Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sequel Debacle

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sequel Debacle

Highlander (20th Century Fox, 1986)

Most heroic fantasy films are one-shots, made to tell a single story and hopefully do well enough at the box office to recoup their substantial production expenses. But occasionally, one of these epics strikes a chord and finds enough of an audience to warrant a sequel. It’s often the case that the folks who made the first film didn’t really have a sequel in mind when they did it, and faced with making a follow-up they flounder about somewhat.

And sometimes, dazzled by unexpected success, they simply go mad. Everyone somehow forgets what made the first movie work so well, and the sequel just goes to crazytown. This can be terrible, or this can be wonderful — and sometimes, it can be both at once.

Highlander II: The Quickening

Rating: * (Essential)
Origin: USA/France/Argentina, 1991
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Source: Entertainment in Video DVD

This is the only film I’ve ever rated * (Essential). A one-star-essential? That’s inherently absurd — like this movie. This thing is a wretched bomb, a complete failure, a shambling undead Frankenstein monster of a film, but trust me: ya gotta see it.

The basics, for context: this is a direct sequel to the 1986 action classic Highlander, made by the same director, Russell Mulcahy, with the same stars, Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery. And on the face of it, it could be considered a natural progression from its hit predecessor, given the first movie’s hand-wavy inexplicable backstory, its emphasis on style over substance, and its loony leading villain.

However, this sequel had a difficult production history, produced and shot in Argentina in the middle of that country’s financial meltdown, and under stress it metastasized and went mad. Highlander II’s backstory is three times as inexplicable as the first’s, its substance utterly usurped by demented style, its leading villain a caricature of a parody of a lampoon.

Let’s start with the backstory, which is notorious for its disconnection from the first film, not to mention from logic, coherence, and every principle of storytelling. Highlander featured a goofy conspiracy-theory alternative history in which immortal warriors sought each other across the millennia to steal their supernatural power by beheading each other with swords. That’s a thin pretext for flashy duels between larger-than-life swordsmen, but sure, whatever.

Highlander II takes all that and simply discards it in favor of making the immortal warriors aliens from a planet called Zeist who, 500 years ago, had a civil war in which the losers were teleported to Earth where they became immortal killers whom the Zeistian tyrant Katana suddenly wants slain because… well, look, stories are my business, and I have no idea.

Plus, for added inexplicability, 25 years before the start of the movie the Earth’s ozone layer breaks down and is replaced by a flickering aurora called the Shield invented by Conor MacLeod (Lambert), because somehow he’s suddenly a super-scientist or something, but the Shield Corporation that manages it is bad and on their watch the world descends into urban dystopia overrun by punkish thugs swaggering through the streets dodging intermittent and unexplained discharges of steam.

Then there’s this film’s aforementioned demented visual style. It wants to be Tim Burton’s Batman, and it wants to be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but most of all beyond reason it desperately wants to be Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. It wants this so badly that at times the incoherent action stops dead so the camera can dwell lovingly on Bladerunneresque (that’s a word now) set designs and pretentious lighting that add literally nothing to what passes for a story in this hot mess.

And then there’s the villain, Katana (Michael Ironside), who seems to base his characterization on Jack Nicholson’s Joker but without a shred of Nicholson’s restraint (ahem), starting at deranged and going from there. But that’s entirely in sync with this film’s exuberant and enthusiastic WTF incoherence, its cackling Zeistian assassins, MacLeod’s random romance with a glamorous terrorist, Connery’s Ramírez zapping in out of nowhere and then spending ten minutes buying a garish fitted suit, a bonkers flight safety video that seems to have wandered in from Kentucky Fried Movie, and the nominal star (Lambert) whispering his lines in a guttural murmur so that half the time he’s unintelligible. It’s a glorious shambles, and you can’t look away.

If you think maybe Quickening will be saved, like the first film, by its spirited swordplay, forget it: the movie’s graceless hacking directed by Frank Orsatti is on par with the silliness of the rest of this production. It’s unbelievably bad.

Look, you’ve all heard the jokes about the Highlander sequels: “Good thing they never made any,” or “There should only have been one.” Don’t let this scathing contempt, no matter how well deserved, keep you from the once-in-a-lifetime experience of this amazing travesty. Strap in, push that big button, and go for it.

Side note: There’s a special edition of this film known as the Renegade Version, a radical revision that retcons the theatrical release to remove its worst excesses and to bring it in line with the first movie’s backstory, which some people somehow thought was important. Have nothing to do with this Renegade Version, which takes a priceless artifact of unprecedented wackiness and makes it merely boring. Just think of Highlander as having two children, Highlander III: The Sorcerer and II: The Quickening, where the latter is just the Extremely Evil Twin of the former. Because, you know, there could be two.

Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1991
Director: Sylvio Tabet
Source: YouTube streaming video

This sequel to The Beastmaster (1982) has a promising start but then goes badly off the rails and never recovers. Marc Singer returns as Dar, the sword-wielding barbarian with a telepathic link to animals, along with his critter chums Ruh the tiger, Kodo and Podo the ferrets, and Sharak the eagle. Singer is still pleasant and amiable, and the animals are appealing, even adorable, but that isn’t enough.

The promising start has Dar leading an uprising against the tyrant Arklon (Wings Hauser, terrible), who has a magic widget that shoots green lasers. Dar, captured by Arklon’s goons, is dragged before his kangaroo court and condemned to death, but Dar’s critter chums come to his rescue, he grabs a sword, and hacks his way free in a decent action scene. Unfortunately, it’s the last good scene in the movie. Arklon uses his magic widget to smash the rebellion, but accepts the service of their captive witch, Lyranna (Sarah Douglas, terrible), who promises to give him ultimate power. The banter between Arklon and Lyranna consists of incongruously sarcastic patter, and suddenly without warning we’re in parody territory, making fun of heroic fantasy movies. But the jokes don’t land, and the more Douglas tries to work the gags, the flatter they flop. It’s embarrassing.

Meanwhile, Dar is floundering around in a mystic swamp where he meets a mystic exposition monster who explains to him that he has an evil mystic elder brother from whom Dar must save the world. To no one’s surprise, Dar’s elder brother is Arklon, who’s led by Lyranna to a mystic portal in the desert that she says is the gateway to another, parallel world. She tunes it like a TV to Los Angeles in our world, where the U.S. military is experimenting with a compact neutron bomb, a weapon Lyranna says Arklon can use to dominate their fantasy world.

A mad gleam in his eye, Arklon uses his widget to open the portal, which promptly admits a scarlet Porsche driven by spoiled young L.A. rich woman Jackie Trent (Kari Wuhrer, terrible), pursued by a pair of police cars driven by unfunny doofus cops. Jackie escapes Arklon’s goons long enough to meet Dar in the desert and flirt with him, but soon enough she is captured by the goons and dragged to L.A. by Arklon and Lyranna, who think she knows how to find a neutron bomb. Dar and his critter chums follow.

Then we get an hour of heavy-handed social satire with stock L.A. caricatures, including lots more doofus cops. Jackie teaches Dar how to say “asshole” and tries to be a manic dream girl but fails hard. Arklon and Dar hunt each other across the city through one leaden gag scene after another, until Arklon gets his bomb and Dar catches up to him for the final confrontation — which is a relief, because this thing can’t be over soon enough.

Inexplicably, there were further sequels.

Highlander III: The Sorcerer

Rating: **
Origin: UK/Canada/France, 1994
Director: Andy Morahan
Source: Concorde DVD

Many fans of the Highlander series like to pretend the jolly brain-melting debacle of Highlander II doesn’t exist, and this film takes the same approach, completely ignoring II’s premise, its story, indeed, its very existence. Highlander III picks up a few years after the first movie left off, adding some new backstory to the immortal Connor MacLeod’s long life but otherwise making an effort to conform to the situation and events of Highlander.

If you really want to reach the folks who enjoyed the original movie, that’s a good idea, right? Unfortunately, it’s Highlander III’s only idea, because otherwise it’s pretty much just a recapitulation of Highlander only less good in every way. Back in the 17th century, MacLeod (Christopher Lambert again), after the death of his first wife Heather, journeys to Japan to find the maker of the katana wielded by his late friend Ramírez. In a lonely mountain cave he finds another immortal, Nakano (played by Mako — yes, Conan’s personal wizard), who teaches him many secrets, but MacLeod refuses to take his head and absorb his ultimate magic, the power of illusion.

However, another immortal is on his way to take Nakano’s head himself, a very bad one named Kane (Mario Van Peebles). (Darned clever, naming an immortal killer after the Bible’s original murderer, eh? Too bad about 57 other genre fiction authors thought of it first.) There’s a fight, Nakano is killed, MacLeod escapes, and Kane is entombed when the “quickening” that accompanies the death of an immortal collapses the sorcerer’s cave on top of him.

All fine so far, but then the movie cuts to 1994 and the story gets dull, presenting a rehash of elements from the first film, except told poorly. There’s another beautiful young female researcher, Dr. Alex Johnson (Deborah Kara Unger), who like Brenda Wyatt in the first movie lives in New York City and becomes fascinated with unraveling the story of the immortal Connor MacLeod. There are more tough-talking NYC cops to harass the heroes and get thrown around by the villains, because there are 95 minutes to fill here. Kane is pretty much just the Kurgan plus the illusion powers he stole from Nakano, and MacLeod still just wants to be left alone (we feel you, buddy), now mainly because he has a son he’s adopted in Morocco.

