February 9th, 2012

IT CAME FROM THE THRIFT STORE: HIGHLANDER 2: THE QUICKENING (1991) ** ½

I have fond memories of seeing Highlander 2: The Quickening in the theater, mostly because it was one of the first movies I saw at our then-brand-new mall multiplex. Even though me and my dad were seeing something like Highlander 2: The Quickening, it still seemed like an event. Little 13 year old me hadn’t seen the first Highlander movie before watching this, so I had no clue what was going on; which kinda ruined my enjoyment of the film at the time. Only years later did I realize Highlander 2: The Quickening basically says, “F-You!” to the accepted Highlander continuity, so I really shouldn’t have worried.

Over the last few years of writing this blog I was able to finally watch all the other Highlander movies (and even a few episodes of the TV show). I genuinely liked the original film and found the sequels to be mostly worthless (although Part 4 had its moments). Through all the years, I never had an opportunity to revisit The Quickening to reassess it and see how it stacked up to the other flicks. That is, until a couple weeks ago when I saw this staring me in the face for 50 cents at the Thrift Store:



Now, before I go ahead and start my review, I have to say that many, many times over the years the Thrift Store has been a haven for used VHS copies of the Highlander series. (It’s here where I grabbed Part 3 and the TV episodes when I did Lambert-A-Thon.) I can count on two hands the times I’ve seen “The Renegade Version” of Highlander 2 there, but I never bothered to pick it up. For those of you who don’t know about Highlander 2: The Quickening: The Renegade Version (and why would you be reading an online review of Highlander 2: The Quickening if you already didn’t), it’s a director’s cut that totally undermines the integrity of the original theatrical cut. And when I say “the integrity of the original” I mean that it probably actually makes sense.

But what I’ve grown to appreciate about Highlander 2: The Quickening: The Non-Renegaded Edition is that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It doesn’t treat this as a handicap. It embraces the fact that it doesn’t make sense and runs with it.

What I love about the theatrical version of the film is the callous way that it rewrites the Highlander saga. Christopher Lambert is no longer an immortal from the 15th century. He’s an immortal alien from the Planet Zeist. Also, Sean Connery returns from the original, even though he died in this last one. Some Highlander fans may balk at this, but let me ask you: “What part of IMMORTAL don’t you understand?” Of course he can come back!

If you don’t know the plot of this one, it involves Connor MacLeod (Lambert) creating a UV shield to protect the Earth from the hole in the ozone layer. Since The Quickening happened in the first movie, and he’s the last immortal on Earth, he loses his immortality and now starts aging. But by 2024, the shield he’s created is doing more harm than good. On top of that the corporate asshole behind the project (John C. McGinley) won’t open the shield back up, even though he knows the ozone layer has fixed itself. Meanwhile on Planet Zeist, Katana (Michael Ironside, in his second It Came from the Thrift Store flick) wants to kill Connor, so he sends some immortals to Earth to do the job. Naturally, they screw up, Connor kills them, retains his youthful appearance, and then sets out to reopen the shield.

As you can see, the plot makes SOME sense… if you’re high on cherry cough syrup and blueberry Pop Rocks.

For example, why would Katana send his goons to kill MacLeod if MacLeod is old and probably close to kicking the bucket anyway? And when they fail to kill him, all they succeed in doing is making him immortal (not to mention young) again! Great plan there, genius.

Also, the flick is just an odd duck in that it blatantly rewrites the back story of the first movie. But that’s okay by me because it just makes the film more memorable and goofy. More movies should change their continuity if you ask me. Think of how great it would’ve been if we found out in Return of the King that Gollum was an alien!

Highlander 2: The Quickening is clunky and uneven, and the gratuitous save the world message is annoying, but there were still parts I genuinely enjoyed. I liked the way the un-immortalized and aging MacLeod accepts his mortality and hangs around in diners and shit. And director Russell Mulcahy delivers some truly badass action moments. MacLeod’s swordfight with a pair of porcupine-haired punks on hoverboards is probably the best action sequence in the whole Highlander series. The decapitation by train scene is a winner too.

