I Didn’t Think HIGHLANDER II Could Be Any More Ridiculous….Until I Saw the “Fairy Tale Ending”

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The original Highlander didn’t even come close to being a hit when it was first released to theaters in 1986. The independently-financed fantasy-adventure found a U.S. distributor in 20th Century Fox, but the studio couldn’t be bothered to mount much of an effective marketing campaign. Highlander had to find its audience on the video store shelves and through pay cable television airings. It was successful enough in those home viewing venues to warrant a sequel five years later. The end result, released in November 1991 as Highlander II: The Quickening, was a textbook example in how badly an excess of money, creative freedom, and unchecked egos could completely torpedo a franchise’s chance at respectability.

Even stranger, the movie is goofy as hell and just flat-out fun to watch. Highlander II was probably the last time the series held limitless potential. I still prefer it over the sequels that followed which attempted to right The Quickening‘s wrongs and only succeeded in getting progressively bland and lethargic. Don’t even get me started on the syndicated TV show. I never even considered that something decent to have on in the background on a Saturday afternoon while cleaning my room.

Highlander II had original leads Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery (the latter in a very well-compensated extended cameo) back for more sword-clashing fun, a futuristic setting that allowed the production designs to run wild with Blade Runner-inspired cityscapes, lots of bloody action, a comely new love interest in the eternally gorgeous Virginia Madsen, the legendary Michael Ironside replacing his future Starship Troopers cast-mate Clancy Brown as the chief adversary, and Dr. Cox himself John C. McGinley as a sleazebag subordinate baddie. Plus, that end credits tune “One Dream” by former Foreigner lead singer Lou Gramm is simply astounding to the ears.

In short, this movie should have not failed. Yet it did, both creatively and financially. Highlander II was filmed mostly in Argentina on a budget nearly twice that of the original and encountered problems both in front of and behind the camera, exacerbated by the country’s economic instability at the time. Elaborate sequences written for the film were dropped from the script. The continuity established in the first Highlander had been thrown almost completely out in favor of a rewritten back story that ret-conned Lambert and Connery’s Earth-bound immortals as aliens from the fictional planet Zeist who were banished to our world to live forever after attempting to lead a rebellion against Ironside’s evil, scenery-chewing general.

After filming was completed Highlander II was taken over by a completion bond company during post-production and drastically reedited, reducing the movie’s heavily compromised and often confusing narrative to a puddle of gobbledygook. Director Russell Mulcahy was so incensed by the changes made to his cut that he stormed out of the premiere after 15 minutes. Four years he got his chance to recut The Quickening to his specifications by restoring nearly ten minutes of deleted footage (including an action sequence that was shot especially for this release) and trying to make better sense of the jumbled storyline. The edit wasn’t a home run, but at least Highlander II: Renegade Version (yep, that’s where I got the name for this blog) managed to come close to coherence some of the time. Mulcahy’s version was released on VHS and later DVD to great success. Nearly a decade later, franchise producers William Panzer and Peter Davis oversaw a newer edit of the movie with some minor alterations and digital effects that did little to improve the narrative but brought Highlander II a lot closer to its original intended form than it ever had been. The Special Edition cut met with Mulcahy’s approval and was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Lionsgate.

As much as I enjoy watching this bugnuts train wreck of fantasy filmmaking the only part of Highlander II that has always disappointed me was the ending. Weighed against the rest of the movie it just seems so wishy-washy. In the shortened original U.S. release version the movie ends on a freeze frame of Lambert’s immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod standing victorious and smiling after saving the world from Ironside’s over-the-top villainy and an artificial shield that was keeping the planet a muggy, pitch black shithole. The Renegade Version cut extends that a bit by having Lambert and love interest Madsen celebrate their triumph over adversity by taking a walk outside to see the starry night sky. Both versions feature a nice final narration from Connery: “Remember Highlander, you’ve both still got your full measure of life. Use it well and your future will be glorious.”

The DVD and Blu-ray of the Special Edition feature as a bonus feature an unfinished version of the film’s original ending when Lambert announces that he’s returning to his home planet and implores Madsen to come with him. After she hesitates he quotes a Queen song from the first movie and that proves powerful enough to convince her to take his hand. They both begin to glow, become transparent, and as they share one last kiss they turn into shooting stars and blast off into space towards beautiful, scenic….Zeist. This has long been known among Highlander fans as the “fairy tale ending”. The version seen on the U.S. home video releases lacked completed visual effects and showed the actors suspended on wires, spouting cheeseball dialogue against a blue screen. But what a lot of people don’t know (because some of them just don’t give a hoot) is that not only was that final scene finished – effects, music, and all – but it was actually used as the movie’s ending on select prints during its European theatrical and home video release.

In retrospect, the “Fairy Tale” ending was the only one that seemed right for Highlander II regardless of the edit. With all that came before having the film’s romantic leads turn into shooting stars made perfect sense. It’s a kind of magic. A cocaine-coated, brain-damaged kind of magic, but still magic. Also, much better lead-in to the Lou Gramm song.

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