet, but Earth a long time ago.
The changes didn't really help the film, though. If anything, they made it a little more confusing. But hey, that's part of the reason I love it. I'm really not being ironic here. I fucking loved this movie.
beginning at 1:30, Siskel & Ebert don't agree with me
I've never seen anything like it before. That's probably the best compliment I'm capable of giving any movie. Look, it's not so bad it's good—it's so good it hurts. Seriously. It hurts in a way that it makes your stomach knot from tickled laughter, some of it intended, a lot of it not. Yet I found a lot more to make fun of in part one because this one didn't bore me for a second, while engaging from one end of the film to the other.
Highlander 2 shows absolutely no restraint in its crusade to not only give you what you expected, but absolutely everything you could possibly want. You get hover boards. You get bad guys who look like they're straight out of a Hellraiser film. There are jet packs with unfolding wings. There are numerous sword fights and awesome beheadings. And you will never see a hero have sex with the heroine so quickly after meeting and, ahem, I do stress the word "quickly."
Guess what. All of that awesome stuff happens in the first thirty minutes.
Adding to the plot's confusion, the world's ozone layer has deteriorated. MacLeod himself helped create an artificial layer of atmosphere to deflect the sun's radiation. I know he's immortal, but it must have been very busy life to go from warrior to antique dealer to world-renowned scientist.
Meanwhile, Virginia Madsen's character and a group of environmentalists break into the shield generator's complex and discover the real ozone layer may have repaired itself in the time since the artificial one went up. Madsen is so surprised by the discovery I have no idea why she broke into the complex in the first place—for shits and giggles? With MacLeod's shield in place, the world is constantly dark now and if her findings are correct, it's all for nothing. Madsen, by the way, is one of millions of people who have never seen a blue sky. You'll think, "Oh, the blue sky is going to be the payoff at the end of the picture." Yet it's not.
This movie is too insane to even follow convention.
Here's where the alien planet retcon screws up the current version: so the Immortals from the past watch the events in the future unfold as if they were being broadcast on live TV. Think about that for a moment. They're watching what's happening in the future from the fucking past. They also have
What matters is the film feels like the result of people who were legitimately crazy. Remember when I said I was dying to see what kind of movie magic they would use to bring Connery's character back to life? The answer is none. They used no magic at all. MacLeod screams the character's name and, inexplicably, Ramirez appears on a stage in Scotland during a performance of Hamlet. I'm not kidding or exaggerating here. That's literally how it happened.
The bulk of Ramirez's screen time is making the journey to America while acting not like an Egyptian, but an older James Bond whose flirtatious jokes have gotten a lot raunchier. "I don't eat anything I can't identify," he tells a flight attendant before looking to the woman beside him and adding, "Well, that's not entirely true." A pussy-eating joke!
And man, does Connery look like he's having fun or what? Meanwhile, you catch glimpses of Lambert's frustration with the doomed production. You occasionally see a flicker of How the hell did I end up in this turkey? in Virgina Madsen's eyes, particularly when she has to deliver a stupidly complicated piece of exposition. But Connery is having a blast and it shows. I've always been a fan of Connery, but I think I like him more than ever now. What grace. What charm.
Highlander 2, as it exists today, just doesn't deserve its sour reputation. It's too damn entertaining for its countless inclusions on "worst movies of all time" lists. Mediocrity is much more offensive than terrible. Highlander 2 tries—I mean it really fucking tries. It gets an A for ambition alone.