The film also boasts a terrific set design. Imagine Blade Runner combined with a bit of Batman. Of course, it didn’t have the budget those films had, but it does look pretty sweet.

I’ve got to be honest too. As many unintentional laughs there are in this movie, there are just as many intentional ones. The scene where Connery inexplicably pops up in a production of Hamlet is great as is the funny bit where he gets fitted for a suit while the William Tell Overture plays. Then there’s the airline safety video that looks like something out of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie. My favorite moment though comes after Connery and Lambert get shot up by some bad guys when they wake up on a morgue slab and argue about who got shot the most.

The thing holding me back from giving the flick the full Three Star treatment was the fact that the film really gets sluggish in spots and can be a bit dull whenever it’s not bludgeoning you with hilarity. And even though Highlander 2: The Quickening runs a scant 90 minutes, it feels a lot longer. Having said that, whenever the pacing threatens to get TOO bogged down, Mulcahy says, “BLOW SHIT UP!”

As for “The Renegade Version”, I have no desire to see it. I hate director’s cuts on general principles. I mean if you can’t get it right the first time, don’t even bother. BUT… if I do happen to see it for 50 cents at the Thrift Store, I’ll be sure to pick it up and review it to satisfy the completist in me. Although I do find it ironic that the mantra of the Highlander series is “There can be only one” but there are two different versions of just about every sequel.

(Note: Some say that “The Quickening” is the best sequel subtitle of all time. I respectfully disagree with that statement. For my money, the best sequel subtitle would have to go to another sequel from ’91; FX 2: The Deadly Art of Illusion.)

Next week’s Thrift Store flick: The Killer Kid flick Mikey, starring Family Ties’ Brian Bonsall.

RETURN TO OZ (1985) **

Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) hasn’t been right ever since that tornado destroyed her house in Kansas. For one thing, she doesn’t sleep well anymore and she keeps blabbing on about lions and scarecrows and shit. There’s only one thing for her Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) to do: Send that gal off to get some shock therapy! Before the doc can sizzle her bacon, the lights go out and Dorothy is magically whisked away to the world of Oz where she encounters talking chickens, robot dudes, and a pumpkin man. Together they help Dorothy unseat the scary Nome King (Nicol Williamson) and naturally get back home.

I think people were too hopelessly in love with the original Wizard of Oz to give this 46-years-after-the-fact sequel a chance. Me, I was never a Wizard of Oz fan myself. It’s a cool kids movie; no more no less. Despite that, I had my hopes for this sequel.

Things start out appropriately dark and freaky with the shock therapy scene. And once Dorothy arrives in Oz, her run-in with the creepy “Wheelers” (who are kinda like a newfangled version of the flying monkeys from the original) is equally eerie. The sequence with a princess that keeps her spare heads in glass cases would probably creep out younger viewers too.

However, once Dorothy and Co. go and seek out The Nome King, the movie goes downhill fast. The whole second hour is just dull and is seriously lacking the charm (and darkness) of the first hour. I was also a bit surprised that The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and The Cowardly Lion got the shaft in this one and were more or less reduced to fleeting cameos. (It’s not as bad as what they did to Tron in Tron: Legacy, but it comes close.)

On the acting side of things, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Out of everyone, I thought Piper Laurie fared the best as Auntie Em. Fairuza Balk had some big ruby slippers to fill (sorry, couldn’t help myself), but she does an OK job. She’s especially good in the Kansas sequences, but ultimately she just doesn’t have to chops to carry a film involving chickens and robots convincingly the whole way through.

Despite having a handful of memorable moments, Return to Oz is one place not worth returning to.

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: ROBERT SHAW

Robert Shaw will always be a Legend of the Silver Screen in my eyes thanks to his portrayal of Quint in Jaws. Quint is without a doubt one of the coolest movie characters of all time. In addition, he’s been memorable in everything from The Sting to From Russia with Love. Today, we’re going to focus on three flicks that are all disappointing in one way or another, yet remain watchable thanks to Shaw’s immense talent.

