Highlander 5: The Source
out of ****
(With all due respect to Roger Ebert, please substitute this review for the Highlander sequel of your choice.)
Before I get to Highlander: The Source, please allow me a nostalgic reflection: There’s a little moment in the original Highlander that you might have missed, so I’m going to take a few lines to share it with you. It's from the opening passage, in which our immortal protagonist Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) fights an unidentified assassin in an underground parking lot. They duel with antique-looking swords, in an apparent attempt to lop off each other’s heads; it goes without saying that at one point they slash at one another on the roofs of cars, lose their swords, and must improvise with conveniently-placed lead pipes. If this wasn’t unreasonably climactic enough, they eventually trip the fire alarm and send the sprinklers reigning down dramatically over the proceedings. As Connor ducks behind a car, he sees his opponent engaged in unnecessary handsprings up and down the aisles. Now, here’s the moment I’m talking about: Connor watches the handsprings and flashes a fleeting, stupefied gaze that’s almost apologetic. It’s as if he’s finally aware of how absurd all this must look to the audience, and he agrees with their sentiments. Right before he reaches for his samurai sword to have another go at his enemy’s head.
The first Highlander has become such a cherished staple of the B-movie world that anyone who watches this scene now will have instant knowledge of what is happening: These fellows are immortals who can only die by decapitation, and they’re battling for each others’ heads because the last immortal left standing wins an all-powerful but vaguely-defined “Prize.” The film’s now classic catchphrase, “There can be only one,” is so familiar to cult-movie buffs and sci-fi fanboys that it has bled into our popular culture, ensuring that just about everyone will know what’s going on here. Even Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the film in Kill Bill, his loving send-up of all things samurai (remember the sequence in which the Bride fights ninjas while silhouetted against a blue, checkered backdrop? Watch the last fight in Highlander again). Four sequels, three TV shows, one anime, and a comic book publication later, the series hasn’t necessarily been as successful as its producers would like us to believe—none of the films made any money, and only the geekiest of fans tuned into the shows’ late-night airings—but the franchise has maintained steady longevity based on the overwhelming success of the first film and an online catalogue in which you can buy cheap replicas of featured swords. I’ve lived in the south, and believe me: I’ve met a lot of rednecks who own these weapons.
But when Highlander first came out, the plotline was heavily guarded and the experience was fresh and bizarre. Audiences watched a film which in its first five minutes first featured a voiceover by Sean Connery about immortals “moving silently among you” to the backdrop of a rip-roaring Queen song, then jumped immediately to a contemporary wrestling match, next flashed back to a bloody battlefield in medieval Scotland, continued to this modern-day battle in the parking lot, and climaxed with a decapitation that caused cars to start on their own as a strange liquid flowed from the loser’s body into the winner’s. Those who hadn’t already written this delightfully trashy incoherence off were mesmerized into stunned, b-grade silence.
But not before Connor quietly assessed the situation and frowned bewilderedly at his enemy’s handsprings. That gentle look sums up everything that is great about the original Highlander: Its plot is utterly ridiculous and throws in so many outlandishly imaginative elements that we have to strain to keep up; in the meantime, it features clever and interesting characters that make us care about what is happening—characters engaged enough to glare at their opponents with looks that say, “Well now: This is just ridiculous!” It is ridiculous, and that’s part of the charm that makes Highlander so special. We are surprised how much we care for the plight of Connor MacLeod, an ageless warrior weary from watching loved ones grow old and die. By the time Connor and his tongue-wagging arch nemesis the Kurgan battle it out for the Prize on the Silvercup Studios rooftop, we have invested more feelings for these characters and their asinine, fantastical predicament than we ever thought we could allow ourselves under the tacky circumstances.
So much has been written about the spectacularly bad sequels that I’ve resisted saying anything about them at all here at Film as Art, primarily because 1) it means that I would have to watch them again, and life is just too short, and 2) I could only confirm that they are as bad as you’ve heard, and if you’re reading a review of something called Highlander, you are probably already fully aware of anything I can tell you (almost as well-known as the first film’s tagline is its helpful parody: “There should have been only one”). But I recently watched the Sci-Fi Channel “world premier” of the fifth film in the franchise, Highlander: The Source, and I thought I might throw out a few thoughts about it. Yes, it’s bad—cheesily bad, colossally bad, monumentally bad, bad-enough-to-make-you-never-want-to-watch-another-movie-again bad. But it’s more than bad—it’s dull, it’s ponderous and unoriginal, and it never allows its chief character—now Duncan MacLeod (played by Adrian Paul; it is an ominous sign of a film’s low standards when even Christopher Lambert isn’t interested in participating) an opportunity to reveal anything resembling the cleverness of Connor’s befuddled glare in the opening passages of the first film. The worst bad films are the ones that take themselves seriously, and there’s not one funny bone to be found here. And if any film could have used a little intentional humor… .
At least the universally-loathed Highlander II: The Quickening had epigrammatic moments of genuine wit (particularly when it briefly featured Sean Connery) and stupendous set-designs. I still cringe at the utterly insipid dialogue, plot, and acting, but the film was fun to look at. Its director’s cut, Highlander II: The Renegade, was the best of the sequels, but it was still only a poor man’s retread of the original’s charm. Ice-cream mixed with crap, after all, is still crap. Every other film and TV show in the franchise had all the badness of the second film but none of the charm or interesting sets (the six-season Highlander: The Series has a loyal following, but let’s be honest: Adrian Paul, the lead, is not an interesting actor, and there’s not one moment in the show—not one—that comes close to matching the wit or liveliness of the first film). Highlander 3: The Final Dimension, Highlander 4: Endgame, and now The Source don’t seem to realize that the delight of Highlander is that it had a believable, compelling character in the center of a B-grade fantasy vehicle who allowed subtle nuances to shine through in his personality. Characters move about in the last three sequels, and particularly in The Source, as if the skin on their faces is made of concrete that perpetually forces their lips and eyes to sink into dark, serious broods. And on that note, they’re not much more interesting than concrete either.
