Saturday, March 30, 2013

Random Movie Report: Highlander 2: Renegade Version

It was always going to be difficult to make a Highlander sequel. Highlander has always been a really great idea for an action movie franchise, but the film's very premise works against it- if it's about immortals battling each other through the ages until only one is left, what do you do when there is, in fact, only one? How do you start up the conflict again without invalidating everything that happened already, and worse, just repeating what's already taken place?

The makers of Highlander 2 were entrusted to find the answers to these questions, and the search drove them mad. Highlander 2: The Quickening is the product of their insanity, a work both stylish and inept, audacious and cliché-ridden, so intensely stupid it wraps around to a kind of brilliance, but the brilliance of a character in a Lovecraft story after witnessing the nuclear chaos at the center of reality.  This review is based on the so-called "Renegade Version", a Director's Cut that tried to restore some semblance of sanity (the original cut was essentially finished by the film's insurance company), mainly by undoing a controversial plot point, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't help much.

So. The story. Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is, as far as he knows, the last Immortal, a race of beings exiled to our time from some time in the distant past after a failed revolution against the evil general Katana (Michael Ironside.) (In the original cut the Immortals were aliens exiled from the planet Zeist, which did not so much contradict the first movie as take a lateral move into things nobody who watched the first movie would ever conclude.) Having won the prize, Connor is letting himself age peacefully, while the near-future world around him wilts under a powerful electromagnetic shield designed to block out the UV rays of the sun after the ozone layer finally gave up the ghost. A number of rebels, led by Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) believe that the ozone layer has repaired itself and are trying to uncover the truth while the evil Shield Corporation, led by John C. McGinley because of course it is, is milking their monopoly over the protection of the Earth for all that it's worth. After sending a couple of inept psycho assassins after MacLeod- which has no effect other than making him Immortal again- Katana decides to travel to the dystopian future and kill the Highlander himself. MacLeod uses his psychic link with his departed mentor Ramirez to call him back from the dead, and teams up with Louise to try and uncover the truth behind the shield. While dealing with the whole pesky Immortal dictator from the past.

Apparently what happened was this: the film was shot entirely on location in Argentina, at a time when Argentina's economy suddenly ran into some massive inflation, hence sending the film over budget. The insurers, taking it upon themselves to make sure the movie was finished, went above and beyond their call of duty and decided that they needed to guarantee a return on their investment by tweaking the film to what they believed would be most profitable- hence, aliens. But it's really hard to say what the filmmakers' original vision was, or if it made any more sense. There are so many plot elements jammed together that it's hard to tease out a coherent concept, and one can pick out the influences easily: a bit of Blade Runner cyberpunk here, some attempted Robocop-level satire there (complete with a corporate espionage plotline), and of course many rehashes of Highlander's best parts, from bringing back Sean Connery simply because such a thing was technically possible to once again having the main villain joyfully chew scenery while rampaging through a depraved present (Ironside is basically playing Clancy Brown's part but with a different name and backstory, though it's hard to complain too much).

You can sense that we've passed the point of no return when Louise attempts to talk out the premise of the film in its revamped state and, in so doing, points out how needlessly complicated it has become. The original film never gave much of an explanation of where the Immortals came from or why they were destined to fight, but there was at least a certain mythological poetry to the idea. This new story of Immortals from one world battling here with their powers being switched on and off depending on who's on what side of the line plays more like one of the later Final Fantasy plots.

The film occasionally tries for serious dramatics, but everything is played too broadly and stupidly for that to work. The Shield Corporation is your generic evil megacorp (and Connor apparently helped build the shield, so it's not clear how he let it fall into the hands of yuppie vermin.) Ramirez' return is arbitrary and his role in the plot is largely nonsensical. There's never much of a sense of Connor actually being threatened by either Katana or his freakish punk henchmen, and the shield itself is supposed to have become this horrible thing that ruins people's lives, but there's no indication of what precisely the problem is except things being darker most of the time (when the lighting department remembers.) Mystic powers are introduced and thrown around with no real foreshadowing or explanation, action sequences are thrown together from a grab bag of visual concepts without rhyme, reason, or rhythm, and there are lots of minor editing glitches and technical missteps that suggest that at some point everyone gave up and just tried to finish the job so they could go home. (I still can't tell you what city most of the action is supposed to take place in. New York? Detroit? London? Prague?)

But it's the increasing level of stupidity and laziness which somehow makes the film fascinating. Once you accept that there's never going to be any good explanation for why any given thing is happening, it provides a certain rush, a thrill of legitimately not knowing what the Hell this film is up to. A woman runs after a runaway baby carriage on a speeding train with a calm, casual jog. Katana uses modern slang and is conversant in pop culture references despite being from another pla- I mean, the Distant Past. John C. McGinley is even more unctuous and sleazy than you would expect him to play it. Connery appears to just be playing himself, at one point making gay jokes to an actor playing Hamlet and at another hitting on a random woman sitting next to him on a plane. There's a tailor in one scene who sells the Hell out of the two or three lines he has been given. Connor's initial old age wheezing is hilariously unconvincing.

Basically nothing about this movie coheres at all, which makes its excess almost charming. It's almost pure cinema in that it's little more than a series of images. It's easy to see why the film is so hated, to the extent that subsequent entries in the franchise ignore it entirely. But it's honestly an experience I have to recommend everyone have at least once. There is no better way to appreciate the challenge and the power of film as a narrative medium than to sit through a movie which struggles to string together individual scenes. You really do have to see it to believe it.

Based on characters created by Gregory Widen
Story by Brian Clemens and William Panzer
Screenplay by Peter Bellwood
Directed by Russell Mulcahy

Grade: C-

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