The Highlander Series

The Spoony One | Apr 28 2009 | more notation(s) | 

A Review by Noah Antwiler

Almost everyone loved Highlander. I mean, okay, it was cheesy, fairly ludicrous, and minimally a vehicle to sell Queen records...but dammit, it had Sean Connery and katana swords in it. And that's good in anything. You put Sean Connery and katana swords in Attack of the Clones and BOOM-- good movie. He even made The Rock worth watching, and he didn't even have katana swords. I can think of a dozen movies right now that would have been improved tremendously with the inclusion of Sean Connery and a swordfighting choreographer. So what went wrong? How can you screw up a movie featuring a Frenchman pretending to be a Scotsman wielding a Japanese samurai sword, teaming up with a Scotsman pretending to be an Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard? This month's installment explores the Highlander film series-- its rise, its hideous shrieking fall, the apology for the mess, and the chuckle-evoking attempt to Scotch-Tape the franchise back together.



Highlander was one of those penultimate gamer movies to me. It had high adventure, a story stretching across the centuries, and angry people swordfighting on rooftops while "Princes of the Universe" blasted in the background. Best of all, it was imaginative, but also simple. The premise surrounded a bunch of immortal noble warriors and swarthy dudes whose goal was to fight it out until only one remained, to gain the mysterious Prize. What is it? How did they even know it existed? Do you get napkins with it? Was Deckard a Replicant? Hey, they didn't tell, and frankly, we didn't much care so long as Sean Connery got to utter some flowery prose and swing a katana sword around. The Kurrgan was pretty badass too. I still remember with fondness the scene where he's terrorizing passengers in a car while speeding around the city and shouting taunts at them. The immortals all had to play by the arcane rules of their game, such as "No fighting on holy ground" and "You can only die if your head is cut off" and "You do not talk about Fight Club." For some reason, I never really questioned these rules, who enforced them, or where the immortals came from. It wasn't a great movie. In fact, thinking about it, the film is ridiculous. But it worked. It's one of those rare fantasy movies that manages to take some risks and succeed. By the end of the movie, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod kills the gigantic pasty sneering man with too many piercings, wins the Prize, and buggers off to Scotland to listen to his new Queen CD.

Highlander was a beautiful movie, and it had the very definite tagline "In the end, there can be only one." So having killed the Kurrgan, you would rightly assume that Highlander, by definition, cannot have a sequel. The movie itself promised there would be only one, and it delivered. There's ONLY ONE. Then one day, a particularly stoned group of screenwriters was watching Ladyhawke and rocking out to the Alan Parsons Project when sadly, they ran out of hash. While searching the house for some ludes, they were discussing how cool Highlander was, struggling to remember through a haze of bong smoke the name of the topless chick in the movie, and decided to go and see if they could write a second film that somehow involved Sean Connery with katana swords in it. After all, they're good in anything. This movie should write itself!

But you know better.

Highlander 2: The Quickening

Oh. My. God....

In this movie, Connor MacLeod uses his massive knowledge with The Prize to become astoundingly wealthy and to build a giant mega energy shield to replace the Earth's ozone layer, which humanity has devastated through centuries of vehicular pollution, spray paint can abuse, and Tommy Chong. Connor rigs up these generators to cast this big red energy shield to keep all those nasty UV rays out, but this also casts the cities of the world into a perpetual night-time with a blood red sky. It doesn't take long to figure out this is gonna be one weird ride, since we weren't expecting a cyberpunk movie. In fact, we really didn't want to see one. Who thought setting us up with a poor-man's Blade Runner was a good idea?

Then the bottom drops out.

We finally learn the secret of the immortals. Turns out they're all aliens from planet called Zeist, exiled to live on Earth for all eternity. I'm not making this up. Zeist. All of the immortals are shown in a group together, exiled for some kind of revolution. To this day, I enjoy how richly Zeistian the names "MacLeod" and "Ramirez" are. As punishment for their crimes against "The Man," the revolutionaries are sent to Earth and granted immortality. This actually seems like a pretty good deal, since Zeist is a complete sh*thole.

