Dir. by Russell Mulcahy
Starring Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, Roxanne Hart and Sean Connery
After recovering from being run through during a battle, Scottish clansman Connor MacLeod discovers that he is an Immortal, and can only be killed by having his head cut off. After receiving training from a fellow Immortal, he learns about the Gathering, a time in the future when all surviving Immortals will come together and duel until only one is left. Four hundred years later, the Gathering begins in New York City, and MacLeod must finally face off against the Kurgan, the Immortal who impaled him in his first battle centuries ago.
Probably my first exposure to the Highlander franchise was my father watching Highlander 2 on VHS when I was about 10 or so. I distinctly remember it because I liked the cool sword fights, but had absolutely no idea what was going on – a feeling that’s actually pretty common for that movie, as it turns out. I probably saw the original for the first time some time around 1994 or so, as I remember watching it on the tiny tube TV that I had in my bedroom, and that’s when I got it. I never did watch the TV show, but it was pretty popular among the Sci-Fi House denizens in college, judging by how often it was included in the weekly viewing lineup.
This is a case of a movie with a really great premise, in search of better filmmakers to produce it. The plot is made of pure B and cult movie gold: immortal warriors from various time periods and places hacking each other to bits in modern day New York. That it spawned three further theatrical releases, two direct-to-DVD entries and three TV series is testament to the awesomeness of the idea. It’s just a shame that the film is as messy and unfocused as it is.
French actor Christopher Lambert is simultaneously horrendously miscast and kind of perfect for the title role of Connor MacLeod. At no point did I ever buy him as Scottish, but I did buy him as someone who had lived in many different parts of the world, seen the horrors of war over and over, and would really just prefer to settle down and run his antique store in peace. In all of the scenes set in New York, he has this world-weary warrior vibe, like Hugh Jackman from Logan with a katana instead of claws. If the majority of the movie had been in present-day, I don’t think it would have been much of an issue.
Unfortunately, however, the first half of the movie is spent cutting back and forth, quite frequently, between Connor in the present and in 16th century Scotland. I found this story structure to be way more jarring than I remembered it to be. In fact, my memory of the movie seems to have recut it mostly in chronological order, with all of the Scottish sequences being together in a big chuck immediately after the initial fight in the parking lot. While the cutting back and forth prolongs the mystery of just what the heck is going on, it also makes it a lot harder to really get into a groove with the movie’s story-telling.
It also doesn’t help matters that the one major actor who actually has a Scottish accent, Sean Connery, was cast as MacLeod’s most definitely not Scottish mentor. Though MacLeod refers to him as a Spaniard, and he introduces himself with the rather awesome name of Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, Connery’s character claims to be a two thousand year old Immortal from ancient Egypt. I really wish they’d have left it with him being an actual Spaniard, as A) Connery’s accent is about equally Spanish as Lambert’s is Scottish, so at least it would be consistent, and B) then I wouldn’t have to complain once again about Hollywood whitewashing. I’m not 100% sure what an actual pre-Ptolemaic Egyptian would have looked like, but I’m pretty positive it’s nowhere near as white as Sean Connery is.
While most of the casting and behind-the-camera decisions were definitely a mixed bag, there was at least one certified home run: Clancy Brown, as the villainous Kurgan. I find him absolutely perfect in the role of an immortal mass murderer, both in his D&D bad guy armor when he first appears, and his more punk rock look in the modern setting. This was the first thing I ever saw the veteran character actor in, though I probably heard that distinctive voice in Gargoyles or other animated voice-over roles. I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for him ever since, even though he’s frequently typecast in Kurgan-esque parts.
Another thing that totally works, and which might actually be the best thing to come out of the movie, is the soundtrack by Queen. They wrote several songs specifically for the movie, including now-classics “Princes of the Universe” and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” The former is so associated with the franchise that it was also used as the theme song to the TV show spinoff, which I was surprised to learn ran a whopping six seasons and 119 episodes when I looked it up just now. “Who Wants to Live Forever” also takes on a special poignancy, knowing that Freddie Mercury would be diagnosed with AIDS less than a year later.
Highlander is very much a mixed bag, an excellent premise surrounded by some shoddy casting and filmmaking. Though the franchise would continue for well over a decade after, it would eventually peter out in the mid 2000s. It’s definitely one that I could see being remade or rebooted successfully, especially given the current wave of 80s nostalgia.
-I don’t know if it was just the transfer on the cheap 4-in-1 franchise DVD I borrowed from my brother, but the version I watched was extremely washed out and grainy, like it was on a VHS that had been copied a couple of times. I’m not going to dock it any points, though, as I don’t have a point of comparison to see if it was like that when it originally came out or not.
-The Kurgan assembles his sword like an assassin would a sniper rifle, by putting it together from multiple disassembled pieces. That includes the blade, which I’m pretty sure would break on impact if you tried something like that in real life.
-MacLeod’s sword is identified as both being a 1500-year-old katana, and also as being a Masamune (a detail I never caught before). Masamune was an actual Japanese swordsmith, renowned as the best ever, and many of his surviving blades are held as Japanese national treasures. However, he lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, a tad bit later than the sword was supposedly dated to.