While I have been a fan of the franchise for many years, it still surprises me that Highlander is popular enough to keep coming back every now and then. From films to a six season TV show, games, and more, the sci-fi series is still alive and kicking with a reboot on the way. Over the years the creators have attempted to reinvent the series and have added layer upon layer of narrative muck in an effort to keep breathing life into the adventures of Connor Macleod. It hasn't exactly worked.
The first two Highlander films are already available on Blu-ray, but a recent Lionsgate two-film set has been released as well. This collection presents Highlander: Director's Cut and Highlander 2: Renegade Version on two Blu-ray discs. Is it worth picking up?
Highlander: Director's Cut
The original Highlander film still stands out as the best of the franchise. It's not exactly lightning in a bottle, but it's a powerful flick that's a lot of fun and in many ways it's ironically timeless.
Taking place in 1985 Highlander tells the tale of Connor Macleod (Christopher Lambert), an immortal from Glenfinnan, Scotland who was born in 1518. Connor is one of the last of his kind and has been surviving The Gathering, a calling for immortals to get together and chop each other's heads off. With this plot in mind, there is an inevitable clash between Connor and the Kurgan, one of the more deranged immortals on the planet. It's a straightforward and simplistic plot that's fleshed out by some flashbacks to earlier years in Connor's life.
From his early days in the Highlands of Scotland to sword training with an immortal named Ramirez (Sean Connery), time spent with his wife Heather, and snippets of World War II and Victorian England tossed in for good measure, the film does a fantastic job of building up Macleod's character. This development is handled appropriately and even Lambert's flat acting doesn't damage it too much, but I digress. Eventually the film introduces Brenda (Roxanne Hart) who becomes Macleod's love interest and inevitable tool for the Kurgan to exploit.
Highlander is packed with action, interesting characters, and a mystery that is merely explained as "it's a kind of magic". With direction by Russell Mulcahy, and a soundtrack by Queen, Highlander also finds a unique voice with its look and tone. It's a beautifully twisted film that holds itself together long enough to leave a positive lasting impression. Then the second film happened two years later.
Highlander II: Renegade Version
While the first film withstands the test of time and remains entertaining even 25 years later, Highlander II is the exact opposite. This movie is an abysmal piece of crap that mucks the franchise up in ways that can't be repaired.
Set in the future in the year 2024, Highlander II sees the Earth's ozone layer diminished to the point that people were dying of sun poisoning. Brenda, Connor's wife, died off in the late 90s and as a result Connor worked towards creating a giant electromagnetic shield to protect the planet from harmful UV rays. Now an old man, Connor is basically living out the last of his days alone. That is, at least, until aliens from another world come to Earth to kill him and thus make him immortal again.
Oh, did I forget to mention that? The movie begins by reinventing the wheel and explaining that the immortals we got to know over the course of the first film were actually aliens from another planet. So Connor, Ramirez, Kurgan, yep...aliens, sent here to duel each other. It makes absolutely no sense. Even worse is the fact that somehow Connor brings Ramirez back to life after 500 years and an adversary named Katana (Michael Ironside) comes to the planet to kill Connor when his cronies fail.
Highlander II is absolute trash. The narrative is a mess and the acting is terrible. The only redeeming quality is the occasional special effect or fight scene, and even that's not saying much. If the wheel isn't broken, why bother fixing it? It's amazing to think that this film didn't kill the franchise on the spot, and by all rights it should have. It's god awful and really drags the overall rating of this release down. Come for the first film, but don't bother with the second.
Highlander is presented here with its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer here is less than stellar and it contains several artifacts and flaws. The source material was obviously not cared for as much and the touch up job here wasn't as good as it could have been. Grain and dirt make for an aged look, the image is often softer than it should be, some scenes are downright blurry, and there's edge enhancement as well. Some moments offer great clarity, but these are few and far between. Likewise Highlander 2 is also an erratic presentation with similar defects in the final product. Some elements here are sharper than others, but by and large the 2.35:1 image just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
In both cases the audio output is far more impressive in terms of presentation. Highlander comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and all the sword clangs, Queen tunes, and ambient noise comes through with outstanding clarity. There's a little noise in the track, but otherwise it's smooth sailing and a dynamic presentation. Highlander II comes with a 7.1 DTS-HD mix, and it's just as lively as the first film's soundstage. The sequel is much more active in terms of rear channel use and as a result it's quite immersive and does a good job of drawing you in.
The Highlander disc comes with an audio commentary by Russell Mulcahy and a selection of deleted scenes. The commentary offers some nice insight into the production and direction of the film. It's not the greatest commentary on the market, but it's interesting enough to give a listen if you're a fan of the franchise.
Highlander II brings more to the table in terms of supplemental content. For starters there's a theatrical trailer and roughly six minutes worth of deleted scenes. Little production documentaries are included as well. "Seduced by Argentina" is the big making of featurette, "The Redemption of Highlander II" looks at the restoration of effects, "The Music" examines the music of the film, "The Fabric" is about the costumes, and "Shadows & Darkness: The Cinematography" examines the lighting techniques. Scattered throughout each of these featurettes is some discussion on the pitfalls of Highlander II and the disasters of its production.
Highlander stands out as a unique and enticing concept. The setting of immortals living among us, confronting each other over the years is seductive to say the least, and I suppose it's that ideal alone that has kept the franchise alive for the past couple of decades. The bottom line with this two-disc collection is come for the first film and don't bother with the second. I suppose since that's the case you're just better off picking up the individual release of the Director's Cut. It's just a repackaging of the already available releases anyway.