This entire setup convinces me that the screenwriters never actually saw the first movie, because in that movie, Connor knows no other immortals, and cannot recognize Ramirez or the Kurrgan when he sees them. And he also seems to require training that he shouldn't need, because the "rules" for their exile were spelled out in exacting detail on Zeist. Maybe Connor was drifting off when the Zeist aliens were explaining, "Oh by the way, the only way you can die is by getting your head chopped off. Remember that." It gets funnier the more you think about it, since Connor also believed himself to be a normal human being until slain by the Kurrgan. The argument holds less water than my sister on a road trip.

I call no way!

Aliens from ZEIST. No. No. NO! NO!!! I don't know a single Highlander fan that looked up at that screen and just nodded in awe to say, "That's brilliant stuff, man. Aliens." Rather you were looking at your friend with an incredulous look on your face, saying, "Is this sh*t for real??" This is one of the worst examples of a movie franchise that not only shot itself in the foot, it stuffed the shotgun down its pants and splattered its own genitals into the toilet with birdshot. Highlander 2 also marks the first ever movie I saw in a theater where I tried to kill myself by attempting to shove my own thumb through my forehead and swirling it 'round to turn my frontal lobes into mashed potato.

"Hey!" you exclaim, "Wasn't Sean Connery killed in the first movie? He can't possibly appear in this one!" Oh, but he can! You just lack the powers of terrible screenwriting! MacLeod discovers some kind of immortal loophole where you can resurrect any immortal you want by screaming his name during a quickening. Connor does it! He just yells "RAMIREZ!!!!" And zip! Sean Connery appears in a London tailor's shop. I never knew you could do that! If I were an immortal, I'd team up with someone else and we'd just promise each other to scream our partner's name during the Quickening if one of us goes down. Is there any room to complain now that we've railroaded Sean Connery with a katana sword into the movie? After all, it does have Michael Ironside in it, too. The man who managed to deliver the grimmest, most straight-faced utterance of the knee-slappingly stupid line, "They sucked his brains out." in Starship Troopers. And he was pretty good in Total Recall.

General Katana: Warlord of Zeist!

Ironside plays General Katana (also a name that just screams "Zeist" to you), who hams it up like crazy in this movie and interestingly, does not fight with a katana. He's pretty much the bad guy for the simple reason that he wears black leather and gets most of the pithy dialogue. I still remember with fondness the scene where he's terrorizing passengers in a subway train while speeding around the city and shouting taunts at them. Wait...that sounds kind of familiar. At the end of the film MacLeod and Katana fight in one of the stupidest sword battles since Deathstalker III: The Warriors From Hell (has to be seen to be believed). It's hilarious watching a vaguely-menacing balding man in badly-designed futuristic leather chic fighting a Franco-Scotsman with a katana, who swings his artful blade like it was a Louisville slugger. You'd think that having learned the katana, he might have actually learned Kenpo or the actual Japanese fighting styles that PERFECTED the killing arts of the katana. Anyway, Connor wins, and the world of the dark cyberpunk future is safe.

Highlander 2 is simply one of the worst movies ever made. A colossal failure on every level, several attempts have been made to save it, such as the Renegade Edition and the new DVD set, which dubs over the word "Zeist" and replaces it with "the past." It's so bad, most fans simply refuse to believe it exists, and that the series simply skips a number and goes straight to #3. I envy those people, whose minds have managed to block all memory of The Quickening from memory.

