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

RT21 TLC Dark Horse Comics golden globes franchise free movies composers FX rotten trailers screenings 2019 werewolf TCA Awards cinemax BBC One dark Comedy cancelled Super Bowl high school ratings Interview christmas movies spanish language Pride Month ESPN Women's History Month anthology cancelled TV shows Podcast Hulu twilight Stephen King critics First Reviews witnail comics docudrama Black History Month President halloween video on demand transformers YouTube Rocky children's TV 2017 Spring TV Rom-Com Fox Searchlight political drama finale CNN Winners festival Marvel Television DGA 2021 Reality Competition MTV italian Summer nature streaming movies cults American Society of Cinematographers medical drama dceu documentaries Spike jamie lee curtis The CW Musical animated HBO 72 Emmy Awards blaxploitation spider-man scorecard based on movie serial killer rt archives Marathons Marvel canceled TV shows fast and furious all-time kong cartoon 24 frames Western Disney boxoffice australia deadpool Pacific Islander First Look Reality discovery Paramount Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 4/20 Election Heroines Film Festival Infographic monster movies 99% Avengers Elton John Teen biography child's play mutant 71st Emmy Awards Song of Ice and Fire emmy awards hollywood Martial Arts dramedy IFC Tumblr international laika Anna Paquin romance comiccon Nat Geo PlayStation Black Mirror anime Amazon Prime doctor who hidden camera boxing Masterpiece OneApp casting Trophy Talk scene in color Mary poppins sequel concert aliens TV renewals cats stand-up comedy telelvision Discovery Channel name the review Quiz Turner Classic Movies indiana jones Emmy Nominations New York Comic Con Superheroes Valentine's Day Amazon Studios historical drama worst Vudu television dc cooking Captain marvel golden globe awards Spectrum Originals Britbox Exclusive Video Pop Fall TV saw Set visit HBO Max CMT canceled History Amazon french worst movies Netflix Christmas movies Writers Guild of America The Purge science fiction Disney Channel slashers new york SDCC supernatural talk show Amazon Prime Video Calendar Countdown news versus Film Star Trek National Geographic vampires Sundance Starz TV movies natural history universal monsters ITV period drama Nominations Disney+ Disney Plus new star wars movies See It Skip It DirecTV ViacomCBS festivals Peacock die hard Freeform Biopics stoner singing competition Sundance Now Opinion YouTube Premium Star Wars jurassic park Legendary justice league Hallmark Best and Worst popular Hallmark Christmas movies BAFTA Rock Lifetime Christmas movies SundanceTV Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt new zealand lord of the rings south america E! BBC America TCA 2017 book adaptation fresh binge 21st Century Fox women 93rd Oscars aapi USA PBS facebook criterion venice technology nbcuniversal sitcom travel Watching Series NYCC Country halloween tv social media Logo Crackle joker remakes Drama Animation Fox News Awards Tour Video Games what to watch Ghostbusters FXX Mary Tyler Moore San Diego Comic-Con scary movies Box Office parents romantic comedy disaster Mudbound Rocketman Polls and Games ABC Signature A24 SXSW Travel Channel adventure Arrowverse directors Family Mystery Tomatazos LGBTQ spain Television Academy Ovation E3 The Arrangement GoT FOX Sundance TV archives Paramount Plus Creative Arts Emmys WGN Cannes TV Land VICE Trivia Turner Marvel Studios football breaking bad Schedule batman CBS Shondaland zero dark thirty reboot Action movies game show Photos book cancelled TV series DC Universe USA Network Television Critics Association series robots heist movie nfl latino know your critic diversity Binge Guide revenge Netflix Superheroe VH1 game of thrones Horror Emmys Tarantino hist strong female leads spinoff Image Comics Alien The Academy Hear Us Out Classic Film Adult Swim thriller APB Toys blockbuster Character Guide chucky MSNBC streaming OWN Cosplay dogs Syfy NBC toronto Extras Tubi DC streaming service Holidays crossover docuseries YouTube Red quibi war marvel cinematic universe comic GIFs Mindy Kaling 2020 HBO Go Musicals 2018 BET documentary prank ID psychological thriller Disney streaming service Comedy Central pirates of the caribbean Chernobyl psycho toy story comedies Mary Poppins Returns zombie Columbia Pictures BBC Sneak Peek miniseries hispanic Red Carpet Oscars indie crime DC Comics BET Awards kids Pixar Acorn TV green book Crunchyroll police drama cancelled television TV One TCM The Walt Disney Company CW Seed TCA adaptation spy thriller james bond spanish Cartoon Network Nickelodeon TV X-Men 20th Century Fox VOD space best superhero dragons ABC obituary Certified Fresh unscripted Food Network Pirates reviews AMC teaser Pet Sematary Awards LGBT razzies Lionsgate mission: impossible 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Grammys Kids & Family Thanksgiving movie TNT Year in Review ghosts Comics on TV award winner Broadway WarnerMedia Apple TV+ sag awards a nightmare on elm street richard e. Grant El Rey black mockumentary zombies IFC Films stop motion target Comic Book cops elevated horror politics godzilla Music Funimation Universal superman rom-coms TCA Winter 2020 TBS harry potter kaiju king kong ABC Family Shudder Pop TV screen actors guild Academy Awards Baby Yoda Winter TV Lucasfilm The Witch Showtime Trailer A&E sequels japanese Holiday MCU RT History Christmas tv talk video films Esquire true crime Disney Plus 007 Walt Disney Pictures crime thriller rotten movies we love Brie Larson TruTV crime drama 45 Paramount Network Endgame Apple PaleyFest blockbusters CBS All Access asian-american satire Premiere Dates sports Sony Pictures renewed TV shows Apple TV Plus 2015 YA Sci-Fi Epix FX on Hulu 2016 Fantasy cars TIFF theme song Bravo comic books GLAAD The Walking Dead live action Lifetime Warner Bros. independent Ellie Kemper foreign classics