Film Torments: Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
THIS week’s instalment in Torments’ Sequels Month is one of the most notorious follow-ups to ever blight the big screen. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for a different kind of magic: Highlander II: The Quickening.
When people are asked what their favourite high-camp 80s films are, the odds will favour Flash Gordon, Big Trouble in Little China and Road House. For me, it’s Highlander. A delicious slice of upper-tier action joy, Highlander featured the absolutely-not-Scottish Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, decapitating fellow immortals to the sound of full-pomp Queen, all while befriending the absolutely-yes-Scottish Sean Connery as Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, an Egyptian inexplicably pretending to be Spanish.
Part of the reason why Highlander weirdly endures beyond its camp value is because its concepts are laid out clearly with no leeway. The film depicts the clash between “Immortals”, undying warriors who can only be killed by getting their heads lopped off, in a literal struggle for the ages called “The Game”.
Eventually, The Game will culminate in “The Gathering”, resulting in a final battle between the remaining Immortals wherein the winner will claim “The Prize” – omniscience and a psychic connection to all living things. The Golden Rule of The Game is the movie’s very tagline: “There can be only one.”
We didn’t ask questions like, “Why can’t they fight on holy ground?” because it didn’t matter. There could be only one – who cares? The entire purpose of the film is codified in that perfect, wonderful line. Not only does it encapsulate the millennia-long conflict raging between an immortal cabal of head-chopping sword-wizards, it also nips any sequel prospects in the bud. And – spoiler alert – Connor MacLeod claims The Prize at the end of the film and lives happily ever after. It says right there, Hollywood! There can be only one!
Time is cruel. Highlander II: The Quickening is not so much a fledgling series shooting itself in the foot as it is chowing down, slowly, on a claymore. Highlander II is such a masterwork of botcharama that it’s easy to think the makers didn’t see the original, or even know anything about it. Guess again: Both the director, Russell Mulcahy, and one of the screenwriters, Peter Bellwood, returned for The Quickening, along with Lambert and… er, Connery. Didn’t he die? Yes, quite decisively.
We should expect this from the man who gave us Zardoz, but this is another level. The Quickening had almost twice the budget of the original and looks twice as cheap. The rip-roaring Queen soundtrack has been replaced by a rudderless Stewart Copeland score. The characters are anaemic, their motivations are self-defeating and the plot makes no sense, even without the burden of the original’s context.
Perhaps The Quickening’s most astonishing misstep is its desire to provide answers to all the lingering questions left. Set in the post-apocalyptic future of 2024, Connor MacLeod has used his knowledge from The Prize to “protect the Earth from the Sun”, whose harmful solar rays are puncturing the ozone. After erecting a planetary shield, MacLeod presides over a world that has torn itself apart under the shield – a world with, as he puts it, “No sun; no stars.”
Quite a bold way to distort the feel-good happiness of the original’s ending, replacing its modern-age swashbuckling with a lumpen dose of environmentalism and hackneyed cyberpunk dystopia. All within the first two minutes, The Quickening does its best to separate itself from the shadow of its predecessor. Though an admirable attempt to dissuade cynics, the interesting premise is rendered meaningless almost immediately. What follows is one of the most infamous shark-jumps in cinematic history: We learn, through inexplicable flashback(?!), that the Immortals hail not from Earth, but from the Planet Zeist.
“500 years ago on the Planet Zeist,” has become a punchline for scriptwriting cliff-jumps. It’s a decision so baffling that it makes its nonsensical proceedings seem laudable by comparison. It’s so obviously wrong that subsequent cuts – among them the ‘Renegade Edition’ – have excised the line completely, substituting instead, “A long time ago.”
On a war-stricken Zeist, MacLeod and Ramirez (richly Zeistian names, to be sure) are fighting a rebellion against the oppressive rule of General Katana (Michael Ironside) and his men. Captured by Katana, the two are sentenced to exile on Earth; they are also made immortal, with the caveat that they can only die if their heads get cut off.
In principle, this explains all the mysteries of the Immortals in one fell swoop. In practice, it actively contradicts almost everything presented in the first film. If they’re from the Planet Zeist, why don’t Ramirez and MacLeod recognise each other upon their meeting? Why are there other Immortals on Earth?
How can Ramirez hail from Ancient Egypt if he was exiled 500 years ago? Why can’t they fight on holy ground? This development opens so many glaring plot holes that the film is unable to recover, even when the flashback fades and we return to its dreary cyberpunk present.
It’s almost pointless to discuss performances or direction in a piece of work so haphazardly crippled as this; when the plot is so horrendous, what else is there to talk about? Christopher Lambert, moreso than usual, seems to be doing his best Tommy Wiseau impression, slurring his gravelly Vaguely-Euro-Accented lines.
Sean Connery’s Ramirez – resurrected on the stage of a Scottish production of Hamlet by MacLeod shouting “RAMIREEEZZZZ” during a Quickening (SERIOUSLY) – dandies himself up with little effect. Virginia Madsen’s love interest starts out as a headstrong eco-terrorist before ossifying into a Damsel in Distress upon meeting MacLeod.
John C. McGinley’s turn as the cartoonishly villainous corporate executive is a real treat (before his testicles are crushed in an iron grip), while Michael Ironside’s pantomime antics as Katana add an air of camp so desperately needed. Katana is an odd, pop-culture-spouting anomaly whose vibrancy seems so far removed from his dingy surroundings that he does indeed seem alien.
It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequences are taken wholesale from the original. Where Clancy Brown’s Kurgan rampaged through the city in a stolen taxi, Katana hijacks a high-speed subway and causes some mayhem. Ironside treats his performance as the circus sideshow that it is, alternating between a dead-eyed stare and a snaggletooth grin at random intervals. McGinley aside, everyone else looks deeply ashamed – shellshocked, no doubt – and uncomprehending.
Much like the audience, then. Highlander II was an unmitigated disaster, forever tarnishing the reputation of both its forebears and its successors, all of whom ignored its presence (but were terrible anyway). The cuts that followed the original all tried – and failed – to salvage the wreck, but no amount of editing can mask its stench.
It’s an incomprehensible catastrophe and a slap in the face, not only to fans of the original, but also to people with a modicum of intelligence. For all its endless stupidity, however, it’s a real laugh. In the end, there really should have been only one.