Highlander 3: The Final Dimension

Comic book fans will be familiar with the term "retcon," which in layman's terms means that the writer waves his hand and tells you "Remember when we said this? We screwed up, forget about that." Highlander 3 (subtitled "The Apology" by some) was one giant retconning of the entirety of The Quickening and even some of the first movie. This movie returns to the series' roots, following Connor in modern Montreal-- I mean, New York City-- after the events of the first movie. You may wonder how there's any opposition for Connor, since he killed the last immortal already and won the prize. Wrong again! The movie opens up by immediately ripping off the first 10 minutes of Conan the Barbarian, as Connor visits Nakano, an old Japanese sorcerer played by Mako, an actor also ripped off from Conan. The credit sequence is shown while a sword is forged in the background, and our villain is introduced as he razes and torches a peaceful village in the snowy mountains. *COUGH*CONAN*COUGH*

Same scene in every movie.

Mario van Peebles plays Kane, who is obviously a bad guy, because his name is KANE. Mario's performance is so delightfully exaggerated here that it's hard not to smile whenever he's on screen. His hair is goofy, his beard ridiculous, he has a giant nose ring, he has nipples on his armor, and his voice is so forced it sounds like he's gargling gravel. I love it when someone can overact with such wild abandon; it's why I like John Travolta and Gary Oldman. Kane stalks MacLeod and nearly kills him, but Nakano sacrifices himself to save his life. The battle and resulting quickening cause the cave to collapse around Kane, sealing him inside for 400 years until an archaeological dig excavates him. And I'll bet he don't smell too good. But he DOES somehow speak perfect English, complete with a perfect grasp of modern idioms and slang. Go figure.

Kane is naturally a little pissed off at MacLeod and desperately in need of a shower, haircut, and wardrobe update. "Late Mongol Warlord" is like, SO out in the 90s. And...well, that's it. There's really not much to say about this movie beyond that. It's almost entirely the exact same movie as the first one, only without most of the things that made it good. It's a large angry fellow in leather chasing MacLeod around while growling out lines like "You cannot win, MacLeod!" "I will be the last!" and "I'll bet you're wondering how I got this 5 foot long sword through customs!" There's no Connery, no Queen soundtrack, and van Peebles setting a record for saying "There can be only one" more times than anyone in history. The movie ends where all inferior action films go to die: an abandoned factory with lots of pipes, catwalks, and railings everywhere. I still remember with fondness the scene where Kane is terrorizing a passenger in a car while speeding around the city and--- HEY! The Final Dimension proves to be a title about as appropriate as Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter, because someone thought it would be a good idea to give Adrian Paul his own movie. Oh mama.

Highlander 4: Endgame

The story of the Highlander franchise is a tale of rich people gravely miscalculating how far people will follow a stagnant storyline. The cyberpunk-Highlander didn't work, and the Highlander cartoon series was so terrible any existing copies should be buried in the deserts of New Mexico along with all the old copies of E.T. The Extraterrestrial game for the Atari. But the live action Highlander TV show somehow managed to collect a modest fanbase, and so once again, the studio smelled money and cranked out a fourth movie called Endgame. It turns out it wasn't money they were smelling.

The TV show follows Duncan MacLeod, played by Adrian Paul. Adrian has a lot of advantages over Christopher Lambert. He's good-looking, he's athletic, he can actually swordfight, and he can actually (sort of) do a Scottish accent! Duncan isn't the same guy as Connor, it's just a rather incredible coincidence that two Scottish warriors of the same clan with the exact same background became immortal after a battle within a few decades of each other. For the most part, the TV show seems to pretend that the movies just aren't there, because there are a LOT more immortals running around in the show, and it's almost assured that Duncan lops the head off one of them an episode. The movies only feature a bare handful of immortals, so as you can imagine, the stories of Duncan and Connor aren't really supposed to mesh.

