The Zeros

Highlander 2: The Quickening Is an Incomprehensible Mess That Deserves Its Bad Reputation

In a cult franchise of dubious quality, this bizarrely plotted detour is the worst entry.

by | October 23, 2018 | Comments

Behind the Zero

Republic Pictures courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Republic Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

The unfathomably awful 1991 flop Highlander 2: The Quickening holds a place high in the pantheon of embarrassingly misguided, wildly opportunistic sequels. It is reviled with an uncommon fury by critics and audiences alike, but director Russell Mulcahy and the cast have spoken out extensively against it as well.

Roger Ebert eloquently captured the essence of the horror and mortification with which the film was received when he wrote in his half-star review, “Highlander II: The Quickening is the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I’ve seen in many a long day — a movie almost awesome in its badness. Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come, this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre.”

Ebert’s words proved prophetic. The movie has become a cult and camp classic of the “so bad it’s good” and “can you believe this?” variety, and while plenty of movies get middling to negative reviews, few turkeys have earned the simultaneously impressive and damning “zero” rating on Rotten Tomatoes quite as flamboyantly or deservedly as Highlander 2: The Quickening did.

According to legend, Mulcahy walked out in disgust just 15 minutes into the movie’s premiere. He reportedly wanted to take his name off the film and have it replaced with the industry-mandated pseudonym “Alan Smithee” but was contractually forbidden to do so. Stars Michael Ironside, Christopher Lambert, and Sean Connery also added to the worldwide chorus of jeers that greeted the movie by publicly criticizing it and what appeared to be a surreal and deeply unpleasant experience filming it in a corruption-plagued Argentina.

Republic Pictures Courtesy Everett Collection.
(Photo by Republic Pictures Courtesy Everett Collection.)

Years later, Mulcahy released his own edit of the film on home video as “The Renegade Version.” The Renegade Version falls somewhere between a corrective for the original and a public apology for being associated with a motion picture so staggeringly incomprehensible. It has to make more sense than the theatrical cut, if only because it would seem impossible for it to make any less sense.

Though also a flop upon its theatrical release, the original 1986 Highlander attracted a sizable, loyal cult enamored with its fantastical mythology regarding Connor McLeod (Lambert) — a 16th century Scottish Highlander who discovers that he belongs to a race of immortals who can only be killed by decapitation — and his adventures throughout the centuries, ending with an epic, high-stakes battle in mid-1980s New York against villain Kurgan (Clancy Brown).

The screenwriters of Highlander 2 puzzlingly decided to discard much of the mythology that made the first film such a cult favorite by making the Immortals aliens from the planet Zeist who battle on a dystopian Earth of 2024, perpetually shrouded in darkness thanks to a series of environmental disasters. The narrative shift was tantamount to making a Star Wars sequel in which all the characters are 1950s California teens, except for Luke Skywalker, who is a World War I pilot for some reason, and then expecting audiences who adored George Lucas’ original to simply roll with the changes.

Highlander 2: The Quickening is so perversely, masochistically intent on ruining everything fans loved about the first movie that it’s surprising that they didn’t alter the beloved catchphrase from “There can be only one” to “There can be anywhere from seven to the low thousands, depending on the month and the location,” or that they didn’t re-cast Sean Connery’s pivotal role as fan favorite Ramirez with Frank Stallone.


The Zero

Interstar courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Republic Pictures Courtesy Everett Collection.)

Highlander 2: The Quickening wastes no time establishing that it will be a much different, much more convoluted, and infinitely worse movie than its predecessor with an opening crawl (what is it about terrible movies and opening crawls?) asserting that, unlike Highlander, this sequel takes place in a grim, dystopian 2024.

Ah, but The Quickening doesn’t just unexpectedly take place in the future. It also takes place in outer space, as we learn when a decrepit, doddering old Connor flashes back to his time on his home planet of Zeist, where his friend and mentor Ramirez (Connery reportedly made $3.5 million for just nine days of work) taps him for a dangerous mission against evil space tyrant General Katana (Ironside).

To punish Connor and Ramirez for the attempted insurrection, they’re sent to Earth, where Connor, having helped save Earth from further destruction by building an artificial ozone layer that protects the planet at the cost of perpetual darkness, drunkenly waits to die a lonely natural death. The film’s heavy-handed environmental message has aged about as well Captain Planet’s blue mullet.

