There Can Be Only 37 Sequels: Highlander: The Search for Vengeance

Like the last title I reviewed, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is also an East-West co-production based on a floundering franchise that’s well past its expiration date. But unlike Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance manages to tap some actual talent on the Eastern side of production in the form of director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the man behind middle school classics such as Ninja Scroll, Demon City Shinjuku and Cyber City 808. Kawajiri’s gore-filled OAVs helped define the early 90s Blockbuster Japtoon aesthetic, although he hasn’t done much since his short in the abysmal Animatrix back in 2003. His lack of modern conventions shows through in Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, as it retains the feel of his late 80s and early 90s work.

The Highlander franchise has a lot of problems that filmmakers and fans seemed to have forgotten in the pursuit of milking the original film’s popularity through numerous spin-offs and sequels. The biggest is that the original film was a complete story, with no openings left at the end for a sequel. Naturally, the Hollywood sequel machine persevered and we ended up with the horrific Highlander II. The other major problem stems from the bizarre insistence of the films that these un-killable immortals are so rare, and yet one clan in Scotland seems to have had numerous immortals pass through their kin.

Of course, you can probably explain all this away in ways I don’t even care to worry about, but the simple fact is that Highlander sequels tread over the same ground time and time again. Each new protagonist comes from the same MacLeod clan in Scotland, each seems to come into possession of a Japanese sword and the stories thereafter all tend to be pretty similar. These films aren’t exactly bastions of originality, and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance dutifully follows that trend, often borrowing so heavily from the original Highlander film that it almost feels like a remake.

Highlander: The Search for Vengeance follows Colin MacLeod and his search for vengeance against another immortal named Marcus for killing his first wife way back around 100 AD. The film takes place in an unexplained post-apocalyptic New York City, with plenty of flashbacks to illustrate just how old Colin is, how many time periods he’s lived through and just how long he’s been searching for vengeance.

Colin runs into Marcus in the burned out remains of NYC, and it turns out Marcus is the ruler of the city who lords over its inhabitants from his ridiculously tall tower in the center of the destroyed city. As you can probably guess, Colin leads the city’s inhabitants in an uprising against Marcus and eventually finds his vengeance.

Let’s be honest, you’re not going to watch a Kawajiri film for the plot. Despite a screenplay by longtime Highlander writer David Abramowitz, it’s not really the point here. Kawajiri is in his element of action and gore. Lots of battles featuring Colin slicing things up with his katana; mutant freaks, giant alligators, robots. It’s all typical fair for a Kawajiri anime and I’ll fully admit that his style works well with the sword-and-action focus of Highlander.

The animation is surprisingly good, although not top-budget stuff. It’s consistent and well animated and aside from some lackluster CG work, there isn’t much to complain about. The characters are as ugly as any Kawajiri has ever done, although oddly he’s not credited for character design in the film. In any case, they look like his work, so you’ll know what to expect.

Taken in the context of a brainless gore-n’-breasts old school OAV, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance succeeds admirably. How well that will fare for modern fans who didn’t grow up traumatized by giant spider women and the other crazy shit Kawajiri puts into his films, I don’t know. While not as over the top as some of his classic titles, it still feels like a Kawajiri film through and through. There’s also something of a plot, so it probably rests in a nice middle ground for those looking for an old school violent anime and those who weren’t weaned on violent Japtoons in their youth.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kawajiri’s work, so while some fans may claim Highlander: The Search for Vengeance isn’t as good as his older stuff, it seems about the same to me. In any case, it delivers much of the same experience fair like Demon City Shinjuku or Cyber City Oedo 808 did, some stylish action without much substance that you won’t need to watch more than once. Which is fine, I’m no snob when it comes to simple, violent cartoons, but it’s good to be aware of what you’re getting into. The biggest problem I have with the film is probably the characters, so indulge me for a moment while I overthink this ridiculous cartoon.

The druid priest Amergan shows up shortly after Colin is killed for the first time (thus realizing he’s immortal), and then hangs around for 2000 years being a smart ass and telling Colin lots of common sense things. He’s kind of like the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi, except you want to punch him in the face. He doesn’t serve a purpose other than to point out things Colin should already know and to show off some of the script’s more brilliant lines, such as “That was impressive… NOT!” I’ll fully admit to not knowing any druid priests, but it seems painfully out of character to write one using phrases like “Not!”

Then there’s Colin himself, who, considering he’s some 2000 years old, spends the entire film acting like a complete douchebag. It would have been nice if Abramowitz had bothered to include some evidence that Colin had learned something over his 2000 years of life or managed to attain some kind of maturity, but instead he comes across like a generic 19-year-old jerk with a lot of flashbacks.

The worst may be Dahlia, the hooker with a heart of gold who immediately tries to jump Colin the first moment she sees him. Her excuse is that Colin is so much better looking than her regular clients that she’ll give him some for free. This is gross enough as is, but later in the film it’s revealed Dahlia is actually the reincarnation of Colin’s first wife. After this revelation (why Amergen chose to reveal this to Colin after 2000 years of vengeance searching, I have no idea) Colin realizes how much he loves her and there’s a passionate love scene. Keeping in mind her previous comment about being forced to screw butt-ugly dudes for cash, the scene loses some of it’s impact because the whole thing is just gross.

I’m not one to argue on and on about the misogyny involved in constantly making female character prostitutes, but in this case it’s only used in the film for a brief 30-second conversation which grosses you out and then completely ignored for the rest of the film. Why make her a hooker at all?

Those small problems aside, if you’re looking for an old school violent anime in this day and age you could do a lot worse than Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. As an entry in the Highlander mythos, it’s probably one of the better sequels, although that speaks more of the poor quality of the franchise than it does the merits of this film. I went into it thinking it was going to suck on the level Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, but was surprised by how moderately enjoyable it actually was. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a great film, but it’s the kind of anime that would be fun to watch with some friends, some beers and a sense of humor.


  1. UPDATE:

    I actually watched this the other night, and I have to say, I was honestly impressed and entertained.

    Shakespeare it ain’t, obviously, but if you are a fan of schlocky ’90s OAVs (which is a natural assumption, if you’re reading Colony Drop and/or have picked up anything by Kawajiri), you get something that is amazingly coherent for being so vapid. The characterization is adorably trite, to be sure, but the brisk pace (even with all the flashbacks thrown in) keeps one from getting bogged down in the silliness of the golden-hearted Catholic hooker and the plucky streetwise Negro youth. (I did dig the Tomoe-Gozen-alike immortal hooker-ninja, though.)

    The animation is also objectively gorgeous. It is depressing how theatrical-release anime is in a downturn right now, because it is here where digital production values really shine. Kawajiri and Madhouse already had a fair pedigree here with dumb-but-gorgeous stuff like his “Program” segment in The Ani-Matrix and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, but their collaboration seems to be at its peak in Highlander. Seeing random Scotsmen get dismembered has rarely been so gorgeous.

    To relate this to the central Colony Drop question of “How can we save anime?” — my answer is “Give Kawajiri more work.” Team him up with Tarantino or some crap. I think America is ready for it.

  2. Kawajiri is a master at what he does–making visceral, visually stunning animation. I did like H:TSFV, having been a fan of the original (and that’s pretty much it). Dave Halverson of PLAY also praised it. Look, it has its problems, but they are overcome by the animation–which is top-notch–and Kawajiri’s direction.

    I lent this film to a co-worker of mine who was no fan of anime, and he enjoyed it a lot.

    Kawajiri’s films have been some of my favorites, even lesser efforts such as CYBER CITY and GOKU are better than the usual fare.

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