None of this adds up to much. There’s an incoherent flashback subplot set in revolutionary France apparently just because the immortals are all about decapitation and the French Revolution had guillotines, with a pointless love affair with an English noblewoman who looks just like Alex Johnson. (She says things like, “I wish we could go on like this for a thousand years” — can you handle the irony?) Adopted son John appears only long enough to be used as a plot element when Kane abducts him. And novice director Morahan tries to ape Russell Mulcahy’s flashy visual style and just fails utterly.

Worst of all, the conflict between immortals MacLeod and Kane is a flop, a damp squib, because we’ve got no reason to care about either of these dopes. Lambert still hasn’t learned how to act (I’m pretty sure his usual expression of dumb incomprehension isn’t acting), and still delivers his lines in a flat rasp that’s nearly unintelligible. In this he’s outdone by Peebles’ Kane, who ups the ante by speaking in an even harsher rasp that’s even less intelligible.

This is just as well, since his lines are all clichéd claptrap such as, “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.” Embarrassing. And alas, MacLeod and Kane’s swordfights, the main events, the things we came for, turn out to be ludicrous and awful, poorly choreographed and badly shot, conveying neither skill nor power.

In the end, Highlander III, for all its efforts at fan service, is utterly dispensable, just one big wasted opportunity. Nothing to see here, move along.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

For the Horde!
The Princess Bride Redeems the 80s
Samurai Stocking Stuffers
Moonraker! (No, Not That One)
Cinema of Swords Book Announcement!
Fury of the Norsemen
Samurai With a Twist
The Barbarian Boom, Part 7
Avenging Women
Mondo Mifune
Near Misses in the Near East
Zatoichi at Large
Invitation to a Keelhauling

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s a Narrative Design Expert for Larian Studios, writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Highlander was one of those movies (2 others come to mind) that just unabashedly blew me away when I first saw it in the theaters. I’d seen nothing like it before. I even had no idea that Scottish highlanders -of which I’m a descendant – were such bad-asses.
A S&S- like tale in a modern day and historic setting at the same time, a villain that was just as cool if not cooler than the hero, noir-like tropes, and dark humor. To this day I think the filming was brilliant. Odd angles and times when you can’t hear the dialog but know exactly what’s happening by what the actors are doing.
Also it should be noted, that a key storyline, involving MacLeod’s secretary, was too controversial for the American version, which adds another whole layer to the story if you ever get to see the version that includes those scenes.
Not too mention the awesome soundtrack by Queen.

Then they made sequels….

Tony Den

Do expand on the storyline bit they dropped Greg? I wasn’t aware there were different versions. Are you talking of how he found her young and killed a SS officer?


Yes. That was originally cut from American version because it was too controversial.
Basically Connor raises her as a daughter, becomes her lover as she becomes an adult, and, as she continues to age, she becomes somewhat of a mother figure.

Joe H.

I saw Highlander II, possibly in the theater, and … never again. NEVER again.

And let us not forget (or maybe we SHOULD forget) Highlander 4, which commits the unforgivable sin of putting Donnie Yen in a sword movie and NEVER HAVING HIM USE A SWORD.

Aonghus Fallon

I haven’t seen Highlander II since it came out. I loved that first scene – ie, an elderly Lambert attending an opera – if only for how it looked. It’s also pretty much the only thing I remember about the film other than that they gave Lambert a funny retort – just like they did in the first film – and he more or less fluffed his lines, just like he did on that first occasion. I’d be genuinely curious to see it again, though.

There was a third movie?

Tony Den

I watched Highlander a few times back in the day, loved it. Would still give it a re watch. But sure II I think I went to the moviehouse to see when it came out. The disappointment was great. Bearing in mind I am the kind of guy who can somehow watch the most inane movie and still derive some pleasure from it, even I couldn’t find much positive in that debacle.

III, I agree a poor facsimile of the first one. What annoyed me most with III was simply the fact no one tried to explain how, if McCleod won the prize after killing The Kurgan – there can be only one – yet there was some other immortal trapped in a cave, then in effect he couldn’t have won the prize. Maybe some sort of Highlander Paradox in play.

Let’s not get me started on the series and End Game.

Last edited 10 months ago by Tony Den
Keith West

I saw II in the theater, and I’m sure they dropped a reel because it only lasted something like 70 minutes.

Curious on your thought about the TV series.

Lawrence Schick

Apologies, but I won’t be covering the TV series, it’s just too modern and contemporary to fit my usual criteria.

John E. Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Fantastic! Where is the popcorn…wait, NO, Not Highlander II!

Let me change that rating to reflect reality: Rating: * (Permanent Damage)

I saw each of these stinkers in the theater, God help me, but it was Highlander II that scarred me for life. Friends, if you ever find someone who has NOT watched this movie and insists on doing so, MAKE them read this review first, it is the only one that makes sense (yes, I know) and the only thing that might keep them from flipping out and wringing your neck with their bare hands.

That film is as crazy as a gerbil in a jacuzzi.


Highlander II is even more funny for the Dutch people, as Zeist is a city in The Netherlands…

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