“Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1991 review of HIGHLANDER 2: THE QUICKENING, “this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre.”
And yet… it is remembered.
Put aside its 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Put aside its legendary production woes and bonding company takeovers and mishmash revisionist versions, and look instead at the movie that is. Of HIGHLANDER’s four film sequels, HIGHLANDER 2 takes the biggest risks, wields the biggest imagination, boasts the biggest ambition, and remains — to this day! — the only one that feels bigger than the original.
So where does its bad reputation come from? In the original film, new Immortal Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) asks ancient mentor Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery) how they came to be this way. With magic dancing in his eyes and whimsy wending through his words, Ramirez answers questions with questions. “Why does the sun come up? Are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of night? Who knows?”
That’s as close as HIGHLANDER ever gets to explaining its mythology. And in the context of that film, it’s enough. “A kind of magic,” indeed. HIGHLANDER 2 creates the explanation that its Immortals are exiles from another planet (or from the distant past of our own Earth, depending on which version you’re watching), and it was an answer that no one wanted.
Does this explanation make the loss of Connor’s mortal wife Heather less of a tragedy, or his defeat of the terrible Kurgan less triumphant? Does it make his bond with Ramirez less meaningful? Nothing about the first movie is rendered lesser by HIGHLANDER 2’s attempt to tell another story, even when the sequel’s aspirations occasionally outpace its means.
Using the knowledge of “The Prize” that MacLeod won at the end of the first film, he supervises the construction (in imagery that evokes Oppenheimer and the A-bomb) of an electromagnetic shield to protect Earth from solar rays that have burned through the ozone layer and killed millions — including MacLeod’s wife, Brenda. This in itself is rare among fantasy films from this time period; the hero’s wife is not killed by an enemy but by the environment. As the years go by, society deteriorates under the shield. So, too, does MacLeod, whose body succumbs to advancing age as his heart breaks from the weight of watching his well-intended shield become industrialized, privatized, and bastardized by those who would use it not for human salvation but societal oppression.
Director Russell Mulcahy continues his creative transitions from past to present by having the elderly MacLeod recall his origins during a performance of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” cutting the operatic images with glimpses of a wild war in an alien desert waged by warriors wielding weapons ranging from swords to cannons and lasers. Ramirez is there, too, choosing MacLeod to lead a revolt against the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside) and bonding with him in a sacrament that will join them together for eternity.
After defeat at Katana’s hands, MacLeod and Ramirez and their fellow rebels are exiled to Earth (or to the future, again depending on the version), where their centuries-spanning dance of “There Can Be Only One” will play out as it did in the first film, with the victor winning “The Prize” and mortality. But back on the planet Zeist, Katana knows that MacLeod could still remember what he is and where he came from and return to defeat him, and thus sends a pair of goons to sever the loose end once and for all.
Enter environmental champion Louise Marcus, vigorously played by the gorgeous Virginia Madsen (hot off of THE HOT SPOT) with those eyes, those curls, and those curves. She confronts MacLeod with her belief that the ozone layer has repaired itself and that the shield must be toppled to save society. MacLeod dismisses her as a terrorist… and then Katana’s cackling henchmen arrive with kooky goggles and crazy hair and sharp swords and winged jet-packs and flying skateboards.
The elderly MacLeod is no match for his young attackers, until one of them gets beheaded by falling from a train, unleashing his power — the Quickening! — into MacLeod. The sound design here is magnificent, with the first tendrils of lightning swatting away tin cans and coursing across cars before zapping MacLeod with a storm of wind and light that explodes the windows of surrounding buildings into showers of glass and sparks.
But that’s not enough. Into the melee careens a tanker truck hauling gasoline with lips painted on its trailer, kissing MacLeod with an explosion that envelopes him in a wailing wall of fire… from which he emerges, young again, in one of the most cinematic and iconic visuals from the entire HIGHLANDER saga (or any other science fiction or fantasy classic, for that matter).
