Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Written by: Brian Clemens, Peter Bellwood, William N. Panzer
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Michael Ironside, Sean Connery, Virginia Madsen
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND STREAMING
RUNNING TIME: 109 mins/ 99 mins/ 91 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
“A very long time ago” or on the planet Zeist [depending on what version you see], General Katana exiles rebels Connor MacLeod and Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez to the future or Earth to be reborn there in pursuit of ‘The Prize’. The victor can return or die of natural causes. In 1994, the ozone layer is depleting and millions have died from the effects of unfiltered sunlight, including Connor’s wife, Brenda. He helps create an electromagnetic shield to cover Earth, but this condemns it to constant night and a high temperature. In 2024, terrorist Louise Marcus discovers that the ozone layer has restored itself naturally, meaning that the shield is no longer needed, but The Shield Corporation hides this knowledge to maintain profit. She asks Connor for help, but he’s old and tired. Meanwhile, in the distant past or on Zeist, Katana is determined to kill Connor…
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and I originally intended to do Highlander. But, as I genuinely believe that’s a very good film to the point where I will challenge to a duel anyone who says otherwise, I decided instead to do its controversial first sequel instead. I remember only too clearly sitting through it in the cinema and shaking my head throughout a film I felt had totally crapped on Highlander which I was already a big fan of.
What the hell was this crap about the Immortals being aliens?
What was with the contradiction of so much other stuff in the first movie?
Why that random love scene that seemed to come out of nowhere?
Why such terrible continuity such as Connor suddenly wielding a different sword to the one he’d previously been using?
Okay, it’s often raining, but why are people wearing lots of clothes even indoors seeing as it’s supposed to be really really hot?
Etc, etc, etc, as the King of Siam said.
I had no real interest in watching it again, but my half-brother wanted to see it on video so I sat through the thing again – and it was even worse because several scenes were missing or re-edited, meaning that it made even less sense. Huh? A bit of research some time later revealed that Highlander 2 had been heavily messed about with, and that a bootleg video of a version much closer to the original conception was circulating. Already having a collection of often poor copies on tape of rare and uncut films [it’s incredible to think that was once a time when widely acknowledged horror classics such as The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were officially banned in the UK], I bought it, and it revealed a somewhat better film, less incoherent and smoother, if still a heavily flawed one. I put it to you that, at least in this version, it’s a far more interesting film than Highlander 3, and a much better one than Highlander: The Source. If you’ve still only seen the US or UK cinema and video cuts, and still hate the name of Zeist – well – Zeist is no more in the later re-cut! And at times the screenwriters do seem to be aware of how silly they’re getting. As Louise says to Connor:
“Okay, so let me just see if I can get this straight. You’re mortal there but you’re immortal here until you kill all the guys from there who come here, and then you’re mortal here. Unless you go back there, or some more guys from there come here, in which you become immortal here – again”.
And how can you not at least slightly like a film which has the saying:
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if you don’t take it out and use it, it’s going to rust”.
The screenplay was by William S. Panzer and Brian Clemens [yes, the Avengers TV series writer] Christopher Lambert was responsible for one of the film’s most random happenings, saying that he’d back out if Sean Connery didn’t appear. Michael Ironside and Lambert insisted on using real swords. After Lambert chipped one of Ironside’s teeth, and Ironside chopped a bit off one of Lambert’s fingers, they changed their minds. Ironside then had to do one of his own stunts when the stunt double was high on cocaine, while a technician died from falling off a crane. Lambert refused to film some scenes as he was hungover on many days. And then things got worse. Filming in Buenos Aires went over budget, so the producing company InterStar Releasing Corporation took over, locking director Russell Mulcahy out, removing and rearranging lots of footage, and even writing some new scenes. Some say InterStar added the Zeist stuff, but actually this was always there. Still, Mulcahy walked out of the premiere after only fifteen minutes. For the UK, Mulcahy was able to create a different cut that restored nine minutes, and had a different, though daft, ending [fans call it the Fairy Tale Ending], though UK video saw the US cut. Later came this Renegade Version which did much restoring and rearranging, and changed Zeist to the distant past. Later on the similar Special Edition corrected the shield’s colour from red to blue and smartened things up. My preferred version is the Renegade Version; its grittier, rougher look makes it more like a film of its time in my opinion, and the Director’s Cut is missing an action beat.
So the theatrical cuts begin in 1994, telling us about the ozone layer fading, loads of deaths, and the dying Brenda, Connor’s present-day love in Highlander. She extracts a promise from Connor that he’ll solve the problem, after which we pan back to reveal a huge room full of hospital beds in a shot that seems a tad upsetting right now. By 1999, Connor MacLeod is the supervisor of a scientific team led by Dr. Allan Neyman which attempts to create an electromagnetic shield to cover the planet and protect it from the Sun’s radiation. They succeed, are proud to have saved humanity, and believe they will be remembered for a thousand years, but it all goes wrong and by 2024 civilisation is on the brink of collapse. Then we cut to elderly Connor. The Renegade Version [which is the version I watched again for the purposes of this review] and Special Edition relocate these scenes to much later. This keeps some mystery, makes the revelation that Brenda died far more impactful, and makes this film more like Highlander which often flitted from present to past in an almost poetic manner. And the first sight of old Connor, introduced by two lengthy and terrific tracking shots – one which takes us from a statue towards an opera house and through the ‘O’ of the sign saying ‘OPERA’, then another which pans back from somebody singing on stage to go right along the outside of one of the rows to alight on Connor in his private box [we don’t get this stuff much today, and if we do it’s often unpleasantly shaky], works much better as the first scene of the film.
