I’ve never been much of a believer in the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’; to me, if something gives you enjoyment – even if it isn’t of the highest quality - that’s a valid experience that shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment.
But that doesn’t mean you can never screw up.
Highlander 2 is famous as being one of the worst sequels ever made. It’s a film I liked when I first saw it (Sue me, I was fourteen) and in later years revisited and realized how very, very wrong I had been. It’s like finding out that your first girlfriend was a neo-nazi Steve Buscemi lookalike who had an STD that was at the time unknown to medical science.
In recent times, however, I’ve come to kind of love it for its wretchedness, which transcends being unapologetic into something somehow resembling sheer, bloody-knuckled heroism. It’s also, I have come to believe, a film that everyone who aspires to make and/or write genre material should HAVE to see, especially if they’re planning on building worlds in which to place their stories.
Worldbuilding and Highlander the First
With all fantasy worldbuilding comes the risk of going too far. Even the most successful and well-loved fantastical universes often reach a point where they’re rehashed and expanded upon one too many times, often leading them to drift in a direction far removed from what they were made for (Take the Star Wars prequels, in which George Lucas tried to take a series inspired by Saturday morning serials and shoehorn it into the realms of costume drama and political thriller)
The truth is, no fantasy world can sustain itself indefinitely, and half the battle in building these worlds is knowing what life they do have in them. Generally the most popular worlds can last a good few years, but some work best in the confines of a single, wonderfully-realized story.
1986’s Highlander was one of those movies that we call ‘sleeper hits’, a film with no hype connected to it that somehow caught the public’s imagination over time. It told the story of Connor MacLeod (Played by French actor Christopher Lambert, in an accent that’s intermittently Scottish), a Sixteenth Century clansman who discovers he belongs to a secret race of immortals whose only clearly defined purpose is to whittle each other down over the centuries in a strange kind of metaphysical Kumite known only as The Game, dispatching each other via the sole means they can be killed – beheading – until one remains.
The movie followed Connor as he wended his way across the lonely centuries, losing friends and partners to old age while lopping the heads off his fellow Immortals. He does make one Immortal friend, experienced Spanish/Egyptian warrior Ramirez (Sean Connery, in an accent that’s intermittently… Connery) who eventually dies at the hands of a cruel, sadistic immortal known as the Kurgan (Clancy Brown) The movie ended with Connor taking out the Kurgan, becoming the last immortal standing, and winning his mortality, allowing him to grow old with the mandatory love interest.
Highlander is in many ways the archetypal popcorn movie. It’s no masterpiece of cinema by any standard you can name, but it works on several crucial levels that transcend the academic. You have a cool idea, a likeable hero in Connor – even despite Lambert’s creepy, dead-eye stare and pervert’s laugh – and a smart script that gives as much weight to Connor’s internal conflicts as the mythology (Which it only ever explains enough to engage the audience’s imagination, trusting that to do the rest)
While the film wasn’t exactly a box-office smash in theatres it became one of the first true hits of the home video age, developing a passionate cult following that legitimized the idea of a second film. But how do you sequelize a film that ends with your main character winning the prize the story’s entire premise is geared around?
Got a Horse, We’ll Flog It
As Highlander 2 shows, you do by taking people who are utterly batshit insane; even better if they happen to be the same ones who made the first one.
People who were instrumental in making the first movie - Lambert, Connery and Aussie director Russell Mulcahy among them - remained on board for the sequel, having apparently suffered some kind of debilitating communal head trauma in the five years it took to develop it.
If the first film was genre storytelling at its most elementally effective, Highlander 2 is one of the perfect expressions of how Hollywood can take a good thing and fuck it till it breaks. Part retread, part display of the kind of retconning perfected by historians working in Stalinist Russia, Highlander 2 is an engrossing watch simply because you can’t quite believe that anyone thought a single frame of this thing was a good idea. You know those American parents who enter their kids into creepy underage beauty pageants dressed like 40-year-old prostitutes? That’s how Highlander 2 makes you think of its creative team.
You just wonder…. Why?
Or, if you’re a budding genre writer serious about learning their craft, you could accept what I believe Highlander 2 to be: a gift, the perfect distillation of what not to do when making a sequel.