Our first Shaw film is…

A TOWN CALLED HELL (1971) **

In 1895, a group of Mexican revolutionaries massacre a bunch of people in a church. Ten years later, a widow (Stella Stevens) rides into town offering a reward to anyone who can help find the man who slayed her husband. An alcoholic priest (Robert Shaw) offers his assistance, but he may be harboring a dark secret.

Although not made in Italy, A Town Called Hell is still very much steeped in the Spaghetti Western tradition. It has the look and feel of a Sergio Leone western and Stella’s gimmick of carrying around a coffin comes right out of Django. Also, the flick has a washed-out horribly pan-and-scanned print that gives it that TBS-at-11:35-pm-in-the-80’s vibe.

What’s frustrating about A Town Called Hell is that all the ingredients were there for a good oater, but it just never quite clicks. The story is potentially intriguing, yet most of the movie just sits there. It’s a shame too because in better hands it might’ve been a crackerjack western.

Ultimately, director Robert (Casino Royale) Parrish can’t bring all the plot threads (Stevens’ quest for revenge, Shaw's shady past, etc.) together in a satisfying manner. The flashback-heavy structure is a bit offbeat, but it’s also kind of awkward. Shaw is very good, as is much of the supporting cast (which includes Martin Landau and Telly Savalas). The lone exception is Stella Stevens, who is woefully miscast.

Note: The town is actually called “Bastard”, not “Hell”.

AKA: A Town Called Bastard.

Our next Shaw flick is…

BLACK SUNDAY (1977) **

(Special Note: You know, if I was really on my shit, I would’ve had this review ready for last week’s Super Bowl; so apologies in advance for that.)

Don’t confuse this Black Sunday with the Mario Bava horror classic starring Barbara Steele. It’s actually a cat-and-mouse terrorist thriller based on the novel by Thomas (the Hannibal Lecter series) Harris. It’s all about Robert Shaw trying to stop madman Bruce Dern from exploding a dart bomb from the Goodyear blimp at the Super Bowl during the halftime show (which wouldn’t be much of a disaster considering most halftime shows I’ve seen).

I was looking forward to Black Sunday, mostly because it was directed by John Frankenheimer, the man who made one of the all-time classics… Reindeer Games. Well, this is definitely no Reindeer Games, Johnny. The problem is that Shaw’s hunt for Dern is much too drawn out. While there are a smattering of gripping sequences (there’s one moment involving an exploding head that made me jump), overall the film runs on way longer than it should have.

As deliberately paced as much of the movie is, the climax feels rushed. It’s curious that Frankenheimer spent two hours bottling up the tension, then he just whizzes through the climax in under two reels. It’s especially odd that he got better coverage of the Super Bowl game than of the Goodyear blimp terrorizing the crowd. And things are also wrapped up way too quick in the end. It’s almost like Frankenheimer realized he needed to shit and get off the pot and then didn’t even bother to wipe.

The thing that keeps you watching is the two key performances by Shaw and Dern. Shaw is tough and authoritative; but he’s also quite well-rounded. The one scene where he expresses regret for not killing a female terrorist, even though she was totally defenseless at the time is particularly memorable. And Dern has a lot of great monologues in this. If you’re a big Dern fan, the quibbles with the film will be meaningless as he gives one of his all-time best Crazy Dern performances.

For me though, Black Sunday never really fired on all cylinders. I was thinking it was a ** ½ flick for the most part, but the botched finale kicked it down a notch. Of all the Harris novels-turned-films; this is by far the weakest.

And our final Robert Shaw movie is…

THE DEEP (1977) **

Robert Shaw stars in another adaptation of a Peter Benchley novel, but comparing The Deep to Jaws will only bring you disappointment and pain. Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte are inexperienced divers who find a sunken sink full of morphine. Some evil Haitians led by Louis Gossett Jr. try to intimidate them with voodoo to try to get their hands on the dope. So Jackie and Nick partner up with the crusty old Robert Shaw to get to the morphine first (not to mention some treasure too).

The scenes on dry land are kind of tense, but once Nolte and Bisset hop in the water, the movie sinks like a stone. The underwater sequences, though gorgeously photographed, are sluggish, overlong, and bog the film’s momentum down like a sumbitch. And a lot of these scenes are also haphazardly edited (like the moray eel attack), which doesn’t help matters any.

