It might be hard to remember, but the Highlander name used to be pretty respectable. Of course, that was way back when there was only the first film, before the sequels trashed the whole thing, and before the TV series redeemed things a little bit. The plot was geek gold: a race of immortals living among us, hunting each other down over the centuries, taking each others’ heads in search of some mystical Prize. It had trenchcoats and swords; it had music by Queen.
Heck, with that kind of coolness, it was easy to gloss over the fact that a French-accented Christopher Lambert played the titular Scotsman, and that an actual Scotsman, Sean Connery, played the colorfully named, Egyptian-born-but-Spanish-aliased Juan Sanchez Villalobos Rammrez.
Of course, the first film painted itself into a corner, ending the only way it could: with the Highlander winning the final battle and claiming the Prize. Kinda made it hard to have a sequel. But Highlander II came anyway, telling us that, yes, the Immortals were actually alien refugees, and that the whole thing could start again if more aliens appeared on Earth. Conveniently, they did just that.
Consequently, Highlander: The Final Dimension (III) and Highlander: Endgame (IV) begged us to forget that Highlander II ever happened, which wasn’t hard, since the series kept asking fans to deal with fresh hells of bad continuity. After a while, it seemed that the only things sacred to the Highlander franchise were keeping Connor MacLeod (and Duncan, from the TV series) Scottish so he could say “I’m Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod” and having Immortals always screaming, “There Can Be Only One!” (In case anyone forgot the basic premise amidst this growing pile of hooey).
But the whole premise is so appealing in its simplicity that the ears always perk up when you hear they’re giving it another go (or maybe it’s just the hope that the unexpected pleasures of the first film will be finally redeemed).
At any rate, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance marks the franchise’s latest entry, this time taking an anime approach. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Animatrix, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D), this new chapter dispenses with whole chunks of the Highlander mythos in favor of a stripped-down tale of centuries-spanning vengeance.
This time, the MacLeod in question is Colin, a Celt whose village and wife are slaughtered by the Roman army of Marcus Octavius. It turns out that Octavius is also an immortal, one who spends the centuries periodically kicking MacLeod’s ass (not taking his head for a number of reasons, but mainly due to MacLeod’s knack for passing out or dying on holy land). After MacLeod takes part in the sacking of Rome (476 AD), Octavius devotes himself to creating his own vision of a New Rome.
Flash forward to 2187, to an Earth that’s finally given in to global warming, pollution, and war. Octavius and his consort, dressed like Aeon Flux rejects, wallow in Caligulan decadence on his throne atop a subjugated and crumbling New York City. The surrounding landscape is underwater, populated by the requisite mutant cannibals. A plague has wiped out most of the city’s populace, and a rebel force lives underground. Into this setting walks MacLeod, now an amoral mercenary / wanderer-of-the-earth.
Apparently, the events of the four live-action Highlander films never happened. Rather than pursuing the Prize so sought after by every other Immortal on the planet, Colin spends his immortal existence in single-minded pursuit of Octavius. The two cross paths in settings like 11th Century Scotland (all the better to earn MacLeod the necessary Highlander tag), 16th Century Japan, 19th Century Spain, and both World Wars (with that many hot spots of historical strife, it’s a wonder he didn’t bump into a Predator). These scenes, though, underscore the fact that MacLeod has wasted his long life, and the implication is that unless he comes to some sort of epiphany concerning his existence, he’ll never defeat Octavius.
In the bonus features, Kawajiri discusses the film’s theme as one of spiritual rebirth, of MacLeod finding his way again after walking the Earth as little more than a shadow of a man. The film doesn’t evoke much in the way of emotion, though, even in the scenes in which MacLeod finds his first wife crucified, or is forced to leave his Scottish wife and clan after one of his resurrections (really, though, you’d think that at some point, the MacLeods—of the clan MacLeod—would get used to this sort of thing). Even when the inevitable Love of a Good Woman comes to his emotional rescue, there’s not much to draw the viewer in. The quest for vengeance, though, does make for a fairly streamlined tale, even if you factor in the side-story of the citizens’ rebellion against Octavius.
So Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is actually one of the better entries in the Highlander saga, although that’s admittedly faint praise. The film definitely shows the most effort of anything since the first film, from the almost Zen-like poetry of some of its landscapes to its use of the nice transitions between flashbacks and present day that marked the first film. That said, it deals in pretty broad themes, and there’s not enough of MacLeod the Man to make us care that he emerges from MacLeod the Mercenary.
Bonus features are a little scant. A short documentary, “East Meets West: Filmmakers Crossing Borders”, details the meeting-of-minds between Highlander‘s Western keepers and Kawajiri and his crew, but it isn’t terribly informative. More interesting is the standalone interview with Kawajiri, in which he discusses some of the themes he wrestled with in converting the film to its new perspective. To be frank (and possibly unfair), Kawajiri comes across as having more respect for the story as a creative work than his Western counterparts, whose protectiveness sounds too much like it’s focused on a financial asset. There are also some stills from the film, as well as some pretty nifty character and scene sketches. Most telling, though, might be the inclusion of stills from the live-action Highlander films—well, the first one, anyway. It’s the only one of the four films represented. Apparently, installments II through IV can’t get any respect no matter where they go.