The Highlander franchise has seen better times. Consider the interesting premise of the 1986 original that started it all: men and women who are “immortals” (they can’t die unless someone decapitates them (usually with a sword)) wanders the streets of present-day New York City hunting for each other’s heads. There are only a few immortals left, since they’ve spent their whole life (a long life, since they never grow old and are invulnerable to diseases) trying to kill each other, all in an effort to be the last immortal standing. That person will receive “The Prize,” a mythical reward that can only be unleashed when every other immortal except one is dead.
In the 1986 original Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) was that last immortal standing, and received the prize in question, which amounted to him rising to a status close to Godhood. The original proved to be such a success that a sequel was made — and it completely ignored the original. The sequel posited that the immortals weren’t actually human immortals, but aliens from another planet! Apparently the aliens all lived on this barren desert landscape and tried to kill each other with broadswords, but at the same time had technology like gravity-defying gliders and ray guns.
The movie also declared that the immortals on Earth were actually convicts that had been exiled from their beloved homeworld, and that being immortal was a “side effect” of the Earth’s sun. To top it off, the sequel, “Highlander: The Quickening”, attempted to give us a social story about global warming and how MacLeod (Lambert) invented an energy shield that covered the whole Earth and thus saving it and us. Smirking yet?
When that sequel failed, the filmmakers, still with faith in the franchise, did a third one that dared to ignore what they had done in the first sequel (not hard, since everyone had forgotten it already), and went back to continue the story of Connor MacLeod from the original, supposedly having learned that immortals who were really aliens didn’t make much sense. It also pretended that the first sequel never happened. (Do you see a pattern here?) The immortals were once again humans that happened to be immortal and not aliens, and there was no energy shield and no global warming.
But the second sequel, “Highlander: The Fifth Dimension” (it also went by various other subtitles), also had a big problem: if the story took place after the original, and in the original MacLeod had beheaded everyone and won “the prize”, where the heck did all the new immortals come from? The second sequel’s answer? The immortals were frozen in ice and thus were believed “dead”! Which leaves me to wonder: who was in charge of giving out that “prize,” some out-of-work security guard who didn’t know the difference between a dead immortal and a frozen one?
And now we have Highlander: Endgame, starring both Christopher Lambert (once again reprising the role that made him a cult favorite), and Adrian Paul, the actor who had taken over the Highlander mantle in “Highlander: The Series”, a TV series pitting Paul’s Duncan MacLeod (supposedly a long-lost cousin of Connor) against various immortals of the week. The show was a success, ran for 5 years, and made Adrian Paul a TV star. With Paul, who is now most attached to the Highlander mythos by having played the character for 5 straight years seen all over the world, attached to “receive the torch” from elderly (and showing every bit of it) Christopher Lambert, how can this latest sequel possibly fail?
Highlander: Endgame, the fourth in the franchise, fails because of one simple thing: it is terribly dull. As mentioned, the movie stars Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod, who teams up with Connor MacLeod (Lambert) to battle an evil immortal name Kell (Bruce Payne) and Duncan’s ex-lover Faith (Lisa Barbuscia). The evil immortals, led by Kell, have begun teaming up with each other (a blatant disregard of the “Rules of How to Kill other Immortals”, natch) and are killing one immortal after another by ganging up on them. Add to this a secret society of mortal humans called the Watchers who make it their job to chronicle the existence and actions of the immortals, and it’s quite unfathomable that Highlander: Endgame could be so bad.
This installment owed more to the TV show than the franchise’s original. A lot of the “rules” that the immortals follow voluntarily (at least the nice ones) were created and strengthened in the TV series, such as: immortals can’t fight on holy ground (cemeteries, churches, etc.), and they always fight one on one and without human interference. Of course, Kell breaks all those rules in order to prove just how evil and mean he is. What’s the point of following rules when anyone could just break it given the will to do so?
Which leads me to my biggest gripe, which is: Kell talks way too much and as played by Bruce Payne he is incredibly annoying. Not in the “God, he’s so scary” way, but in the “Geez, why is he still talking? Hasn’t it been over 5 minutes already? Why is he still talking?” way. To top it off, Kell never has anything interesting to say. It’s a constant torrent of uninteresting dialogue that left me bored and left my mind to wander.
The movie is relatively short at just over 80 minutes long. This was probably done to strengthen the film’s pacing, and as a result the movie’s army of writers don’t bother with establishing a lot of the immortal rules that a layman (someone new to the franchise) might not know. There aren’t a lot of explanations as to why the Watchers are there, who Duncan MacLeod is, etc. This might explain why the movie failed at the box office, doing ridiculously low numbers. As a long-time fan, I did understand everything without having to be told or explained to, and I could appreciate the film in that respect. In other ways — say, in entertainment value — the movie looked and felt more like a standard episode of the TV show rather than a film I just paid $10 to see.
The franchise is notable for its swordplay, and this movie continues to have nice swordplay. That is, when it comes to actors who actually knows some swordplay. Many, like Lisa Barbuscia as the vengeful Faith, or the talkative Kell, comes out on the short end of believability. Paul, who has become an expert swordsman in real life, is the most believable, mostly because he knows what he’s doing. Everyone else is cashing a paycheck and didn’t even bother to learn the necessary skills. Or at least it didn’t seem so. Christopher Lambert, who has done 4 of these movies, still looks awkward with a sword, leaving room for insinuation that he didn’t keep up with his sword lessons in-between sequels.
Martial artists and Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen (“Iron Monkey”) has a co-starring role as one of the evil immortals working with Kell, and manages to add some credibility to the “immortals as warriors” motif. His presence certainly didn’t hurt. Even better, Yen has a fight sequence with Adrian Paul early in the film that is easily the movie’s highlight. Sad, but true.
The film is most effective when Paul is onscreen, but unfortunately the writers chose to concentrate too much on Connor MacLeod’s past, trying to link Connor with Kell via an ancient grudge match. This leaves Paul’s Duncan to be shortchanged, and as a result we have to sit through the aging Lambert as he tries to convince us (without much success) that he’s immortal, and thus can’t age. Kell, who is supposed to be a super badass immortal, actually acts so stiffly in the action scenes that I often wondered why he’s supposed to be so “bad.” I certainly didn’t see it — unless talking way too much for no real reason qualifies one as being “super bad” nowadays.
Which leaves me to wonder: if the movie runs only 80 minutes, what happened to all the other footages that were snipped in the editing room? And could adding said footages possibly make the movie any worst than it already is? God knows the franchise, and this installment, can’t shoot itself in the foot any more than it already is doing.
(Judging by the “attitude” toward this franchise, I predict that the fifth entry (should there even be one) will ignore what happened in Part 4, and go back to the alien angle. And no, I’m not trying to be funny.)
Douglas Aarniokoski (director)
CAST: Adrian Paul …. Duncan MacLeod
Christopher Lambert …. Connor MacLeod
Bruce Payne …. Jacob Kell
Mihnea Trusca …. Villager
Lisa Barbuscia …. Kate MacLeod
Donnie Yen …. Jin Ke
Ian Paul Cassidy …. Cracker Bob
Peter Wingfield …. Methos