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Highlander: The Search for Vengeance   B

Manga Entertainment / Imagi Animation Studios

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Writer: David Abramowitz
Cast: Alistair Abell, Zachary Samuels, Scott McNeil, Eid Lakis.

Review by Jim Harper

Despite the fact that it has never received anything approaching critical acclaim and hasn't scored at the box office in many years, the Highlander franchise has proved almost as durable as its immortal heroes. In the 21 years since the release of Russell Mulcahy's original film, we've seen four more features, two live-action TV series (one of which lasted for several years) and a short-lived animated TV show. The idea of an animated feature film is therefore perhaps not as surprising as it might seem at first glance -- after all, both The Matrix (1999) and Hellboy (2004) have been followed by animated spin-offs. However, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is not just animated, it's anime, produced by the prestigious Madhouse, whose other works include Satoshi Kon's exceptional Perfect Blue (1997). David Abramowitz, writer of the forthcoming live-action Highlander movie, penned the English script but the film itself is directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Kawajiri's name might be familiar to those who bought The Animatrix, although he's best known to anime fans for violent, stylish films like Ninja Scroll (1995) and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (1998). While his preference for bloody, horror-influenced stories has prevented him from achieving the kind of status that contemporaries like Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon have been afforded, Kawajiri is still a very significant figure in the world of anime, and his association with the project is probably the best thing to happen to the Highlander franchise in a long, long time.

The hero of Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is Colin MacLeod, the fourth Immortal to bear the name (after Connor, Duncan and Quentin). He's a MacLeod of the Christopher Lambert school -- grey raincoat, samurai sword, self-pitying streak a mile wide. Like many such heroes, Colin is a Man With A Mission: he's looking for Marcus, the Immortal who crucified Colin's girlfriend Moya and slaughtered his tribe during the Roman conquest of Britain. He's accompanied by the ghost of Amergan, a druid priest who serves as Colin's conscience, although he's largely given up trying to persuade him to abandon his pointless quest. We first see Colin in late 21st-century New York, after war, disease and environmental disaster have killed off most of the population and reduced the cities to rubble. Through a dizzying series of flashbacks we watch Colin and Marcus slugging it out in a variety of time periods: at the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D.; in 16th-century feudal Japan; the Battle of Trafalgar; and finally World War II. Each time they meet fate conspires to pull them apart again, although most of the time Colin comes perilously close to losing his head. Like his enemy, Marcus also has a mission. Having watched his glorious Roman Empire get ripped apart by barbarians, he has dedicated himself to bringing it back to life, bigger and better than before. Throughout the centuries Marcus has allied himself with whichever cause seems most likely to achieve this resurrection, from Napoleon to Hitler, and also like Colin, he has largely failed in this task.

However, Marcus has not yet given up, and in the 21st century he dominates Manhattan Island from his palatial ziggurat of marble, gold and silver. Those who don't wish to join his enlightened regime are left to fend for themselves, living like rats in the old subway tunnels beneath the city, and feeding on rats too, while the plague wipes most of them out. Of course, there is a resistance movement, but they stand little chance against Marcus' army of robot soldiers. Until Colin arrives in the city, that is; but Colin is consumed by his personal vendetta and has no interest in saving the dregs of humanity. He is persuaded to help them break into the palace and steal medical supplies, but only because he can't get inside without their help. Even the ample charms of Dahlia -- a whore with a heart of gold and the body of a goddess -- have little sway with Colin. He begins to change his mind after he receives yet another ass-kicking at the hands of Marcus, however. The final push is provided by Amergan, who informs our hero that while he's been busy sulking for the past two millennia he's failed to notice Moya's soul trying to rejoin her loved one in a variety of different incarnations, most notably as the Scottish girl he deserted 900 years ago, and most recently as Dahlia, the feisty prostitute who has taken a shine to Colin. With happiness back in his grasp, Colin MacLeod decides it's time to Do The Right Thing. He still plans to kill Marcus, but this time it's for slightly more altruistic motives.

All of which makes for entertaining viewing, even if we have seen it all before in a number of films. What separates Highlander: The Search for Vengeance from the previous instalments is Kawajiri's obvious fondness for the material. The earlier installments either tried to pull the story away from it's roots and into the realm of big-budget, "serious" science-fiction (Highlander II's post-production studio hack-job, for example) or simply recycled the first film's better moments in a half-hearted tone that reeked of directorial embarrassment (pretty much all the others). Despite the new setting, Search for Vengeance covers much the same territory as the 1986 original, but it does so unapologetically, and with a genuine passion too. The material is played completely straight, and it works much better for it, ably assisted by Kawajiri's trademark mix of graphic sex and violence. The animation is exceptionally good, with the character designs very reminiscent of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (although that is by no means a bad thing). The only weak link is the voice acting, but even that is no worse than Christopher Lambert's hilarious Franco-Scottish mugging. Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is certainly cheesy, but then so is every other film in the series, and in terms of pure entertainment, it's a hell of a lot more satisfying than any of the other sequels. Now, if Kawajiri can be enticed into injecting a dose of anime adrenalin into a few more worn-out '80s franchises -- my personal suggestions would be Hellraiser, just in case anyone from Dimension is reading this -- then I'll be a very happy man indeed.

Review published 10.09.2007.

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