The Highlander Universe
When you create a fantasy world, you probably want to decide early on just how expansive, and therefore expandable, your world is. This is determined partly by the amount of work you put into the world’s elements and backstory, but most by what you want to achieve with it artistically.
In Highlander, the Immortals were meant to be a romanticized phenomenon, their entire appeal stemming from the fact that they were unknowable, even to themselves. This was not just an intriguing concept for the audience, but crucial to Connor’s character development; not only is he battling eternal loneliness, he doesn’t even know why this has to be, or what he even is. It’s only at the end of his story, once he wins the Prize, that he appears to gain this knowledge.
The presence of immortal beings in our world and the concept of power coming at great personal cost are two of the great mythological tropes, and Widen and Mulcahy combined these things with Connor’s personal story to great effect. The fact that they concentrate on Connor’s internal conflict helped sell the mystical stuff, which was kept vague enough to never overshadow the emotional core. Connor anchored that world, kept it real, and the two aspects combined to make a universe that resonated emotionally as well as imaginatively. The film ends, MacLeod wins the Game – and his mortality – thus providing a perfectly rounded and thematically satisfying conclusion to a well-told story.
You could just go “Fuck it”, and make them aliens.
No, seriously; Highlander 2 does this. You get fifteen minutes of Christopher Lambert doddering around with old-age makeup that looks like scrote hide and talking like a Gallic Lemmy, and Bang! Flashback! – suddenly we see MacLeod and Ramirez on a planet called Zeist (Pronounced ‘Sheisht’ in the Queen’s Connery) heading an armed revolution against an unspecified and barely seen oppressive regime. Of course, I use ‘revolution’ in the widest sense of the word; it frankly looks like a community theatre production of Dune sponsored by Advanced Hair.
They’re summarily exiled to Earth with wiped memories to live as Immortals in the Game… Because naturally, page one of The Dummies’ Guide to Being A Generic Fascist Overlord tells you that when you exile the leaders of an armed insurrection, you send them both to the exact same place and make them impossible to kill to boot. And what’s the point of the Game in the first place? Is it on pay-per-view? Is this all some Zeistian version of Wrestlemania? Will Hulk Hogan be there?
Actually, while we’re asking questions does that mean all the other Immortals were revolutionaries as well? It’s hard to imagine MacLeod and Ramirez linking arms with the Kurgan on the picket line, shouting ‘Make Love Not War’, ‘Hell No, We Won’t Go’ or whatever slogans apply to whatever acts this apparently evil dictatorship was assumedly perpetrating. What were magical, almost godlike figures in the first film have now been reduced to guerilla fighters who, the Zeist battle scenes suggest, had the subtlety and tactical nous of a leg-humping Chihuahua. The filmmakers don’t even explain what they were even fighting about, apart from Generic Space Fascists Generally Sucking and Stuff.
Oh, and why are we on another planet but Ramirez is still called Ramirez? Is he a Space Spaniard? I hope not. Fucking Space Spaniards.
When a pair of annoying Zeistian henchmen beam down to earth to whack Connor on the orders of insidious space fascist General Katana (Michael Ironside) Connor is magically restored to immortality and reverts to his youthful state, a state of affairs which, considering his angst about living forever in the first movie, doesn’t faze him at all. Let me put it this way: he brutally beheads the two aliens then dry-humps Virginia Madsen’s ditzy ecoterrorist leader against a wall. I’d definitely call that taking it well.
At this point we’re barely half an hour into the movie. Hope you brought a helmet.
Stretching the Mystery
What we have here is a group of filmmakers expanding a story that worked perfectly on its own, and pulling whatever they can out of their arse to justify it. Highlander 2 begins shitting the conceptual bed early and does it hard, trying to explain things that never needed explanation.
It really can’t be emphasised enough how a bit of well-judged mystery can work wonders for a fantasy universe. The Immortals in Highlander were a massive question mark that tapped into the natural human proclivity to wonder if there is more to themselves than meets the eye. It’s the drive that makes many believe in God, or things like ghosts and psychic phenomena; the instinctual sense that we’re trapped in a limited physical frame, with unlimited potential just out of our reach, be it physical or spiritual.
