There’s an old internet axiom known as Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law states “as a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, if you debate a topic long enough, someone will inevitably bring up Adolph and the E Street Band. It was said as a joke, but it’s basically true. Healthcare, immigration, pizza toppings—talk about them long enough on the internet and someone, somehow will introduce the Nazis into the discussion.
In a similar vein, I submit that no discussion of bad sequels is complete without bringing up Highlander II, also known as The Quickening. Now, I won’t go so far as to equate Highlander II to Hitler—though both are roundly despised and have caused pain and suffering the world over—but there’s no question that The Quickening was a disaster of gargantuan proportions. Highlander’s ‘dueling Immortals’ plotline is essentially thrown out in favor of an evil corporation masterminding a dystopian future. The rules of the first film are completely disregarded in favor of magic and the power of wishing really hard. Even the mysteries of the Immortals and their Contest are explained away by turning them into—get this—aliens. As in little green men. The movie so thoroughly confounded audiences, pissed off its fanbase, and desecrated its source material that overnight it became a thing of legend.
If I’m not being clear, Highlander II is unwatchable. The nonsense plot, lifeless characters, and overall rampant idiocy don’t even have the decency to be fun to watch. Even Sean Connery, who is easily the best part of the movie, is shrouded in a haze of ‘What the hell am I doing here? Didn’t I die in the last movie?’ It sucks. In fact, the notion that it spawned from a film as awesome as Highlander means it quite possibly qualifies as the Worst Sequel Ever.
A lot of the blame for this falls on the shoulders of director Russell Mulcahy, but he isn’t totally responsible for what showed up onscreen in 1991. While shooting principal photography on location in Argentina, the value of Argentine Peso unexpectedly plummeted and left the production broke in a matter of days. This forced the studio, the now defunct Interstar, to step in and let their accountants finish the film by stitching together whatever they believed would be the most profitable use of the footage. This resulted in Christopher Lambert trying to walk off of the set and Russell (unsuccessfully) attempting to remove his name from everything. In short, nobody was happy and everybody hated The Quickening.
The film was released in November and actually made fifteen million dollars (three times the gross of the first movie) but audiences and critics were merciless. Variety was surprisingly kind in it’s smackdown, but Rita Kempley of the Washington Post wrote, “Mulcahy and company don’t ask us to suspend disbelief; they ask us to pretend we’ve all had weed-whacker lobotomies,” and Roger Ebert believed “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.” As of 2009, it still holds a 0% rating at rottentomatoes.com.
And that should have been the end of the story. The movie came out, it was raked over the coals, and all involved slunk away in ignominy. It happens a lot in Hollywood. But Mulcahy wasn’t done with Highlander II yet. He had made a bad movie and he knew it, but he also knew that a better film than The Quickening existed in there somewhere.
After his public flaying, Russell did the unthinkable: he began raising money to try and save his broken movie. Over the next few years, he negotiated rights to the film, re-edited the scenes, spruced up the special effects, and even rehired the actors to shoot new footage including a fight scene on a moving truck. It was a Herculean effort, especially on behalf of a bomb that everyone was trying to desperately forget ever happened in the first place.
Eighteen minutes longer and redubbed Highlander II: The Renegade Version, Russell’s new film was released on an unsuspecting public in mid-1995. And, to everyone’s surprise, it was good. In fact, it was really good. Or, at least, better than one would ever expect. Yes, it’s still the future and Connor is still fighting the Evil Red Bubble Corporation, but there is no such thing as aliens in the Renegade Version and there’s no planet Zeist. There are bridges from events in the original film and the characters seem to have been given motivation instead of stage direction. The fights are more comprehensible. The dialogue sounds like something a real person might say. Everywhere you look, Highlander II: The Renegade Version is better in a thousand little ways.
Admittedly, the movie still doesn’t really make sense when you stick it under the microscope, but that’s not an issue in The Renegade Version because, unlike The Quickening, you’re having fun. It uses the same scenes and the same lines said by the same characters, but everything seems to be able to breathe and you may even find yourself invested in the struggle against The Bubble. The funny stuff is suddenly funny, the clever stuff is suddenly clever, and the cool stuff is even a little cool.
Now, I said a little bit ago that the Renegade Version was Good and I feel like I should qualify that statement. This is not a Good Movie in the way we usually use the term. For all its improvements, no version of Highlander II ever leaves the realm of ‘bad sequel.’ What The Renegade Version is, I think, is watchable—which I mean in the best possible way. Highlander II: The Renegade Version is the kind of movie that shows up while you’re channel surfing Sunday afternoon and you keep it on until it’s over. It’s what my friends and I watched in college when we had nothing better to do on Wednesday nights. It’s a comfort film, which probably falls short of what Russell and his merry men were hoping for, but when you’re starting with the Worst Sequel Ever, that’s not a bad place to end up.
In both versions of Highlander II, Sean Connery has the only line in the film that’s really worth remembering. “Most people have a full measure of life,” he says, “and most people just watch it slowly drip away. But if you can summon it all up at one time, in one place, you can accomplish something glorious.” Russell Mulcahy breathed life into the original Highlander, for which I will always be grateful. In the Highlander II: The Renegade Version, however, he’s done something more than that: he made a bad movie, he apologized, and then he fixed it. And in a culture that seems to run on egos, contracts, and dollars signs that’s something glorious indeed.