Julien Neaves, Editor
On February 21 Peter S. Davis, producer of the Highlander films, passed away at his home in Calabasas, California. He was 79. His death came just two weeks before March 7, the 35th anniversary of the original Highlander film which spawned four sequels, an anime film, two live-action television series, an animated series, a web series, books, comics, two video games, an album and a collectible card game (whew!). And that is a pretty amazing legacy for a cult classic film, and testament to the hard work of Davis and co-producer William N. Panzer.
Highlander is one of my favourite fantasy franchises and I love the simple premise of two immortals sword fighting until one decapitates the other, taking their life essence via the “quickening”. In celebration of the original film’s 35th anniversary I will be doing a ranking of all six films. Consider it a Gathering for the ultimate Prize. Okay, ultimate might be overselling it a bit. Anywho, with an electrifying SPOILER ALERT let us begin:
#6 Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
Here’s a public service announcement: Don’t do drugs, watch Dune and then write a Highlander sequel. What even is this movie? You throw out the plot of the original with its mysterious immortal origins and replace it with an alien planet called Zeist and aliens reborn as immortals on Earth? And then you retcon Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez as an alien sorcerer and Connor MacLeod as chosen alien warrior who were “bonded” together, but clearly had no memory of their former lives. And then you have a dystopian future with an ozone layer shield designed by Connor. And then you have Ramírez resurrected by magic! No explanation. Just magic. This is like three movies in one, and none of them good.
I’m sorry but nothing works here. Christopher Lambert’s old man voice is grating and he has zero chemistry with Virginia Madsen’s environmental terrorist Louise Marcus. Ramírez’s fish-out-of-water scenes don’t match the tone of the rest of the film and his brief time makes his whole appearance feel irrelevant. Michael Ironside’s big bad General Katana is a cheap Kurgan knock-off, down to him carrying a poor lady on a wild car ride and acting all kooky. Now MacLeod’s fight with the porcupine-head aliens had some visual flair, but that’s all I can say good about this train wreck.
There is a scene where the Louise character attempts to explain the convoluted set-up for the film (Connor was mortal, then became immortal, then became mortal again, but kills an immortal and then becomes immortal again) and it may have been intended as a wink and a nod, but is more of a slap in the face. And that’s the entire experience of this film—a slap in the face of fans. Reportedly director Russell Mulcahy was railroaded by the film’s investors and they are responsible for this mess. There is a “renegade cut” of the film which sets the immortals in the past instead of Zeist but it really can’t save it. It is no surprise that every future entry pretended like this black sheep never existed. At least it added the lightning effects to quickenings which became standard after, so it is not a complete waste. Close though.
#5 Highlander: The Source (2007)
This fifth and final live-action film is the most unique in the franchise. Like The Quickening, it is set in a dystopian future but thankfully this one is much more grounded. I appreciated they tried something different here and went with an immortal “fellowship” (save Duncan MacLeod’s human wife Anna) going on a journey to discover the mysterious “Source”, though I did miss the trademark flashback scenes. Adrian Paul is solid as an older, world-weary Duncan, and it was nice seeing Joe Dawson and Methos return in expanded roles. The new characters, dogmatic and striking Cardinal Giovanni and genial chatterbox Reggie, were decent additions. I thought the immortal Zai Jie had a cool aesthetic and I was kinda sad he got offed so early. I also loved the unsettling design of The Elder.
The film has some decent group action sequences, but the one-on-one fights are lacking. The Source’s biggest issue, however, is the main villain. Now The Guardian looked very good with his white skin and bondage outfit. And the opening scenes with him stalking and slaughtering Zai Jie and quipping “There can be only me” is the high point of the film. He should have shut up after that though, because the character goes from menacing to an annoying parody. His lines are inane and he feels more like pest than threat. And who thought having him badly sing Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” in-film was a good idea? It wasn’t. And to think this punk killed Joe. He deserved better. And we deserved a better bad guy. His final “battle” with Duncan is just silly and ends the film on a sour note.
#4 Highlander III: The Sorcerer aka The Final Dimension aka The Final Conflict (1994)
I knew this film as The Final Dimension when it was released in Trinidad and Tobago (where I’m from) but The Sorcerer makes more sense. And it’s, well, more Highlander. The original film ended pretty conclusively with Connor MacLeod killing the final immortal The Kurgan and winning The Prize. So how do you do a sequel to that? Well Quickening did the dumb alien thing but The Sorcerer went much simpler with three immortals being trapped in ice, including Mario Van Peebles’s Kane. And Kane is pretty much the only reason to watch this one. Van Peebles is obviously having fun with this despicable warmonger and the scene where the prostitute hands him a condom and he tries to chew it is quite funny. And like Katana (what is it with Highlander and villains whose names start with “K”) he follows very similar beats as Kurgan, but at least he is a more fun and high-energy baddie. The special effects for his illusion powers are awful but at least they add another dimension to his abilities. Get it? Dimension? You get it. But if his power is illusion how was he able to fly out of the building as that bird and take that guys’ shades? Yeah, his abilities are obscure to say the least. Veteran actor Makoto Iwamatsu also has a brief but memorable role as the sorcerer Nakano.
Less memorable is Deborah Kara Unger, who does double duty as archaeologist Dr. Alexandra “Alex” Johnson and period love interest Sarah Barrington. Lambert never had great chemistry with any of his modern love interests and they were all written badly. Seriously, the women find out about Connor’s immortality, immediately fall in love and fall into bed. But Alex is easily the worst of the three. Unger’s acting is so flat it could make a plank jealous, and the writing does her character(s) no favours. Her main purpose seemed to be the extended sex scene that went straight into softcore porn territory. Maybe this was to help distract from how uninspired the film was? So yeah, The Sorcerer is not good by any stretch of the imagination, and the best part is Loreena McKennitt’s haunting song “Ce He Mise le Ulaingt? (The Two Trees)”. That is one gorgeous song right there.