In Endgame, they mesh with all the subtlety and grace of a train derailing (a plot train, as it were). By this point, the plot holes are just incredible, and you can't even call the repair job "retconning" because now they don't even bother explaining anything. Connor never won the Prize, there have always been a bajillion immortals, and worse, there's a continuously refreshing supply of them! In the TV series, they explain that some people are born with the potential to be immortal. If they die a violent death in a manner such as a car crash, stabbing, or eating Pop Rocks and Coke at the same time, you become an immortal. This fact undermines the entire purpose of the immortals' battle! There can NEVER be only one, because new ones are getting created all the time! How is someone expected to keep up with this? If you ever want to win The Prize, you're gonna rack up ungodly Frequent Flier miles just trying to keep the immortal growth rate down!

Here's the great part. If you thought Mario van Peebles or Michael Ironside overacted in their roles, Endgame's villain raises the bar. The bad guy is named Jacob Kell, a priest from Duncan's own clan. Another MacLeod? What is it with these silly Scotsmen? Immortals spring up like weeds down there! Kell has a personal grudge against Duncan for making him immortal, because that's just the WORST thing that could ever happen to you. Okay, Duncan killed his father, too. But come on, he's immortal! Stop whining! The life expectancy of Scotsmen back then can't have been very good; he should be happy the old man lasted that long! Oh, all right, I guess he has a legitimate complaint.

Kell is a bad guy mainly because he looks like a pompous jerk, dresses in black, and has a name that starts with a K and it sounds like "Kill." Instead of a gravelly angry voice, Kell features an effeminate sort of breathy, smug, leering voice that inspires a wedgie more than it invokes fear. Kell is played by Bruce Payne, a pasty icky fellow whom you may remember as Damodar (a.k.a. "Blue Lips") from hilariously bad Dungeons & Dragons movie. And if you do remember him, I'm so terribly sorry you saw Dungeons & Dragons. As Damodar was so famous for saying in that movie, Kell really does "have the POWAH of the IMOAAHHTALLLLS!" Ironically, the only time I've ever seen anyone overact more than Bruce Payne in this movie was Jeremy Irons, who played Profion the Mad Gesticulator in D&D. Irons chewed the scenery so much in that movie, he must have been crapping drywall for a week.

Endgame also had to deal with the frustrating notion that only a few Hollywood actors are actually immortal. It's not like you can cast Dick Clark, George Hamilton, or Joan Rivers in your Highlander movie. It would be kind of funny, though. "Oh oh oh! Duncan! I love the kilt! Who are you wearing, darling?" Since Dick Clark in a kilt swinging a katana probably wouldn't sell tickets, it's tricky to have a long-running TV or movie series featuring immortals when the actors are quite clearly aging before your eyes. Christopher Lambert looks so old in this movie you can almost imagine a nurse with a wheelchair and IV drip standing just off-camera, ready to catch him if his hip snaps. The movie represents a torch-passing (and a wind-passing) of the story to Duncan's character once Connor is killed off. Duncan has a real problem with killing his best friends once they start to show their age, as fans of the show came to realize. Like the show, the movie makes no sense, features a lot of Adrian Paul acting smug and self-righteous, and ends with a swordfight at an abandoned factory. To its credit, it's the ONLY Highlander movie not to feature the villain terrorizing civilians in a vehicle. This movie was so crappy, even The Rock wouldn't appear in it, so they settled for an 8-second cameo from WWE's Edge. This movie would have been so much better if Kell had just slathered on that iridescent blue lipstick and wore a set of black football pads as armor.

As we bring this tour to an end thinking about the WWE, I'm reminded of some of the professional wrestling storylines that, while stupid, were still better ideas than the planet Zeist. Didn't an old woman give birth to a fully-grown human hand on RAW? Fanboys like me seem to feel a need to ride a franchise right into the ground, no matter how bad it gets. Why is that? No matter how bad it gets, we'll probably go see Star Wars 3, if there's another Trek movie, we'll probably go see that, too, no matter how crummy Enterprise is getting. Yet I've sat around to watch every blasted Highlander movie-- a franchise with a storyline continuity so convoluted it almost rivals the DC Comics Universe.

In the end, there should have been only one.

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