Once Highlander 2 makes a bad decision, though, it sticks with it. Lambert isn’t imprisoned in comically unconvincing “old man” make up for just a scene or two; he spends upwards of a half hour Mr. Magoo-ing it up as a ridiculous caricature of an old codger. He isn’t like the title character in Logan, a proud warrior at the bleary end of a hard and complicated life. He’s more like Hans Moleman from The Simpsons, a ridiculous cartoon with a feeble croak of a voice that suggests his lungs and vocal chords consist primarily of lint and dust.

Interstar courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Interstar courtesy Everett Collection)

General Katana nevertheless dispatches a pair of henchmen, Corda and Reno — who look like steam-punk porcupine men whose mutant DNA was crossed with that of character actor Bud Cort — to Earth to kill Connor, but the comically unthreatening old man gets his groove back. When he destroys the two goons, he not only brings back his radiant youth and luscious mane of Fabio-worthy hair via the titular Quickening; he brings Ramirez back from the dead as well.

Once Ramirez returns, the film becomes a wacky fish-out-of-water comedy, with Sean Connery mugging up a storm as a Scottish, space alien Crocodile Dundee amazed at the wonders of the 21st century. Michael Ironside’s space tyrant becomes the world’s most murderous tourist, most notably in a notorious set piece in which he thrill-kills future New Yorkers by hijacking a subway train and taking it on a high-speed joyride through a wall. Connor, meanwhile, romances sexy terrorist Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen), who is fighting a righteous crusade against The Shield, a sinister corporation led by David Blake (John C. McGinley) that has come to hold power over the artificial electromagnetic field Connor helped create to protect the earth from the sun.

Acting as an audience surrogate, Louise tries to make sense of the incomprehensible gobbledygook that constitutes the film’s plot and impenetrable, needlessly complicated mythology. At one point, she says to Connor, “Okay, now let me just see if I can get this straight. You’re mortal there, but you’re immortal here until you kill all the guys from there who’ve come here, and then you’re mortal here, unless you go back there, or some guys from there come here, in which case you become immortal here… again.”

Interstar courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Interstar courtesy Everett Collection)

Connor chuckles and replies that she’s right, but the film is somehow even less coherent and more confusing than Madsen’s words suggest. Even the movie’s own characters don’t seem to know what’s going on from scene to scene or moment to moment.

Highlander 2: The Quickening’s jarring shifts in tone, genre, and style are epitomized by its choice to make its two main villains a demented general from outer space who looks and acts like a psychotic Renaissance Faire Ozzy Osborne and the aforementioned David Blake, an oily executive in an expensive suit who’s essentially a junior league Gordon Gekko with questionable judgment.

This partnership of convenience ends, inevitably, when one partner grabs the other by their genitalia, crushes them in his hand, and hurls him by his crotch out of a window to a violent death. It’s almost as if you can’t trust warlords from outer space, and should be wary of forming alliances with them, no matter how evil or ambitious you might be yourself.

It’s easy to see why Ebert predicted perverse cult glory for Highlander 2: The Quickening even as he eviscerated it in his review. Like the similarly reviled Star Wars Holiday Special, The Quickening takes a beloved franchise in such a bizarre, off-brand direction that it’s hard to believe it exists, let alone that it’s an official — albeit deeply regretted — part of a venerable pop-culture institution’s checkered legacy.


Final Verdict

Interstar courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Interstar courtesy Everett Collection)

What do you do next when you make a mistake as egregious as Highlander 2: The Quickening? If you’re the folks behind the Highlander franchise, you pretend the movie never happened, erase it from the mythology, and move on. It’s a testament to how much people loved the characters and story of the original film that Highlander became a big multi-media franchise despite Highlander 2.

The story of the Immortals would continue not just in theatrically released sequels like 1993’s Highlander III: The Sorcerer and 2000’s Highlander: Endgame, but also in novels, comic books, multiple television adaptations, card games, and a 2007 Japanese anime film. A remake, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been in development hell for much of this decade, attracting, at various points, talent like Ryan Reynolds and Dave Bautista and filmmakers like Justin Lin, John Wick’s Chad Stahelski, and 28 Weeks Later’s Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.

