"Highlander: Endgame"

"Don't worry. The drugs will kick in momentarily."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 1, 2000 9:03PM (EDT)

Far be it from me to judge other people's tastes in crappy sci-fi series; I've seen the first three "Phantasm" movies at least three times each and would buy a copy of the straight-to-video "Phantasm 4" if I could find one. That said, the whole "Highlander" thing has always seemed a lot better in theory than in practice, since practice has generally meant men in goofy costumes sword-fighting to a yowling guitar soundtrack.

I'm also a stickler for order and consistency in my fantasy universes, and this one is especially patched together. The three earlier "Highlander" films are full of apparent contradictions, leaving aside its shaky connection to the 1993-99 cheapo TV series. And I'm not even going to try to figure out the accent Christopher Lambert has developed over the years for his role the immortal Scots warrior Connor MacLeod. Did he move from the highlands to the steppes and become Anna Karenina's lover? Is he one of the immigrant relatives in "Stranger Than Paradise"? Do all immortals end up talking like Count Chocula?

"Highlander: Endgame" does its darnedest to make the whole saga come together, uniting Connor and his beefy clan brother Duncan (Adrian Paul), hero of the TV series, to do battle with one last evildoer desirous of ruling the world. Fans should find this an eminently satisfactory conclusion, as it packs every possible style of film combat into its 88 minutes -- broadswords, firearms, motorcycles, kung fu and supermodels in lingerie -- along with a remarkable amount of exposition on Connor and Duncan's long and troubled careers. Personally, I enjoyed it about the way I enjoyed the "Mortal Kombat" movies, meaning that its genuine fun and its unintentionally ridiculous moments are roughly in balance.

First-time director Douglas Aarniokoski is a protigi of Robert Rodriguez ("The Faculty," "From Dusk Till Dawn"), so hes got the right amount of superficial bravado for this project. lending it a certain "Mad Max" demented energy. Joel Soisson's pretentious screenplay is laden with the kind of high-school existentialism that informs the entire "Highlander" enterprise, but Aarniokoski almost makes it work by keeping the fight scenes and the time-shifts coming, and letting the audience figure out what happened later. We witness battles in contemporary New York, 16th century Scotland, a pseudo-medieval castle "on holy ground" called the Sanctuary (that's where the motorbikes come in), 18th-century Ireland and Renaissance Italy -- all before the principal storyline has become clear.

If you've read this far you probably don't need much back story, but here goes. Since time immemorial, the clan MacLeod, whose origins are mysterious -- one of the films made it seem like they were aliens -- has done battle with other immortals to determine the fate of the world. The immortals are, well, immortal, but if one beheads another the beheader absorbs the beheadee's power and spirit. A boyhood friend of Connor's named Kell (the gleefully cackling Bruce Payne), whom Connor grievously wronged centuries ago in Scotland, has emerged as the clan's chief foe, vowing to destroy all that Connor holds dear.

As all fans can recite from memory, at the end of the immortals' deadly game "there can be only one," that is, a solitary survivor who will contain all the power of all the immortals. Will Kell destroy both Connor and Duncan? Or will the loyal brothers be forced to turn on each other in order to save the world?

Paul has always come off (to me, anyway) as an inexpressive martial-arts performer in the Steven Seagal vein, but he's lost the terrible hair of his early days as Duncan and manages a more graceful modified-Scots accent than Lambert ever has. Of all the plot threads that Aarniokoski and Soisson burn through here, the one involving Duncan and his beloved Irish wife (semi-naked model Lisa Barbuscia), who has now turned against him as a vengeful immortal, perhaps comes the closest to genuine pathos. Otherwise, this is a movie full of now-you-see-it, now-you-don't plot points. A woman killed early on is pricelessly later explained by Kell as he growls at Connor amid a swordfight: "What became of the war orphan who, if Im not mistaken, you raised as your own daughter?"

Playing Kell as a cockney thug with triple crucifixes embedded in the heels of his Doc Martens, Payne is more fun than either of the stars, and his posse of sidekicks features a nice cameo from young Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen. Lambert does his best to play Connor as a soulful, tormented man anxious to escape from his violent past. He must take up arms again, however, to escape from the minor characters who show up with an immortal-monitoring software package and lines like "These people don't play by the rules," "You don't know what you're up against" and "Welcome to your worst nightmare."

The "Highlander" franchise never had a George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry founder figure around to make sure its various pieces fit together or were even any damn good. Its enormous popularity is more a testament to the insatiable appetite, and imaginative generosity, of the fantasy audience than anything else. At least the makers of "Endgame" have brought the whole thing to what seems an irreversible conclusion in much the same spirit of shapeless, mindless fun with which it began. As a never-explained mad scientist character says to Connor in one incomprehensible scene, "Don't worry. The drugs will kick in momentarily."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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