Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger just soiled himself. He's that happy.
In revenge, patience is a virtue. And after a thousand years, Colin MacLeod doesn't give a damn about virtue…
Producers Bill Panzer and Peter Davis and writer David Abramowitz brought us one of the Western world's most popular and enduring fantasy franchises. Co-producer Kevin Eastman was one of the fathers of another long-lived franchise that, detractors be damned, has kicked shell for decades. On the other side of the Earth, co-producer Masao Maruyama and director Yoshiaki Kawajiri have brought us some of anime's most enduring works (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Ninja Scroll) as well as recent hits like The Animatrix. Can these creative giants with proven track records bring new life to the Highlander?
Facts of the Case
Colin MacLeod (Alistair Abell) was your average foundling of the Clan MacLeod. You know the drill. He arrived on their doorstep from out of the bristle and proved himself a brave son to the clan chief. He made hot love to a buxom, flame-haired beauty (Kathleen Barr) and pledged his undying devotion just before going into battle—only to be skewered under the cruel eye of a terrible foe, rise from the dead, and freak out his friends. They let him go with the thrice-uttered admonition that "Though you be a demon spawn changeling and we scorn you with all of our being, you are ever a MacLeod and must be honorable. Now git before we beat you down with yon Claymores."
In this case the terrible foe is Marcus Octavius (Zachary Samuels), a haughty immortal obsessed with creating the perfect fascist society. From Rome to Nazi Germany to a submerged and ravaged future New York City, Marcus uses every cruel dictator trick in the book to squelch rebellion and maintain order.
Through the millenia, Colin and Marcus clash swords again and again, with Marcus proving victorious only to have the prize of Colin's quickening wrested from him by fate. Fate, as Colin's wise, spectral sage Amergan constantly reminds him, is not through with Colin. Why else would buxom, flame-haired beauties keep crossing Colin's path? Will Colin snap out of it in time to kick Marcus's ass and lead the grimy commoners to victory?
Many "Best of the Best" teams have been assembled in the past and made bad movies. Just because Panzer, Davis, and Abramowitz made Highlander and Eastman made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Kawajiri made all sorts of ass-kicking anime didn't guarantee that Highlander: The Search for Vengeance would be a success. But after watching it, I can't help but paraphrase This is Spinal Tap: How much more ass could Highlander: The Search for Vengeance kick? The answer is none. None more ass.
This righteous ass kicking couldn't have come at a better time. I was despondent about being a Highlander fan. Loving Highlander has never been cool, exactly, but it holds a respectable tier in the geek hierarchy. Yet Highlander: The Series, Season Six ended on a crappy note (mist demons, anyone?) and Highlander: The Raven pecked at the carcass. Highlander's embarrassing movie sequels are notorious even outside of geekdom. Even the recent Highlander: Ultimate Collection made me depressed. If The Raven and best-of compilations is all that is left, it is time to hang up the trenchcoat for good.
But that's not all that is left. Not only does Highlander: The Search for Vengeance live up to the glory days of the franchise, it exceeds them in many ways. Whether because of Kawajiri's sex-and-violence infusion or because the Highlander creative trio used anime as an excuse to be more edgy, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance finally shits (or does it finally get off the pot? Whatever.) There is nudity in Search for Vengeance—and not just a nipple slip or a soft-focus romantic interlude. I'm talking extensive, passionate groping and heaving; sweaty, earthy sex scenes that actually make a statement. There are also sexually suggestive moments and outright slaughter that you wouldn't find in a typical Highlander film. It's about humanity as much as immortality; love as much as death.
There are also different spins on The Buzz (which let Immortals know when other Immortals are near) and the penalty for fighting on Holy Ground. In two words, they are intense and debilitating. You fight on holy ground, you get ass-whooped by storms of lightning. The Buzz is an intense mental disorientation that brings Colin to his knees. These reinterpretations give The Rules and The Game a welcome facelift.
But the best facelift belongs to the Quickening, the spectacle of light and pyrotechnics that results from a beheading. The movies and TV show did impressive things with their quickenings, but simply cannot match animation as a medium for wholesale destruction. These quickenings are beautiful rains of majestic annihilation. The swordfights are a little hard to follow (which is forgivable) but the moment of decapitation is handled with reverence.