After a wacky aerial sword-fight with the other goon that leaves MacLeod victorious (and on the receiving end of another over-the-top Quickening), he calls out Ramirez’s name to the heavens… which results in Ramirez’s lightning-borne arrival in the middle of a stage production of Hamlet in Glencoe, Scotland.
With the Highlander restored to his full power and Ramirez back in play, Katana travels to Earth (or the future) in fulfillment of the classic movie prophecy that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
It sounds complicated. And it is. But it’s also a blast, and its cast is fully committed to making its lunacy work. HIGHLANDER 2 is much more playful than its predecessor, with Lambert’s long hair and supernatural stare making him an even handsomer leading man than he was in the original. Immortality still haunts him like a curse, but his quick wit and curious eyes combine for a magnetic presence. And when he tells Louise what it was like to see the majesty of a blue sky with one’s own eyes, it’s one of Lambert’s finest moments as this character or any other.
Connery, too, has lots of fun in a role he could just as easily have phoned in. His good humor and dynamite chemistry with Lambert go a long way toward making the complicated proceedings feel light on their feet. Madsen’s dedication goes beyond being a good sport; she infuses Louise with a real sense of wonder for MacLeod and his odd origins. And Ironside knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in and embraces it with the same wild-eyed insanity with which he wields a ludicrous broadsword that’s nearly as large as he is.
Stewart Copeland (of The Police) provides a rousing musical score. He’s having fun, too — in a scene where Ramirez gets a suit of clothes from the oldest tailor of gentlemen’s clothes in Scotland (after rightfully declaring himself the oldest gentleman in Scotland), Copeland punctuates the William Tell Overture with a lilting bagpipe riff. He also sparingly applies snippets from the glorious Queen contributions to the first movie’s soundtrack.
Visually, HIGHLANDER 2 is a marvel. Mulcahy and director of photography Phil Meheux (CASINO ROYALE, THE MASK OF ZORRO) celebrate every inch of production designer Roger Hall’s grimy future, which itself makes the most of Argentina’s architecture that equal parts colonial and futuristic. Classic cars line ruined streets, creating visually interesting backgrounds for the film’s early battles. Later conflicts occur deep inside man-made industrial caverns that add to this science-fiction twist on the original HIGHLANDER concept, leading the way to the snow-capped mountains and stunning blue skies beyond the shield.
In some ways, HIGHLANDER 2 shares a lineage with SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. It’s the odd man out in its franchise, but — despite execution that loses it some fans — its spirit is in the right place. Unlike the winking snark of ROBOCOP, for example, HIGHLANDER 2 wears its socially conscious heart on its sleeve with utter sincerity.
The legacy of HIGHLANDER 2 can even be viewed as the secret to the television series’s success. When HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES debuted in 1992 (with Adrian Paul taking over as Connor’s kinsman, Duncan MacLeod), fans wondered if all the “Planet Zeist” mumbo-jumbo from HIGHLANDER 2 would play a part in the show. It didn’t, causing those who felt betrayed by HIGHLANDER 2’s cosmic answers to unasked questions to embrace the show’s back-to-basics return to the mythical and philosophical roots of the original movie. Furthermore, if not for HIGHLANDER 2’s existence, the HIGHLANDER brand would not have had the visibility necessary to sell a series based on one movie from 1986; the reviews from 1991 that declared it a franchise killer could not have been more wrong. (In fact, some of the most striking images in the television series’s opening credits come from HIGHLANDER 2.)
Make no mistake: HIGHLANDER 2 is absolutely bonkers. But that remains its greatest strength. Since later installments ignored it anyway, its impact on the ongoing HIGHLANDER mythology is zero. This leaves us free to enjoy it for what it is — a fun, alternate-universe adventure with the characters and actors and action that we’ve come to expect from the best of HIGHLANDER, visually and narratively expressed in ways that are entirely unique among the franchise. Ebert might have called it “the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I’ve seen in many a long day” and “almost awesome in his badness,” but the first line of his review remains the truest: “This movie has to be seen to be believed.” Now, in its 25th anniversary, HIGHLANDER 2 is a film not ripe for redemption or remembrance, but for rediscovery.