With the Immortals we got a group who exemplified the smashing of those boundaries, with elements that reminded us of classic mythology – a secret society of powerful beings always just out of sight but shaping human society, the constant presence of loss as the cost of power, not to mention the classic mythological trope of unspeakably powerful creatures who can only be undone through a simple but difficultly-exploited physical flaw; in the Immortals’ case, their heads.
These characters were a curious blend of the mysterious and the oddly relatable; in one scene, MacLeod meets up with a fellow Immortal named Kastagir – not to hack away at each other, but simply because they haven’t caught up in a while. It’s a simple scene about two guys having a drink, yet the fact that it’s involving two mystical Immortals makes it a genuinely fun moment. It’s moments like these that give the first film its most memorable trait: charm.
The sequel, however, completely lacks this charm, and what you have left is a desperate attempt to cram in explanations nobody needed before. If you explain this stuff, then it becomes science. It needs rules. If you haven’t sat down and worked out the rules in advance you, well… You get Highlander 2. Mulcahy and co. had to bend the world to keep the story going, and bandage it with whatever they could muster to stop it from snapping. In the process, they put themselves in a position of breaking the original’s mystery while trying to introduce new ones, resulting in a narrative trainwreck that is never messier than in the treatment of Ramirez.
How does Ramirez come back? Connor calls his name while being attacked by the Annoying Alien Henchmen (Cool band name up for grabs if anyone wants it) causing him to teleport to Earth magically restored.
So where the hell is Ramirez coming from? The very, very dead and surely incapable of teleporting anywhere Ramirez? The film tries to explain this away by having Connery give a speech about him and McLeod being joined by a Zeistian glow-fingered mind meld they share at the top of the film. This is also meant to explain his ‘death’ scene as he explodes in a ball of white light while yammering out some metaphysical bollocks about concentrating all your life’s energy in one place making you one with the Force or something.
Not only is this a piss-poor attempt to turn him into Obi-Wan Kenobi (Which the first movie kind of did, but at least with some class) it also brings into sharp relief the sequel’s complete lack of understanding of the mythos. If you’re going to go to so much effort to shoehorn in an origin for the Immortals that completely shatters the mystery around them, what possible use is there of bringing in completely unrelated mystical stuff that only plays as an excuse to get Connery’s name on the poster? Do alien revolutionaries come back from the dead all the time, or are we supposed to still think there’s something special about these guys even though you’re wasting most of the movie telling us that there really isn’t?
You’ve just destroyed the mystery of these characters, only to cram in another mystery around them that would’ve made much more sense if you’d left the original mystery alone in the first place.
Making Your Villain Count
When your first installment’s most popular character was the villain (Clancy Brown’s Kurgan, who combined overwhelming brutality with a gleefully anarchic sense of humour) you want to make sure that your new bad guy stacks up.
In what should have been a promising move, Mulcahy cast cult legend Michael Ironside in the role of this story’s antagonist, General Katana. Ironside, most famous for his work with Paul Verhoeven in Total Recall and Starship Troopers (Not to mention voicing the lead character in the long-running Splinter Cell series of video games) is exactly the kind of guy you need when you need a hundred-carat, stone-cold badass.
What you don’t employ him as is a carbon copy of the last actor to play the baddie in your series. Did Mulcahy understand this very obvious principle? Given what we’ve seen about Highlander 2 already, what do you think?
Every time Katana opens his mouth, a really bad Kurgan impression emerges. Wisecracking just isn’t part of Ironside’s repertoire as an actor; he does ‘mean motherfucker’ better than anyone, but he’s just not the quip-from-the-hip type. It’s painful to see a guy with Ironside’s presence weakly shoehorned into a character that’s so removed from his particular strengths. If you want to see Michael Ironside at his best, check out Starship Troopers, in which he plays the most hardcore teacher/squad leader you ever saw (Though he is upstaged when humanity is saved by none other than – IRONY ALERT – Clancy Brown)
Mind you, Ironside wasn’t just failed by shitty direction; Katana is a simply horribly-written villain. He spends most of the first half of the movie just sitting around on Zeist, and when he does finally come to Earth he seems content to just stand around and leer a lot.
