No Nerdier Force in All Creation

Highlander: The Search for Vengeance

Yes folks, it has happened. There is now a Highlander anime, and it's on R1 dvd.

And don’t get it confused with the 1994-96 television production Highlander: The Animated Series, although both projects share a futuristic setting and a unique MacLeod protagonist - this one’s a fairly lavish (apparently costing north of $5 million), 85-minute standalone affair, featuring the involvement of the much-respected Madhouse Studios and ‘name’ director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. You'll recall Kawajiri as director of the famed 'gateway' anime Ninja Scroll, among many other blood-spattered epics, although (as these things usually go) he started out as a famed key animator on a wide variety of projects, and has branched out on occasion, particularly when in a non-directorial capacity. Not a bad choice at all for a fantasy franchise with origins in the flashy action movie tradition of the '80s.

Yet, the project also already proved somewhat controversial, in that the 85 minutes I just mentioned is shorter by a good seven or eight scenes than what Kawajiri provided in his final cut, a result of the producers addressing pacing concerns with scissors (or mouse) in hand, apparently to Kawajiri’s dismay. Bits of chat in the bonus features in which Kawajiri makes reference to the film being 90 minutes long thus adopt an odd tone. A director’s cut edition may be released later this year, no doubt as part of a high-priced Special Edition.

Judging from interviews with producer Galen Walker and co-producer Kevin Eastman (or simply paying close attention to those bonus materials), it seems that this was a somewhat tricky, touchy production. The script is credited to veteran Highlander scribe David Abramowitz, though it’s clear that Kawajiri simply discarded the bits he didn’t like and substituted his own ideas. On the other hand, one must presume Kawajiri’s hands were tied to a certain extent creatively, this being franchise work and all (obviously didn’t get final cut). After watching the dvd, the conflict becomes manifest even in the work’s very title, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, since Kawajiri openly admits that the whole ‘revenge’ theme doesn’t interest him very much.

Not that any of this is particularly unique to the world of cinematic arts. Heaven knows this isn’t the first Highlander outing to find itself recut into several forms, and I have the sneaking suspicion that this might not be the first time a director tossed out a big chunk of a screenwriter’s material in the midst of production. But everything is undoubtedly aggravated by the overtly bisected international nature of the production, language barriers and time differences and all that, plus the fact that Kawajiri is something of an auteur among anime directors (yes, he is indeed among the credited key animators), although he’s also experienced in Western-targeted franchise work, having participated in The Animatrix (which also prompted some give-and-take international compromise, although the stories I heard involved Koji Morimoto).

Anyway, we have the film that we have, until we have something else. So how is it?


Quite silly, in fact. Silly in an unmistakably Kawajiri fashion, yet also fully Highlander in its silliness (to the extent I’m even all that familiar with Highlander, having only seen the first and third movies and a smattering of episodes of the first television show), as if each individual opposing force managed to bring out the maximum silliness in the other. So, a small victory of silly.

Technically, the film looks decent enough, bearing character designs by Hisashi Abe (also animation director) that sport all the thick sideburns and broad frames you've come to expect from a Kawajiri film, and some decent integration of the character animation with lots of 3D work. The acting (the film was intended for English) is quite dreadful on the whole, although I smirked at the obligatory corny Scottish accents. Lots of one-liners in the script, mostly awful, but some pleasingly awful.

The plot concerns one Colin MacLeod, your typical immortal Highlander protagonist with a sword under his long coat and, er, the familial name of MacLeod, wandering through an awful, flooded, globally-warmed future America (cue Highlander environmental themes!). He doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself, interacting with others only to the extent that he collects bounties on the heads of also-immortal villains - all immortals can be killed, you see, by cutting their heads off, which results in the killer absorbing the decedent’s energy and wisdom, all of which will eventually conclude in there being only one, as the tagline goes (and it’s uttered three times in this thing). That 'one' will rule the world or something, although Highlander continuity is somewhat infamous for its contradictions and retcons, so try not to take it too seriously. In one version, I believe they were all from another planet.

