|Highlander - Endgame|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 20 February 2001|
I have a confession to make: I enjoyed the theatrical version of "Highlander: Endgame." Yes, the fourth "Highlander" feature film is a bit messy and there are places where its budgetary and time limitations are all too apparent, but it has a surprising amount of heart to go with a number of extremely varied, vigorous action sequences.
Now "Highlander: Endgame" has turned up in DVD form, with two entire different cuts of the film in the box – and neither one is the theatrical edition. Disc One has a cut of the film that is similar to the one that played in theatres last year, but the DVD is about 14 minutes longer, with a lot of restored scenes (including an epilogue that changes the original tone). The reason for this becomes evident in listening to both the feature-length audio commentary track (from producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer, editor Robert A. Ferretti and Miramax production executive H. Daniel Gross) and the remarks on the agreeably chatty and detailed visual effects featurette. All parties commenting express repeatedly that they were working under such a tight deadline to meet the theatrical release date that both editing and effects were rushed. The DVD release has allowed them to alter, add and/or remove certain elements in order to create a final product that they find more satisfying.
In fact, the DVD’s Disc One is arguably in most respects a slightly better film than the theatrical release, although it would still have been nice to have the original available. While it is not absolutely necessary, it probably helps in viewing "Highlander: Endgame" to be familiar with the TV series version rather than the feature franchise. "Endgame" marries big and small-screen scenarios, with feature hero Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) and TV protagonist Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) together prominent in the storyline. The MacLeods are kinsmen, though not actual blood brothers, and both are Immortal. In the "Highlander" universe, Immortals stop aging if they are violently killed – thereafter, they can only permanently die by decapitation. We see in flashbacks that Connor has been Duncan’s mentor since the former found the latter sitting up in shock after having been "killed" in battle in 1625. Early on, Connor teaches Duncan about swordplay and the rules governing Immortals’ existences, but in the present, Connor in a suicidal funk. Duncan, trying to help his old friend, finds himself enmeshed in a 400-year-old grudge carried by Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne), another Immortal who blames Connor for the death of his foster father. Duncan, meanwhile, has some very old issues of his own coming back to haunt him, due to a monumental error in judgment centuries ago.
The screenplay by Joel Soisson, from a story by Eric Bernt and Gillian Horvath and producer Panzer, moves us forward and back to various points in Duncan’s and Connor’s long lives. The filmmakers here do something that’s more unusual than it sounds, at once brave and perhaps foolish – they expect the audience to pay extremely close attention to detail. There’s a hell of a lot going on in "Endgame," and the nuances will seem a lot more cool to those who immediately get the invention behind them than to viewers still grappling with the big picture. Still, anybody who actually listens to the dialogue will be able to track the plot. The film has some really awkward, inept moments, but it also has flashes of genuine inspiration.
"Endgame" also boasts some engaging performances. Lambert is at his best when playing teacher/older brother to Paul’s playful protégé. For his part, Paul demonstrates charm, responsiveness to his fellow performers and athletic virtuosity. The pair achieve a warm rapport together that becomes genuinely affecting. Payne is over-the-top but the interpretation works better on a second viewing; after all, his character is in a state of perpetual seething fury. Jim Byrnes and Peter Wingfield, both reprising characters they played in the series, make vivid impressions and provide some worthwhile grace notes with relatively little screen time.
The plentiful fights are admirable, particularly the sword duels choreographed by F. Braun McAsh. A fight in Chapter 4 between Paul’s Duncan and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen that starts out with blades and winds up hand-to-hand is amazing to watch, especially as it’s pointed out to us that we’re watching the actors, not stunt doubles, and that the moves are done in real time rather than in fast-motion. A rooftop confrontation in Chapter 10 hits some surprisingly visceral as well as visual notes. Director Douglas Aarniokoski does a good job of contrasting contemporary urban darkness with the brightness of happier, less claustrophobic days of the past. Again, the audio track and effects featurette point out that the DVD process provided an opportunity to literally shed a little more light on the proceedings than in the theatrical version; here visibility is sharp even in night and mist-shrouded sections.
The "Highlander: Endgame" score (credited on the film only to Stephen Graziano, though the CD lists Nick Glennie-Smith as co-composer in another of the film’s idiosyncrasies) allows for some potent use of the subwoofer upfront, as there’s an ominous bass rumble that starts effectively under the opening credits. The music whooshes through the mains and echoes in the rears for an unusual, eerie audio effect. Later in Chapter 1, the subwoofer is relatively contained in a big explosion, but the directional sound is good, with glass and debris breaking apart in the mains and crashing earthward in the rears. Chapter 3 likewise has some great directional work, with shotgun blasts cracking ahead of us, followed at precisely the right interval by the bullets’ impact behind us. Revving motorcycles move through all the speakers, placing the viewer in the center of the action. Chapter 7 has some lovely ambient effects, like birdcalls and splashes at a lake in the rears, while dialogue plays in the center. Chapter 8 has a gorgeous, sexy Celtic composition, "Song of the Pooka," enveloping the listener during a love scene that provides equal-time male/female skin. Chapter 11 again enlivens the rears emphatically for a big Quickening (the lightning-like effect when an Immortal dies).
Sound on the Disc 2 early cut of the film outputs through the center, mains and rears without noticeable differentiation; quality varies from scene to scene. The aspect ratio jumps around from shot to shot, sometimes widescreen, sometimes full-screen and sometimes with a black band across the top but not the bottom. Little numbers (presumably the Avid editing codes) run across the bottom at all times. While it is educational for those with an interest in how editing can shape a film and/or for those who simply want to see every last frame of film shot for this project, the earlier cut otherwise mainly demonstrates that virtually all changes made for the final cut were for the better. The making-of featurette, which is nearly an hour long, is notable both for some insights from swordmaster McAsh and some really funny outtakes, mainly thanks to the awesome goofiness of Payne. The Disc One commentary track and other supplemental material have two-channel sound, which is usually good (except for on the deleted scenes, where it is catastrophically bad in at least one spot).
"Highlander: Endgame" has had its virtual hands slapped elsewhere for trailers that implies a superhero/supervillain slant to the film that simply isn’t there. This gripe can be extended to the box art, which trumpets "the ultimate battle against the forces of darkness." "Highlander: Endgame" is no such thing – if anything, it’s a character study with frequent bouts of ass-whupping and bloody combat. For those who liked "Highlander: The Series," "Endgame" can be considered a worthy extension of the show with a bigger budget. For others, it will be an uneven ride, with great physical action and some truly affecting moments coexisting with bits of cliché. For anybody, though, the two-disc "Highlander: Endgame" set is an illustration in how decisions made in editing, scene order and even film processing can radically alter the tone of a movie. For those in the mood for this sort of thing, "Highlander: Endgame" is violent, brooding – and a lot of fun.