Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Highlander II: The Quickening
While a number of the cheesy movies we profile here have their origins in opportunistic movie producers hoping to ride the hyperspace trail of Star Wars, there are also a fair share of cheesy movies that aspire to a loftier, artistic ideal. They want to be Blade Runner. Though the film was a flop in its original theatrical release, the art direction, cinematography and world-building became the envy of every director even remotely interested in fantasy or science fiction. Where the producers paying for the projects wanted the action and laser swords of Star Wars, filmmakers wanted to make something moody and atmospheric like the 1982 robot classic. The results were often blatant in their homage to Ridley Scott’s troubled film; particularly in films that had no business trading on the Blade Runner mystique. One such film is Highlander II: The Quickening, the first film in the sequel series to prove that there really should’ve been only one.
I kid of course, this is the only Highlander sequel worth watching.
Thanks to the stylish direction of Russell Mulcahy and fun performances from Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown, Highlander was a minor hit in 1986. And to give you an idea of how much slower the film business moved in those days, the sequel would not emerge until 1991. In the intervening years, Mulcahy directed music videos and became a devotee of the Blade Runner aesthetic. The influence is obvious once you take a look at the film. But unlike Blade Runner‘s status as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made — though some would debate that — Highlander II: The Quickening became one of the most reviled films of all time; receiving comparisons to the work of Edward D. Wood Jr. along the way. And, to be honest, Plan 9 from Outer Space is probably a better film.
The plot sees Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod (Lambert) old and alone as he drives through a dismal 2024. At the turn of the century, he aided the a private company in building an electronic shield to reduce the amount of UV radiation entering the Earth thanks to the depleted ozone layer. But after 25 years under the Shield, the planet has become a humid retrograde mess. The technology comes straight from Brazil and the rain-soaked streets share a common source with the Los Angeles of 2019 and 2049. While pondering this state of affairs, MacLeod recalls his real past as a freedom fighter on the planet Zeis. An idea so controversial, Mulcahy and the producers of the film eventually released two separate new cuts of the film omitting the concept.
Of course, all they did was omit the word “Zeis,” making a confusing idea worse. But since we are talking about the theatrical release, let me tell you about Ziesian politics. The world is ruled by a council of elders, but they are goaded into totalitarian positions by General Katana (Michael Ironside). Discovering MacLeod and Ramirez (Connery) are part of an insurgency against him, Katana leads an assault against the freedom fighters and captures the hated Highlander.
Why MacLeod is known as the Highlander when he’s an alien is never explained.
The council overrides Katana’s wish to kill MacLeod and Ramirez. Instead, they are sent to Earth where they will become Immortals and fight for the Prize — the chance to return to Zeis. Presumably, the events of the first Highlander play out as before, but instead of returning to Zeis, MacLeod chooses to become mortal and remain on Earth. This does not sit well with Katana, who decides to send some of his goons to kill MacLeod. The resulting battle returns MacLeod to his relative youth and resurrects Ramirez by way of the titular Quickening.
Learning of his lackeys’ failure, Katana comes to Earth and allies with the Shield Corporation in an subplot of corporate intrigue so dull, it put me to sleep on a number of occasions. Meanwhile, MacLeod, Ramirez and an ex-Shield employee named Louise Marcus (Virgina Madsen) resolve to bring the shield down and restore the sky to the people of the Earth.
The whole thing is a mishmash of sci-fi cliches, but that’s part of the charm. Where the first film uses its fantasy elements to tell an original tale of romance and sword-wielding action, Highlander II trades it all in for bog-standard sci-fi themes. The corporate intrigues feel lifted straight from Blade Runner while the alien freedom fighting could come from any of the hundreds of Star Wars knock-offs made prior to 1990. Stuck with the script, Mulcahy’s direction also feels like leftovers, but the disintegration of his technique ends up an appealing thing to observe on its own. According to some accounts, Mulcahy, Lambert and Connery were contractually obligated to return. Mulcahy’s contributions definitely give that rumor weight.
At the same time, Connery’s performance suggests that if it was a contractual obligation, he got a nice summer home out of the deal. Recalling his character’s smirk of self-satisfaction from the first film, Connery wears it throughout Highlander II. But unlike the first time, it feels like the genuine mood of the actor. He’s happy to be there and yet not dedicated to the film in any way. It’s a kind of magic, really.
Similarly, Lambert maintains his usual dedication in the film. I mean, the guy commits to terrible scripts all the time, so why should Highlander II be any different. His signature laugh, Scottish-by-way-of-Paris accent and playful banter with Connery all make return appearances. Like Connery, he seems happy to be back in the role, even as the sci-fi extravaganza — including a ludicrously large explosion when he experiences the Quickening — unfolds around him.
And while we’re talking about performances, Michael Ironside deserves a lot of credit for giving the thankless role of General Katana some magnetism. No one wants to follow Clancy Brown’s Kurgan onto the stage, but Ironside manages to give it some of his gravel voiced nuance and charm. On paper, he’s still a very thin villain who creates his own problem by antagonizing MacLeod into becoming Immortal again. But Ironside’s slightly campy act makes him immensely watchable, particularly when he aligns with John C. McGinley’s odious Shield Corporation vice president. A natural screen villain, McGinley embodies all the worst traits of a 1980s high power executive. It’s a fun performance despite being as equally thin as Katana in the script. That might be why they make such a great team together. Well, at least until one tires of the other.
But the performances are only part of the entertainment value one will find in Highlander II: The Quickening. Besides the Blade Runner-inspired sets is an impressive mistake. In trying to turn Highlander into something it was not meant to be, the producers created something to behold; a sci-fi epic built on the back of something that more closely resembled a fantasy romance. It’s a magical piece of cheese the Highlander producers would attempt to distance themselves from with every subsequent sequel.
Highlander II: The Quickening is available for sale or rent on Amazon Prime video. It’s also on DVD and Blu-ray.