Watching Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung’ causes Connor to remember some stuff he’d almost forgotten. Now, turning Zeist into the distant past isn’t perfect, because we’re asked to believe in an ancient civilisation which has futuristic technology. We even see a crashed spacecraft; the exterior shot of it is removed from the Special Edition, but a scene set inside the ruins isn’t. I sometimes wonder if changing it to the future would be better, but then I tell myself that it would cause a lot of Terminator-style head aches. No, the past remains probably the best option. So we have a rebellion going on against Katana, though we never learn why. Ramirez picks Connor to lead it, but Katana’s men suddenly attack, and Ramirez and Connor are put on trial by Zeist’s priests, who sentence them to be exiled and reborn on Earth in pursuit of The Prize. Winning the Prize gives the victor the choice to either grow old and die on Earth, or to return to Zeist. Katana is unsatisfied with their decision, but the sentence is executed, leading to the events of Highlander, and we were originally intended to even see Katana send The Kurgan to kill Connor. In 2024, Connor is now on his last legs even though Lambert walks rather well for a man supposed to be near death, but Katana still sees him as a danger. I’m always rather touched by the portrayal of the aged Connor, a disappointed, beaten shell of a man, despite Lambert’s makeup really looking quite poor; even the use of Queen’s ‘A Kind Of Magic’ playing in a bar is poignant. Unfortunately we only slightly get a sense of the world he inhabits [it’s only four years away now as I type], I could have done with more detail, but never mind – I still always have a liking for these grungy-type futures that seen ever more plausible.
The silliness really begins during an sequence when Connor battles two flying assassins, one of whom loves to giggle and kill random people. It’s quite impressive: the fight goes all over the place, much is destroyed, and Connor even ends up flying around wearing hover boots probably left for him by Marty McFly five years before. But when Connor kills one of the attackers, is life force or something makes him young again, and Louise only seems a bit surprised. Then he slays the other one, before suddenly screwing Louise against a wall, as you do. He also calls Ramirez’s name, and because Ramirez pledged to always answer his call in the past, the previously dead Immortal suddenly turns up in present day Scotland. Katana also shows up, resulting in a fair bit of brutal and even gratuitous violence as Katana crushes balls, splits jaws apart and, best of all, drives an underground train faster and faster while passengers are bashed about more and more. Michael Ironside has admitted that he went so over the top because of the badness of the script, and he’s tremendous fun to watch. But Connery also seems to be having fun in his scenes as he interrupts a performance of ‘Hamlet’, gets a suit from the oldest tailors in Scotland, and flirts with a woman on an plane while often accompanied by bagpipe music on the soundtrack. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he improvised some of his lines, they’re just ‘so’ Connery, delivered with that twinkle in his eye. It’s just a shame that he and Lambert don’t get many scenes together as they do share a great deal of chemistry, and Connery sort of throws away his character’s final scene. The film often interrupts its narrative drive and changes its tone to focus on Connery and Ironside for a bit, but I love both actors in it so I don’t mind.
We only get two proper sword fights which nonetheless showcase the skill of both Lambert and Ironside, the first one ending with Connor snapping his broken neck and limbs back into place replete with excruciating sound effects. The final one is a little short, but it’s still better than making the two fights into one as was originally done. The later versions add an extra fight on a truck; it’s unnecessary but very well done. However, the Special Edition mysteriously removes a minute of Louise engaging in gunplay. I wonder why? Perhaps it was thought that it was cruel of Connor to leave her to it, though Louise quite clearly seems like a woman who could take care of herself. Virginia Madsen seems a little lost with her part, which she only took so that she could work with Connery, but that’s hardly surprising. And Stewart Copeland’s score doesn’t have a single memorable passage. Yet Highlander 2 still showcases Mulcahy’s [what happened to him?] visual skill, and, in its later edits, still manages to be much better than its reputation. And, even in its ‘Zeist’ cuts [which could have led to Highlander III: The Reckoning set entirely on bloody Zeist], it survives as a strange alternative sequel to Highlander [the other films and the TV series ignored it] in a franchise which, if you think about it, actually has at least two other alternative universes if you count the TV show – and only one film that can legitimately be called ‘good’. In my ideal universe, we’d have a Final Cut of this misbegotten film that somehow improves with each viewing, in a super dooper Blu-ray with all the other cuts. Research has revealed that there are many like me who wish for the same thing [Arrow, are you reading this?!] – before physical media itself becomes something that existed “a very long time ago”.
Renegade Version/Special Edition versions Rating:
Theatrical versions – considerably less, though maybe not as low as all that – maybe Zeist ain’t so bad after all…..