If you make a film predicated on the concept that “there can be only one”, then you have to admit the inherent irony that not only is there a sequel, but ultimately an entire franchise spanning not only movies, but also television, comic books, audio and novels. The irony intensifies when you realise the first sequel itself had multiple iterations.
After the release of the original Highlander, it seemed that there was no possible room for a sequel to be made: Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) had bested all of his fellow Immortals, and had won the Prize, which was that he would see out his days as an ordinary man. It was only intended by writer Gregory Widen to be a self-contained one-off movie, and ended in such a way that the entire story had reached a natural conclusion.
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However, the movie business will never let a little thing like that get in the way of making money, as the emphasis tends to always be placed firmly upon the second half of the word showbusiness. As a result, although Highlander had failed to make much of a dent at the box office in America, it had done far better in other territories; consequently, producers Peter Davis and William Panzer found themselves being asked by foreign distributors as to exactly when the follow-up would be coming out.
The sequel to Highlander was therefore driven primarily by financial concerns, rather than creative ones. Having already provided a pretty definitive full stop at the climax of the first film, it fell to the producers to try and find a way to continue the story, so they brought in the veteran British writer Brian Clemens, best known for his work on ITV’s The Avengers, as well as creating The Professionals. It was Clemens who was to devise what proved to be an extremely contentious way of carrying things on.
He came up with the notion that the Immortals were actually aliens from the planet Zeist, exiled to Earth 500 years ago by General Katana (Michael Ironside), after a failed revolt which was headed by MacLeod, alongside Ramirez (Sean Connery). The story sees Katana consider MacLeod to still be a threat to him, even after he wins the Prize and becomes mortal, as he fears MacLeod will return to Zeist in order to take his revenge for this banishment; by going to Earth, it makes MacLeod an Immortal again, as he is no longer the only one.
Despite there being no realistic prospect of any continuation when the original Highlander was made, both Lambert and director Russell Mulcahy had clauses in their contract, tying them to any prospective sequel; most likely, this was all just standard boilerplate contractual material, and not done with any real thought that their services would be required again. However, Sean Connery was not under similar terms, and as the financiers felt his requirement was necessary in order to ensure the sequel’s success – despite Ramirez having died – negotiations began.
Connery ended up bagging a hefty $3 million for a total of six days’ work on Highlander II: The Quickening, with a means of bringing Ramirez back having been thought up. There had also been consideration given to having the character of The Kurgan return, with him being sent to Earth from Zeist to kill MacLeod for General Katana; Clancy Brown was sent around 20 pages of the script, but was unhappy with the material, as well as the remainder of the script being withheld from him, and he withdrew unless his proposed fee was increased very substantially, leaving The Kurgan to be written out.
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The story is set in 2024, with a now aged MacLeod looking to make amends for his part in the fate facing planet Earth. As the planet was on the verge of an environmental disaster in 1999, with the depleted ozone layer leading to deaths on a catastrophic scale from solar radiation, MacLeod was part of a team who had created a solar shield, enveloping the Earth; however, the shield blocked out the sky, as well as creating a greenhouse effect, all of which had led to the slow decline of humanity over 25 years. He pits himself against the corrupt Shield Corporation, in an effort to save the planet.
When looking for a location in which to shoot, the producers were sold on the idea of going to Argentina, not just because of the suitable architecture, but also because the favourable exchange rate would mean the cost of shooting there should be about 30% cheaper, saving around $8 to $10 million. The whole project, however, quickly became a nightmare, due to an economic crash in the country resulting in hyperinflation, which started pushing the costs of the movie’s production up on a daily basis.
Another issue was that with the majority of the crew coming from Argentina, the lunches are traditionally served up with copious amounts of wine: this meant that filming tended to be far slower and much less productive in the afternoon, and it led to time being lost. Some of the crew had flown in from England, and with that nation’s conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands having been less than a decade earlier, it sparked tensions on set, with things almost coming to blows between crew members from the two countries.
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The production difficulties and spiralling budget resulted in the insurers who had provided a bond that the movie would be completed and released on schedule becoming jittery: in light of these concerns, they finished principal photography early, and took control of the project away from the director and producers. With a view solely upon getting the film out and minimising costs in order to ensure the investors could recoup as much of their money as possible, they brought in their own editor to piece the movie together, having the last word over the theatrical cut.
As not all of the necessary material had been filmed, and the script was hacked to pieces by reordering some of the scenes from how they had been written, the end product which hit the cinemas was a mess, one which caused Mulcahy to walk out of the movie premiere after just 15 minutes, disavowing the film. A re-edited version was released in the UK, funded by Entertainment Film Distributors, which restored around ten minutes of footage, including MacLeod’s motivation for setting up the shield, following the death of Brenda, his love interest from Highlander, whom he had since married, with her falling terminally ill from the solar radiation.
On its theatrical release, Highlander II grossed just around $15.5 million globally, with about a third of it coming from the US box office, against a budget of some $34 million. It was also critically panned, with renowned American cinema critic Roger Ebert stating in his review of the film “[i]f there is a planet somewhere whose civilization is based on the worst movies of all time, “Highlander 2: The Quickening” deserves a sacred place among their most treasured artifacts”, decrying it as “a movie almost awesome in its badness“.
Russell Mulcahy had a chance to try and set things right in 1995, with the release of Highlander II: Renegade Version, his ‘Director’s Cut’ which added in 18 minutes of material – some of which had previously been seen in the UK theatrical release – and took the step of removing all the references to the planet Zeist; thanks to the use of editing and redubbing, the Immortals hailed from an ancient civilisation in Earth’s past, rather than being aliens, with General Katana actually exiling them to the future.
This change meant Mulcahy would also have to exclude what had become known as the ‘fairy tale ending’, which was seen in some European prints, having MacLeod returning home to Zeist with his new love, Louise (Virginia Madsen). Mulcahy’s new edit also saw him being reunited with Lambert, Ironside and Madsen to film an unfinished chase sequence. In 2004, producers Davis and Panzer took the Renegade Version and added brand new visual effects, making it much closer to the original vision, releasing this latest iteration under the name Highlander II: Special Edition.
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Surprisingly, despite its poor showing and critical reception, Highlander II actually managed not to kill off this fledgling franchise in its infancy. Davis and Panzer believed there was still some potential in the concept, and in 1992 Highlander: The Series was launched, adding much to the central mythos over six seasons; both the show and all subsequent additions to the franchise, including further movies, managed to wipe all traces of Highlander II from continuity, leaving it as just a curious dead end or offshoot, with no further mention made of the planet Zeist anywhere.
Highlander II is, even when being charitable, something of a disaster and an ill-conceived project from the outset; whilst the Renegade Version and Special Edition are undoubtedly improvements on the misbegotten theatrical release, there is only so much damage control that can be done on a movie which is holed below the waterline. If you had to try and find a way to adequately encapsulate Highlander II’s full impact on the franchise as a whole, then to misquote Queen’s lyrics from the original movie, it’s a kind of tragic.
Highlander II: The Quickening was first released in the UK on 12th April 1991.