Please, Can There Be Only One Now?
s anyone who has followed the Star Trek movie franchise has seen, a television show’s transition to film is rather like puberty, awkward and confusing and prone to identity crises. Should the producers assume that the audience is familiar with the source material and simply proceed, or should valuable screen time be used to bring the incognoscenti up to speed? How far can they go with the freedom afforded by a paying audience to show skin and blood and use naughty words without compromising the relationship between beloved characters and devoted fans? Are films based on TV series actually films or just kids wearing Dad’s pants?
The Highlander series has these problems and more, being first a film franchise that started well and then went suddenly sickeningly wrong, then a syndicated TV show, and now again a film property. Moreover, the underlying concept behind it all a global race of immortals locked in combat since the beginning of time lends itself so easily to story and backstory permutations that the Highlander mythos has become a huge, convoluted tapestry that only the most hardcore fans can follow. Highlander: Endgame makes a valiant effort at cleaning things up, presumably to hand the films over to Adrian Paul (star of the TV series, whose producers, Davis/Panzer Productions, are at the helm here), but in the end it’s just too massive a job. Nice fight scenes, though.
Following the murder of his most recent mortal companion, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert, whose French mouth continues to wrestle with his Scottish accent) has dropped out of the Great Contest and opted to exist among other immortal conscientious objectors in a Sanctuary, locked into a sensory-deprivation apparatus. Unable to respond to the immortals’ visceral need to fight, all Connor can do is have expository flashbacks, such as the one where his mother was burned as a witch for having a son who comes back from the dead by his best friend, Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne), an acolyte. There is a nice fight scene as, enraged by grief, Connor mows down many of his fellow villagers, including Kell’s mentor, an unarmed priest.
Cut back to the present, where a group of rogue immortals invade the Sanctuary, decapitating everyone within the only way to kill an immortal including, presumably, Connor MacLeod. The abrupt death of so many immortals at once disturbs Connor’s cousin Duncan (Paul) and sends him on a quest to find Connor. He goes to Connor’s sanctum behind the wreckage of his antique shop prime Manhattan real estate that has remained miraculously untouched and is attacked by the same band of rogues, including his immortal ex-wife Kate (now called Faith, played by Lisa Barbuscia), who are led by an also-happens-to-be-immortal Jacob Kell. A very nice fight scene follows. A few flashbacks, a startlingly coincidental five minutes, and a so-so fight scene later, we learn that Kell wants ultimate power and revenge against Connor, Kate/Faith wants revenge against Duncan, Connor wants to redeem his soul, and Duncan wants the plot to make sense. Or, barring that, some more fight scenes.
We’re with Duncan all the way. This film shouldn’t have to work as hard as it does. Is it really necessary that this story contain this much sturm und drang just because it’s a film and not TV? Of course not there’s enough substance in any one of Endgame‘s subplots to drive the picture, and if the object is to clean things up, why manufacture new mud? For example, exactly why is Connor supposed to suffer when Kell, being immortal himself, should have realized that he murdered Connor’s mother unjustly? Because Kell is ee-vil as only a TV supervillain can be, and Bruce Payne chews scenery by the stack to get this point across. In the end, all of the plot convolutions, the sudden appearance of murdered mothers and lost loves, Connor’s existential breast-beating, and a parade of flashbacks is superfluous Connor and Duncan must join forces to defeat Kell simply because he’s just too powerful and ee-vil to go on. It’s that simple, and half of the film could have been eliminated in favor of that point, leaving room for more fight scenes.
This is not to say the film is unwatchable. Both Paul and Lambert are appealing leads and in the series of flashbacks that illustrate the depth of their characters’ mutual affection over the centuries, the actors have real chemistry. And yes, there are the fight scenes, wonderfully choreographed by Donnie Yen. A martial artist by vocation, Paul is fluid and dynamic, almost balletic, when he’s fighting. The swordplay has always been central to both the films and the TV show, and this film hits its stride when characters are trying to kill each other. It’s just when they talk, argue, have sex, or otherwise participate in the present-day plot in any way that everything gets dreary.
The bottom line is that Highlander: Endgame should be a lot more fun than it is. Freed from the grind of producing twenty-two episodes a season and the limitations of time and content proscribed by the television medium, the talents behind this new phase of the franchise, if that’s what it is, should be using this opportunity to streamline the mythos, not pile on old baggage. The saga of the immortals has legs, as they say, but it’ll run further and faster with the irons off.