Mulcahy, meanwhile, did his part to offer the world a variant of this story that made at least a tiny bit of sense with the film’s Renegade Version, which did away with the exceedingly fan-unfriendly conceit that the Immortals were aliens.

If a film series can survive a boondoggle on the order of Highlander 2: The Quickening to produce more movies, TV shows, a possible big-budget reboot, and other ancillary projects, then perhaps it truly is immortal and cannot be destroyed.


Nathan Rabin is the author of six books and the proprietor of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

71st Emmy Awards jamie lee curtis Musical historical drama HBO singing competition video zombie YouTube Premium Amazon Prime Video Spike elevated horror Apple biography Ellie Kemper American Society of Cinematographers HBO Max Best and Worst medical drama Brie Larson Star Trek Premiere Dates Adult Swim LGBT Certified Fresh aliens 2015 Video Games Esquire Peacock Warner Bros. Oscars Universal mutant CBS Arrowverse MCU serial killer spider-man Toys casting WGN what to watch cults Netflix VH1 TBS Nickelodeon WarnerMedia travel USA hist streaming spain robots Pixar Shudder book Fall TV 2018 talk show Animation ABC zero dark thirty harry potter Amazon Rocky festivals Calendar space First Look 45 mockumentary sports Martial Arts National Geographic Shondaland Pirates YouTube Red ghosts cats Elton John Logo period drama richard e. Grant Cannes Watching Series war Countdown Stephen King Captain marvel game of thrones PBS blaxploitation Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Reality Competition Comic Book kids Biopics Set visit Trivia FXX Spring TV The Arrangement transformers adaptation CBS All Access Food Network television anthology Polls and Games President IFC Films TCM Family comiccon Thanksgiving spy thriller Trophy Talk Valentine's Day DirecTV cops Teen Lifetime LGBTQ GLAAD Sci-Fi TNT game show Heroines true crime facebook Binge Guide CW Seed Mindy Kaling Marvel Comedy Central Superheroes Showtime latino The Witch MTV Black Mirror Awards Pride Month Britbox TLC Cartoon Network Disney Chernobyl adventure MSNBC 2019 Photos Emmys Emmy Nominations police drama Cosplay Box Office Amazon Prime Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt AMC Dark Horse Comics Song of Ice and Fire tv talk disaster boxoffice award winner miniseries crime romance Music Film 21st Century Fox Freeform 007 Fantasy Holidays USA Network 2017 Ghostbusters Starz Extras Rom-Com science fiction E3 TV FX GoT DC Comics DGA Rocketman Podcast Spectrum Originals San Diego Comic-Con Character Guide sequel spanish language toy story Mudbound composers Kids & Family Star Wars El Rey Action Grammys Country ratings crime drama Columbia Pictures Tumblr Anna Paquin Acorn TV A&E binge Winners nature Trailer doctor who Tomatazos Paramount Hulu Vudu dceu X-Men ABC Family cinemax children's TV political drama unscripted TCA 2017 strong female leads movies Winter TV Fox News Summer diversity NBC revenge ESPN Disney Channel History DC streaming service ITV south america Mary Poppins Returns SDCC quibi TIFF SundanceTV 2016 Red Carpet Rock theme song IFC foreign Nat Geo E! green book BET supernatural Television Academy hispanic comic Sundance Now Lucasfilm psychological thriller cooking docudrama YA Nominations CMT Bravo based on movie crossover Disney streaming service Writers Guild of America BBC America Pet Sematary witnail RT History dragons Lionsgate zombies social media justice league 24 frames anime New York Comic Con Christmas Syfy Walt Disney Pictures series SXSW technology Drama thriller The CW crime thriller Women's History Month Paramount Network PaleyFest Film Festival Tarantino Masterpiece DC Universe Comics on TV Infographic Ovation golden globes Sundance Reality spinoff APB cars Mystery FOX TruTV Election CNN Creative Arts Emmys Year in Review Crackle natural history Marathons teaser vampires First Reviews 20th Century Fox Quiz discovery RT21 Schedule dc See It Skip It VICE Western finale Musicals TCA TV Land BBC Comedy psycho dramedy Sneak Peek Mary poppins sitcom stand-up comedy politics animated Mary Tyler Moore GIFs Pop Opinion Superheroe Epix Sony Pictures Awards Tour NYCC Super Bowl Horror Interview OWN