Not to say concrete can’t be interesting. Indeed, it’s more exciting than Highlander: The Source, which features a small group of immortal characters who journey to find the mystical origins of their ageless predicament. There’s some talk about planets aligning that will reveal the location of the Source, which is evidently the birthplace of the Prize. This journey takes Duncan MacLeod and a motley group of fellow immortals into a poorly-shot forest where they encounter a graveyard with pine tombstones, a rundown house that looks like it was used because it available for free filming, and an evil immortal known as the Guardian who looks like Warren Oates if he weighed 300 pounds and had taken up professional wrestling. Along the way, they battle cannibals in a lot of slow-motion (and slow-moving) action shots and end up tied to a gigantic net in order to be saved for a later feast; while tied, they utter some fantastic lines of dialogue like, “I saw Christ teach. I saw Christ eat. I saw Christ heal. And you, you son of a bitch, are not a true Christian.” These words are somehow spoken with a straight face that leaves something to be desired after the first film, in which immortals reminisce in a Catholic cathedral and, though they never state it directly, seem to be thinking with their flippant body movement, “I liked Mass better when it was in Latin.”
The Highlander films were never big on funds or convincing special effects (even the first film’s were laughable, but that was part of its B-grade allure, as it was in the Indiana Jones pictures), but this one looks like it was filmed on such a shoe-string budget that they might not have been able to afford an actual shoe-string. I’ve already mentioned the run-down house; the film also has learned from the Albert Pyun-school of directing that the best way to disguise bad financing is to shoot in run-down areas of town and call it a post-apocalyptic world. I’m not sure if this is meant to be the same world that Connor inhabited in the second film (which was also post-apocalyptic due to a depleted ozone, or some bullshit like that), but at least that one actually built a convincing apocalyptic feel, complete with a futuristic train that cut through the middle of a pollution-soaked city. Is it too much to ask that a Highlander film, which is supposed to feature characters who have grown increasingly sophisticated over hundreds of years, actually look sophisticated? Budget has nothing to do with it—a creative eye is everything. Russell Mulcahy worked so well with so little in the first two films; director Brett Leonard (of The Lawnmower Man and Man-Thing, two more sci-fi originals) seems to be on auto-pilot, moving the film along with the passion of a state-paid defense attorney speaking on Ted Bundy’s behalf.
When I first watched the film as a child in 1986, it had a similar effect on me as my virgin experience with Raiders of the Lost Ark—so much bold and audacious invention was being thrown at me all at once, and it informed me even at a young age (I saw both films at the age of five, within a few days of each other) exactly how movies could lead you by the hand and helplessly sweep you away into magical worlds. It’s sad to see how far the series has plummeted, but it is not surprising. To watch the original film now is to see various elements that just came together, from the inspired cast to the soundtrack to the dreamy cinematography to a delicate balance between the weird and the moving. It’s pretty clear that these folks just got lucky the first time around and have been riding the success of that luck for twenty years. With The Source, the last of that luck has drained; I cannot imagine even the strongest fans of the franchise rising to defend this one. If they try to do so, they will have to figure out a way to advocate for a film in which characters watch an immortal moving at inhuman speed in a graveyard and can only think to say, “Wow—that’s a big bird!” I would have given anything to see Connor MacLeod poke his (decapitated) head around a tombstone with that same puzzled glare he gave his first acrobatic opponent. Just one brief moment of that or something similar might have elevated The Source to a level of awful that would have at least informed us that we were not expected to take any of this seriously.
In the meantime, I’ll leave it to Highlander fans, who will no doubt watch this film countless times simply for its namesake, to sort out the details of how this film relates to the others and what it adds to the overall canon of Highlander fandom. Contradictions abound by my calculation—how could all this be happening if Connor was the last immortal in the first film, etc.—but then, none of the films ever seemed to agree with each other (the second film says that the immortals are aliens banished from a distant planet even though they’re clearly humans in the first one; the fourth film features Connor’s death and is set in present day, even though the second film is set in the future where he is alive and well). Every sequel seems to cancel out the previous films so much that they all just sort of exist in their own self-contained timelines. It seems that the producers have created the first cinematic Choose Your Own Adventure series, in which there are so many various options that each viewer can create their own personal continuity that makes sense to them. Fair enough, so here’s mine (all together now): “There can be only one.”
Adrian Paul: Duncan MacLeod
Paul Wingfield: Methos
Thekla Reuten: Anna
Jim Byrnes: Joe Dawson
Cristian Solimeno: The Guardian
Thom Fell: Cardinal Giovanni
Christopher Lambert: Sir Not Appearing In This Film
Lionsgate presents a film by Davis-Panzer Productions. Directed by Brett Leonard. Written by Stephen Watkins and Mark Bradley. Based on characters created by Gregory Widen. Rated R, for violence, language, and a sex scene. Running time: 94 minutes. Original United States release date (on cable): September 15, 2007.