We never get any idea who Katana is, except that he’s some General with an especial – and similarly vague – animosity against MacLeod, who he only eventually decides to have assassinated after he’s won his mortality, grown old and is a threat to absolutely nobody (Except for perhaps the cinematic make-up industry).
It’s not even as if Katana is even as tough as the Kurgan. Look at the calibre of opponents the Kurgan kills in the first movie: a bevy of rock-hard, blood-crazed Scots clansmen, a string of fellow Immortals trained in swordsmanship over several centuries, and Double-Oh-Bloody-Seven.
Katana’s kill list? An eel, some commuters, the slowest bodyguard in history and Dr. Cox from Scrubs (John C. McGinley, giving a performance so ham-endowed watching it will break some people’s religious vows). I don’t see any kind of contest here.
Aside from Katana’s complete lack of motivation to hate MacLeod so much, even his rare violent moments are an anaemic impersonation of the Kurgan’s nihilistic rampaging. You never felt that the Kurgan really gave that much of a toss about the Game in the first film; it was an excuse to indulge in anarchy, and they try to replicate this appetite for chaos in Katana to much lesser effect. Once we get the obvious out of the way – Isn’t part of being a general about keeping things ordered? – it makes no sense for Katana because he doesn’t have any clear relationship with our world. At least the Kurgan had been stuck there for centuries like everyone else, giving him a reason to treat it like a playground; Katana is just there to kill Connor, so why dick around?
Basically, Katana is an astoundingly shit villain. He’s a cosplay Kurgan, which is just a horrible approach to take to a sequel. You need your antagonist to be bigger, badder and better than the first one, or at least give them a stronger personal connection with the hero to raise the emotional stakes (a la Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back) What you don’t want in your sequel is an unfunny, incompetent wanker who doesn’t even have much more of a motivation to kill the hero than ‘That Guy Really Pissed Me Off That One Time’.
Sorry, I forgot about that bit, so enraptured was I by the mess they made of the characters, mythology and, y’know, entire point of the whole thing.
Of course, you can be forgiven for forgetting the plot because it’s utterly prosaic. Basically, at some point between Highlander 1 and 2 the ozone layer completely collapses, bathing Earth in lethally unfiltered solar radiation. MacLeod, who has apparently started going to the Cave Johnson Institute of Beginner Science, invents a shield that protects the planet but has the unfortunate side-effect of plunging the globe into perpetual night (And high temperatures, going by how sweaty everyone is)
Predictably, once the novelty of his saving the world from slow, roasting annihilation wears off, everyone ends up pretty pissed off at Connor who has long since had control of the shield wrested from him by a generic and mildly fascist corporation (This movie sure has a problem with getting detailed with their fascists) Once regaining his youth and ejaculating on the leg of Virginia Madsen – No really, watch the love scene – he joins up with her in infiltrating said corporation, discovering that it has kept the shield up for profit despite the ozone layer mending itself. From this point it all goes a bit Captain Planet as he destroys the shield and re-saves the Earth.
The clunky environmental stuff just screams ‘early Nineties’, a desperate stab at relevancy. While it does in a minor way build on the suggestion at the end of the first movie that the mortal Connor would possess great knowledge, a lot of the material building on this was excised for the theatrical cut of the movie (A later recut would restore this stuff, but more on that in a minute)
But even with all this considered, it still feels decidedly thin. The need to bolt sci-fi trappings onto the storyline only highlights how Connor’s personal story is all but ignored in Highlander 2. As mentioned previously, a huge part of the first film’s charm lay in its sheer heart; it was ostensibly about sword-wielding immortals hacking each others’ heads off while Queen rock out (In itself a pretty workable basis for great cinema) but underneath it all was the story of a man destined to lose everyone he loved.
None of this is in the sequel. There are no stakes to MacLeod’s restored immortality, and it has no emotional effect on him whatsoever. He basically becomes Stock Hollywood Action Guy, with the world’s least convincing eco-terrorist and Sean Connery tagging along. It’s not that they failed to extend the thematic elements of the first movie; they seem to have genuinely forgotten that those themes existed in the first place.
