I recently stumbled across a Blu-Ray copy of an amazing cinematic indulgence, Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 cult classic, Highlander. Starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown as members of a race of Immortals that are undetectable to the rest of us normal schlubs. They hide amongst us, secretly playing The Game, a swordfight to decapitation, the only way that they might die. The Game rages on for centuries until the time of The Gathering, a time and place where the final few Immortals will be drawn to finish The Game and compete for The Prize.
In the end, there can be only one.
Obviously, if you judge from this establishing paragraph, this review is going to contain a lot of italics.
This movie is such a double-edged sword. On one side, you have a fantastic exploration of the pros and cons of an immortal existence. The film is beautifully shot, with some of the most interesting cinematography I’ve seen. There is excellent use of the practical special-effects that ruled the Pre-Terminator 2 era of Science Fiction and Fantasy film making. There excellent performances delivered by excellent supporting actors. On the other side, there are road-through-a-redwood sized plotholes surrounding one of the most embarrassingly over-the-top poor performances delivered by a lead actor ever. You have cringeworthy one liners and (even by 80s movie standards) incredibly forced romance. And even though some of the practical special-effects used here are genius, others still look like crayon scribbles over top of the film negatives.
Even laden with plot holes throughout, this film has an excellent story. The idea behind this modern immortality myth is incredibly interesting. Highlander‘s Immortals are regular people with an amazing ability to live forever. Some use it for good, others for evil. There is so much room to explore that possibility that, with a few tweaks here and there, a pretty successful TV series was based on it, and lasted for 6 seasons.
On the average, Highlander is a gorgeous movie. There are some amazing shots of breathtaking scenery. The swordfights were well choreographed for the time. The camera is handled expertly, with many different types of tracking, crane and dolly shots. They were not afraid to experiment behind the scenes. One of the most successful, in my opinion, experiments were with the special effects. In order to add an extra element of strength and drama to the swordfighting scenes, they hooked the actors up to 12-volt goddamn car batteries, re-inventing the onscreen sword spark. There are several other electrical explosions that take place throughout the film. Every time I watch it I’m amazed no one on set was electrocuted to death. Thinking, “Goddamn, those motherfuckers are crazy. They should be dead,” while watching an action sequence is the calling card of a fantastic action sequence.
There are some amazing performances by the supporting cast. Scottish legend Sean Connery is expertly cast an Egyptian-born Spaniard. Regardless, he does a fantastic job as Lambert’s mentor, Ramirez. Ramirez seeks out MacLeod and teaches him the rules of The Game. He’s quick witted, calm, cool, and clearly not interested in hearing your bullshit whining. He laughs patiently, imparting wisdom at just the right time like a Spanish/Egyptian/Scottish Mr. Miyagi, as MacLeod stumbles through his new Immortal life.
But putting even Connery to shame is Clancy Brown’s Kurgan. Brown conjures up the look of the Terminator, and adds to it all the calm, relaxed attitude of the Joker. He defines raging 80s movie psycho. And while several of the film’s plot holes revolve around the Kurgan and his motivations, it does not matter in the least. Every scene he is in is tense, ominious, manic, or action packed.
Both Connery and Brown steal every scene they’re in. This is easy, of course, because Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, while delivering one of the best performances of his career, is still just Christopher Lambert. Even in the middle of delivering otherwise hilarious action movie one-liners, Lambert comes across as that guy you have to explain every joke to. He, and everyone else on screen that isn’t holding a sword for that matter, is basically a cardboard cut-out. Seriously. Look at that picture of him on the cover.
Another bar-raising, scene stealing, star of the film is Freddie Mercury. The film’s soundtrack is made up exclusively of Queen songs, or Queen songs reworked by Michael “You Need Awesome Music For Your Action Movie?” Kamen. Mercury’s singing manages to set each scene perfectly. Thankfully, because he is there, we’re able to tell how Lambert’s Cardboard MacLeod is feeling at any given moment.
The amazing thing about this movie is how it still manages to feel like a great movie, despite obviously being absolutely terrible. The things that shine–the mythos, the supporting cast, the action and camera work–shine brightly. The things that don’t work fail on such a level that they are hilarious and (for me at least) don’t detract from the film in the slightest. If anything the flaws add even more charm, and bigger laughs. So, like many other double-edged swords, Highlander ends up being the weapon of an amazing killing machine, that cuts through its enemies like butter. Fields of blood and corpses are left behind in its wake, as so many try to stop its rampage.
That’s how that metaphor is supposed to work, right?