And, accordingly, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is at its most entertaining when it’s at its silliest. Like, an early fight scene in which Colin battles a grotesque monster villain at the Meadowlands, sword vs. chainsaw, eventually lopping off the dastard's head while he’s on an escalator, resulting in an electrical immortal power discharge (the Quickening) that causes the escalator to activate and the headless body to ascend, light and power spurting out of the neck like a gigantic roman candle, all accompanied by beefy electric guitar riffs which lead into the opening credits, as we’re whisked away to dystopian future NYC and led into the evil chambers of the story’s arch-villain, whom we discover is actually playing the theme song on a guitar. Because sometimes, evil just has to rock.

No Queen, by the way.

Anyway, said villain is Marcus Octavius, a former Roman empire-builder who’s made it his mission as an immortal to one day recreate and perfect the glories of Rome. In the future, this mainly involves strutting around a skyscraper palace in what appears to be latex overalls (oooh, like Streets of Fire!), supervising a society where the privileged wear identical white jumpsuits and obey properly, while the downtrodden live beneath the streets, bedeviled by a killer virus. He also has a scantly-clad female assistant, who serves no purpose whatsoever beyond eye candy, even though she's given her own origin story (maybe the rest of her bits wound up on the cutting room floor?). There's also giant video screens and robotic stormtroopers, just to add to the atmosphere of unfettered originality.

Oh, and way back in the day, Marcus totally crucified Colin’s beloved wife following a botched seduction/assassination scheme, prior to the Roman army smashing Colin's tribe, and Colin has spent the last two millennia out for revenge. Can our hero save the day and restore hope to this blighted world, assisted only by a tough-as-nails, Frank Miller-style killer-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (apparently cosplaying as Armitage III), a scrappy, streetwise black kid with a slingshot, a sassy ghost mentor (whom, at one point, actually makes a NOT! joke, as in "This sort of joke should totally be made in 2007... NOT!") and a ragtag band of noble rebels? Answer: yes.

But, as Kawajiri implies on the bonus features, Colin's journey is more important than his ultimate revenge - he may be immortal, but he's dead inside, yous see, and must rediscover the beauty of living or something. I guess. The film's very, very dodgy on this point, since Colin doesn't really seem to experience or accomplish anything by the end that he hasn't already gone through at the beginning. Actually, his enlightenment at the climax of the film basically arrives through getting to relive his very first against-the-odds struggle against Marcus, except this time his lover doesn't screw everything up, so actually the lesson appears that Colin's main fault was falling for the wiles of dumb stupid girls, even as we're told that Colin must put revenge aside and learn to love again, or whatever.

Ah, forget it. All this talk of love is pretty much an excuse for a screamingly funny sex scene in which sweaty thrusting is intercut with 'poetic' images of CGI church candles springing alight, which I think is supposed to symbolize the awakening of hope, but actually seems like people are fucking in the middle of high mass. Just like Kawajiri's interest in Colin's journey manifests primarily in a hilarious, Looney Tunes-like fifteen-or-so minute sequence in which Colin confronts Marcus at something like six or seven points in history, only to get his ass kicked horribly or his plans otherwise foiled every single time. My personal favorite was a sword/gun fight on the wing of a WWII aircraft, which ends up exploding, sending the immortals crashing hundreds of feet down into a church (and hey - rules say they can't fight on holy ground!).

In a way, this weird, maybe half-intentional comedy does successfully undercut the Search for Vengeance to the point where there's a curious conflicted energy behind the picture. And I suspect additional bits of clarity were probably removed with those seven or eight scenes prior to release. But in the end, Kawajiri's still Kawajiri, and Kawajiri generally succeeds best in the glossy fight scenes and pretty scenery that made his films so popular among unacclimated viewers, since they require virtually no exertion to enjoy. Depth, whether thematic or in terms of character, is generally not Kawajiri's forte as a director, even when he has total creative control, and non-action scenes usually leave the viewer wondering when he'll get back to people riding horses with blood gushing out of their heads.

I wasn't bored, though. Maybe that's a credit to the pacing edits of the American producers, or maybe it's more due to Kawajiri's ability to infuse the proceedings with his particular blend of unabashedly gleeful mayhem that seems eternally based in the late '80s or early '90s. Immortal, eh? I don't know how eager I'd be to recommend this thing, as cheesy and dopey as it gets, but I can say with some feeling that it accomplished what I expected a Highlander anime from Yoshiaki Kawajiri to do, for better and worse.