What Highlander 2 Can Teach Us
Highlander 2 sees Mulcahy and Co. unable to rest until they’ve flipped, fiddled and fucked around with every single aspect that made the first movie so interesting, until it winds up feeling like a sequel to a movie that never existed.
It’s so determined to screw over everything we know about Connor MacLeod and the Highlander universe, it transcends the boundaries of crapness and becomes something legitimately amazing, like a drunk uncle picking a fight with the family cat while wearing only underpants. On his head.
First of all, this makes it a veritable font of unintentional comedy (You think I’d write 4,000 words plus on a movie this bad if the evisceration wasn’t fun?)
What it also does, however, is give perhaps the finest example of a badly handled sequel you could ever need. All of the classic sequel pitfalls are here: thematic and tonal inconsistency, contradicting the original story, unnecessary lore changes that confuse the entire fictional world… You name anything you don’t want to do when writing a sequel, Highlander 2 does it and does it with disturbing enthusiasm. The film radiates this almost Quixotic sense of confidence in itself, the filmmakers clearly thinking they were pulling off some feat of genius. It actually gets sort of endearing after a while (Just like the drunk uncle)
At some point, however, Mulcahy’s confidence evaporated. I’d imagine it being a point somewhere between the movie being a critical and commercial disaster, and it becoming one of the most notoriously hated fantasy/sci-fi films of all time – I reckon that’d change my mind too – but it gave him the notion that it could be saved. In 1995 he released a recut version of the film (Dubbed the ‘Renegade Version’) that attempted to make the story tighter and, well, sane.
Changes were made in two principal areas: the Zeist angle was completely removed, making the Immortals come from some far-flung era in Earth’s past rather than from another planet. This made their origins slightly less jarring compared to the first movie, but was still shoehorned-in and robbed them of much of their mystique.
The other additions worked to flesh out Connor’s story (Most importantly, the death of his wife – and Highlander’s love interest – Brenda) It brings a genuinely interesting aspect to MacLeod, namely that just because he was destined for love and great deeds after winning the Prize doesn’t mean that those things are necessarily destined to last; that life as a mortal brings just as much potential for failure and disappointment for the winner of the Game as it does for all of us. It’s the one thing in all the versions of this film that feels genuine, and it’s twice as disappointing when Connor still shrugs off his returned curse of immortality with obnoxious ease.
Indeed, that is where lies the proverbial rub. Whilst the Renegade Version (And a further recut in 2004 that apparently adds “new computer generated effects”. Oh, goody.) bring a little extra depth to the story, it’s still a bad story now recut to play like a politician’s apology.
The Franchise That Keeps On Giving
Don’t go thinking the story ends here, either. Amazingly, the Highlander franchise has dragged on to this day, giving us FIVE further live-action sequels, two animated movies, three TV series and a whole host of books, comics and assorted tie-in media, all happy to ditch whatever surviving scraps of mythology have managed to survive in order to justify their own existence. What that has given us is less a fantasy universe and more an ongoing spasmodic retcon that endures in the face of logic, quality and general principle.
Ultimately, it all points back to one overarching truth that try as it might, the Highlander franchise has never been able to reconcile itself with: that Connor MacLeod won the Game in the first film. You can throw in alien planets, interdimensional travel and alternate timelines all you want; hell, you can have the entire MacLeod clan dossing around on a 800 year long pub crawl if you like, but as long as you keep that first movie as the basis of your mythology the story ended in 1986.
Just as Highlander 2 can be seen as a lesson in how not to handle a sequel, the franchise as a whole can teach us the value of knowing a fantasy world’s limits. The Immortals’ Mantra is ‘There Can Be Only One’, and that can be applied just as readily to the world in which they live. Widen and Mulcahy could have had no idea that this original story would resonate with so many, creating that world to simply serve that one story; if they had a franchise in mind, they likely would’ve drawn the world with more detail.
Unfortunately, the franchise gravy train won out. It has left a legacy of narrative dysfunction that although painful, at least tells us how badly things can go wrong. Surely that is something from which young filmmakers can learn as we lay the foundations for the franchises of the future?
Well it can’t hurt to dream, can it?