The best part is that Highlander: The Search for Vengeance will appeal to both Highlander fans and people who are fans of great anime. Kawajiri's movie is crammed full of breathtaking compositions and sophisticated effects. He always has an eye for perspective and texture, combining angles and distorted viewpoints to emphasize key features in each scene. For example, his transitions between the present and the past rival any flashback performed in the series. Colin and Marcus are shown fighting behind a wineglass that fills the screen, or amid flames, or atop majestic buildings, and the perspective is always interesting. A particularly impressive sequence shows Colin recuperating from an evisceration. He rests on the altar of a stone circle while time lapse star streams and changing seasons rotate around him. The scars seal back up and he finally wakes. This effect might be achievable in film with millions of dollars, but it is perhaps even more effective as animation.
The character depictions are also impressive. Marcus isn't fleshed out much, but one aspect of his villainy is handled well (and this is a minor spoiler): he basically enslaves a fellow immortal named Kyala (Janyse Jaud) by telling her that he is God and she's beholden to him for eternity. I haven't look over them closely, but this has to violate one of The Rules. He finely hones this beautiful woman into a killing machine (and presumably, a concubine). Like Molly in Neuromancer, Kyala is someone you don't want on your tail. Characters like this make anime cooler. Though she's a thoroughly corrupted soul with death in her eyes, you can't help but feel for her and loathe Marcus all the more.
Though I've spent a lot of praise on the visual flair of the movie, the soundtrack is also sublime. Stem to stern, the music stands out while perfectly complementing the action. From loud Rock and Roll to quiet strings, the soundtrack creates complex moods while fitting in perfectly with the existing Highlander world.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Highlander: The Search for Vengeance enjoys some decent voice acting, even if anime voice acting cliches pop up from time to time. For example, Amergan the wise-cracking ghost has the ubiquitous high-pitched, insane laugh of many sidekicks. American audiences finally get a breather from the sub or dub debate because the film is in English only. Unless I miss my guess, series regular Jim Byrnes voices the Doctor (the false leg is a clever clue); it is nice to have some continuity with the series. Eid Lakis and Kathleen Barr as Colin's lady loves provide complementary, sophisticated vocal performances. Joe, the kid, (I can't confirm a voice credit), is not as annoying as he could be. The movie is also filled with rich accents that scream Highlander (literally!). Ironically, Colin himself doesn't make much of an impression. I'm not sure whether Alistair Abell lacked the gravity to pull off a reticent loner or whether the script just doesn't give Colin much dimension.
That leads me to a second criticism: the writing is rather one dimensional considering the depth of some of the series episodes. Essentially, Colin is pissed off by Marcus and spends 2,000 years hunting him down. Blind revenge is not inherently interesting. In the interviews Kawajiri even mentions that revenge does not interest him. He emphasized Marcus's obsession with a perfectly obedient society to give the story some depth, but his reticence towards the subject comes through. On the other hand, Abramowitz surely had an angle to the story that was lost in translation. Fortunately, the story has just enough oomph to carry us to the next spectacle with grace, even if it relies heavily on "been there, done that" Highlander lore.
East Meets West Part #1 is the first extra. There is no part two, oddly enough—unless they meant "Interview with Director Kawajiri" which is nearly identical in terms of footage and presentation. The two are basically one long interview with the creative team. This interview has some teeth and some promotional leanings, but in general the pride is rightfully earned. The teeth mostly come from a discussion of the challenges faced by the team and the risks they took. All told, it is a fitting feature for a great movie. The extras are rounded out with a photo montage and trailer.
If you've come to love Highlander, then you've come to love its ridiculous aspects as much as its depth. You love the tacky trenchcoats and tennis shoes as much as the ruminations on immortality and love. In short, you've come to love a cult phenomenon that has reinvented itself time and again with varying success.
This is one of the most successful reinventions of the Highlander world. It's generic aspects are balanced by an envelope that has been pushed very hard by unapologetic sex and gore. Great animation, superb music, and engaging voice acting complement the story. Not only is it a must see for Highlander fans, but for fans of edgy anime with a mature bent.
Reports of the Highlander's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• East Meets West Part #1
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