The Legendary Robert Shaw is pretty intense and likeable throughout. He’s definitely the standout here. And Louis Gossett Jr. has some good moments as the villain. It was also fun for me to see two of my favorite character actors Bob (Delinquent School Girls) Minor and Robert (Sidehackers) Tessier (although it was a bit weird seeing Mr. Clean with hair) in small roles.

However, the two leads are mostly dreadful. Nolte is bland as all get out and turns in what may be his worst performance ever. He looks so fucking bored and expressionless that he often blends in with the background. Bisset is lovely, but listless and is easily out-acted by her wet T-shirt.

I wasn’t expecting another Jaws here, but The Deep is still a complete disappointment. I think I was most dismayed because it was directed by Peter Yates. I mean this is the guy that gave us Krull here; you’d think he’d be able to make it work. Sure, the flick comes alive in fits and starts, but it never really catches fire. And I have to say I thought the last minute addition of bloodthirsty sharks into the mix reeked of desperation to remind everyone of Jaws.

And speaking of which; Louis Gossett Jr. later went onto to star in Jaws 3-D.

Next week’s Legend: Roger Moore.

SKINAMAX-A-PALOOZA ANIMAL ATTRACTION DOUBLE FEATURE

ANIMAL ATTRACTION (2000) **

Donna (Stephanee LaFleur) is an unfulfilled housewife who wants to spice up her sex life, but her pleas to her boring ecologically-minded husband fall on deaf ears. (“Mr. Willie only cares about himself!”) One night at a party, Donna gets jealous of all her girlfriends’ wild sex exploits and decides to get drunk off her ass. The next morning she wakes up in the body of her girlfriend and gets to experience sex with her husband. From then on, Donna awakens each morning thereafter in the body of another girlfriend and gets to get it on with their husbands. Predictably in the end, she realizes her husband is the best lover of them all.

I remember seeing this back in the day and I pretty much hated it. But watching it now I realize it’s really no worse than a lot of the Skinamax crap I watch. I think my main issue with it back then was that the sex scenes were much too brief. And for the most part they are (in fact, some are so short and/or feature no nudity, so I can’t count them) but the gals are so hot (especially Amho Hight), that it’s hard to complain.

Overall we have four Guy on Girl scenes and two Barroom Striptease scenes. Since the flick runs 78 minutes, that means that we get a sex scene every 13 minutes. Not exactly a good ratio, but a lot better than a lot of the Skinamax movies we’ve checked out this month.

Still, the flick was directed by Mike Sedan, the director of the Skinamax Hall of Fame classic Lapdancing, so you’ve come to expect more. The flick also loses points for the awful lite rock soundtrack and the gratuitous subplot about saving a diseased tree. The great performance by Stephanee LaFleur certainly helps, although it’s not quite enough to make Animal Attraction worthwhile.

AKA: Insatiable Wives.

ANIMAL ATTRACTION 2 (2003) * ½

Although Mike Sedan returned to the director’s chair for Animal Attraction 2 this actually has nothing to do with the original. The only returning cast members are Amho Hight (who went on to be “Milf” on Real Chance at Love), and the dude who played the traffic cop, but they play different roles this time out. This publisher dude can’t decide if he should leave his girlfriend for his former flame (who also happens to be his new client). Meanwhile, his sexy roommate has the hots for him and masquerades as a lesbian to hide her attraction.

Animal Attraction plays more like a goddamn soap opera than an honest to goodness Skinamax flick. The whole movie is essentially a pathetic love rectangle where the clueless jackass hero can’t make up his mind over which chick to bone. What’s worse is that a lot of the sex scenes end abruptly or wind up cutting away before anyone can even get their clothes off!

On the plus side, the sex scenes occur at a marginally better rate than its predecessor, although the flick is nowhere near as much fun to watch. There are eight sex scenes in total: five Guy on Girl scenes, two Bubble Bath scenes, and one Striptease. The running time is a brief 77 minutes, so that means we get a sex scene about every 10 minutes. That’s not nearly enough to make this sorry sequel worth your time.

AKA: Passion's Desire.