#3 Highlander (1986)
Here we are. Born to be kings. We’re the princes of the universe! This is it folks. It’s the one that started it all and set all the rules. And how does it hold up three and a half decades later? It holds up…okay…ish. Christopher Lambert has great presence as Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod and his relationship with Heather (Beatie Edney) is a touching love story for the ages. Sean Connery is a scene-stealer as Ramírez and he helps take the film next level. And Clancy Brown is a joy as the vile Kurgan. He is such a wonderful love-to-hate bad guy, and his imposing size also made him feel like a genuine threat. But the best aspect of the film (aside from the novel fantasy premise) is that superb soundtrack by Queen, including the iconic “Princes of the Universe” and heartbreaking “Who Wants to Live Forever”. You just have to love it. The cinematography in the Scotland scenes is also quite lovely.
The original film, however, is not without its flaws. The fight choreography is not that interesting and the overall pacing is not the best. The gay slurs in the police station also make the film feel very dated. And the visual effects, especially the weirdly demonic-looking Prize sequence, look very cartoonish. But it is still a decent, popcorn, shut-off-your-brain good time. And who doesn’t want to see grown men fighting with swords and trying to decapitate each other? No hands? That’s what I thought.
#2 Highlander: Endgame (2000)
What? Endgame at a higher spot than the original? Are you crazy? I am as surprised as you are that this one is number two. But of all the five live-action films it just holds up the best. Paul and Lambert give some of their best performances here. That scene where Rachel gets blown up and Connor screams her name? That was pretty dang good. The MacLeodses (still a work in progress) buddy immortal relationship is the core of the film and it is funny, fun and ultimately tragic. That scene where Connor calls Duncan his brother and Duncan tells him “I love you Connor” before cutting off his head? Man, shut the front, back and side doors. That is some feelings being felt there!
Bruce Payne’s religious zealot-turned-vengeance-seeking-psychopath Jacob Kell also stands out among the movie big bads. First, he had an actual back story that explained his turn to darkness other than “evil because the script says so”. Second, Payne is a scenery-chewing bad guy who would have twirled his moustache if he had one, but strangely it works. He’s campy to the nth degree but it is fun and you just go with it. “Call you”. He’s so silly. The subplot with Duncan and Kate/Faith (Lisa Barbuscia) is okay but nothing to write home to momma about. And the storyline of Duncan being married actually contradicts a storyline in the series where he was cursed by a gypsy woman in the past to never marry. If you recall his modern love Tessa is shot dead before they can tie the knot. What? I’m a fount of trivial knowledge. The film also cuts a brisk pace and features the best action of the five films, especially with Kell’s motley crew of disciples that included a pre-Ip Man Donnie Yen and record exec Damon Dash for some reason.
Rewatching Endgame, which took Highlander: The Series into the films, reminded me of Star Trek: Generations. Both are films that took television characters into movie-land, both had torch-passing plots that killed off the previous main character, and both have no hand-holding for casual viewers. If you were not familiar with the television series you would be lost in space watching Endgame. And the Connor here can’t be the Connor from the films as he was alive and won the Prize. My head canon is parallel universe theory and this is a universe where Connor died and Duncan survived to claim The Prize (in the sequel). And I distinctly recall that there were two scenes in the trailer showing Kell displaying some type of magical abilities—in one scene he holds an orb with a face in it and in the second he survives being cut in half—that did not make it into the film, and I was most disappointed. But I was not disappointed when I rewatched Endgame as it was an entertaining, action-packed time with surprising heart.
#1 Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (2007)
Now many of you Redmangoreaders would be surprised by my number one pick, and that is likely because many of you have never heard of Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. I hadn’t heard about the film until I randomly stumbled upon it some years ago. And I was like, “There’s a Highlander anime? Okay. Let me check it out.” And I did, and I was like, “Dang. That is some good stuff right here.” The Search for Vengeance came out the same year as the dreadful The Source but it is ten times better. It does not connect to the main franchise other than having the hero Colin being adopted into the Clan MacLeod centuries after becoming immortal. His first death, however, was in 125 AD when his village in Roman Britain was attacked by conquering Romans led by the megalomaniacal immortal Marcus Octavius. When Marcus crucifies Colin’s wife he sets him on a quest for vengeance that spans 2,000 years. The final confrontation comes in 2187 when Colin discovers Marcus has become the despotic ruler of a post-apocalyptic New York City filled with mutants, giant creatures and spider-like robots.
Who knew the marriage of Highlander and anime would have been so beautiful? It just works. Colin is your prototypical loner anime hero but he sells it as a man on a two-millennia-long mission of revenge. He is aided by the wise-cracking Druid ghost Amergan and prostitute/freedom fighter Dahlia who is no wilting flower but a machine gun-toting bad mama jama. On the bad guy side you have Marcus, with his smug and very punchable face, his femme fatale lieutenant and a mutant-like immortal who prefers chainsaws to swords. And Jim Byrnes, who played Duncan’s Watcher Joe Dawson, also voices two characters in the English dub including a rebel leader.
The Search for Vengeance does not do much novel in terms of anime, but what it does it does very well and makes the most of its Highlander brand. There is fantastic animation, especially during the many flashback scenes, the action is exciting and bloody, and the story is simple but engaging. And of all the Highlander films this is definitely the highest quality overall. So if you’re a franchise fan or a non-fan looking for a gateway film might I recommend this under the radar gem that takes The Prize for me. And it would be a remiss of me not to repeat:
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. I can also be found posting about TV and movie memes, news and trailers on Facebook at Movieville. And to stay on top of all Redmangoreviews articles you can like and follow us on Facebook here.