Highlander (1986)

Highlander

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.

Six Seasons and a Movie!

I want to make a “Six Seasons and a Movie!” joke, but I can’t, because there is more than one movie, and at least two other series.  There’s one-off animated features, too.  So the joke doesn’t really fit.  So, instead imagine Abed read this caption to you, his head tilted slightly.

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.

Need a boost?

Need a boost?

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.

Look at all the fucks I give.

Look at all the fucks I give.

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.

The 80s Badass...  When one sleeve was all you'd need.

The 80s Badass… When one sleeve was all you’d need.

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.

Imagine for a moment, if Freddie actually played MacLeod.  Greatest Imaginary Movie... EVER.

Imagine for a moment, if Freddie Mercury had actually played MacLeod. Greatest Imaginary Movie… EVER.

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?

5/5

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6 comments on “Highlander (1986)

  1. When I was a kid, I loved this movie. I even loved the much-hated sequel, Highlander 2: The Quickening. As an adult, I finally rewatched it, and realized how dated and cheesy the whole thing is. I couldn’t handle it. The only thing that worked for me was the mythos and Sean Connery. Everything else was terrible, Kurgan included. Also as an adult, I watched the “Renegade Version” of Highlander 2, and found (while still terrible) it was a big improvement over the theatrical cut.

    • Thanks for commenting, brik. I can totally understand this not holding up. I didn’t go through a long period without watching it, it was a gradual adjustment over the years, noticing flaws, and finding out that it’s not actually the greatest movie ever made, instead of just discovering it one day as an adult.

      Oh, Highlander 2… I’ve always hated it. I’ve seen the Renegade Version, but like you say, being an improvement isn’t near enough. Even though I hate it, I’ve still enjoyed moments in it, and it was fun to watch as a large inebriated group in university.

      I enjoyed Highlander 3 on its own, but it doesn’t jive with the other movies, or the series, very well. I haven’t seen any of the Adrian Paul movies yet.

  2. Saw this for the first time a couple years ago… right before I started blogging I think… I enjoyed it quite a bit, although of course I’m partial to 80s cheesy action. Never watched the sequels, not going to; the ending of Highlander dictates that there can be no sequels.

    Great review, Bruce, a lot of fun to read. Laughed at the Sean Connery line.

    • I don’t recommend any of the sequels, really… You’re right not to watch them. But I highly recommend the show.

      Over the course of the sequels, a couple of the “rules” get tweaked. The biggest, and best, of these tweaks is that the Immortals “die” every time something that would kill us happens to them, like being shot, starving, etc. Then they come back.

      This particular rule change, as well as retconning out the end of the original movie, allows for some much more interesting tales to be told.

  3. I watched all three Highlander movies (pre-Adrian films) in high school in one evening and immediately fell in love with the first. I have come back to it and watched it multiple times over the years, but when I tried to make my girlfriend watch it a year or two ago, she hated it (the relationship still exists, however). I still like it, but I had to accept it has a ton of flaws. Definitely a cult movie for a reason.

    Highlander 2 is nonsense. Highlander 3 just seems like a remake of Highlander 1, but is still better than the second movie.

    I liked the series well enough, but it was hard for me to like Adrian Paul over Christopher Lambert just because I was such a big fan of the first movie.

    Endgame was crap, and Lambert looked like shit. He’s an immortal, he’s not supposed to age. He looks like something that was flushed out of a sewer line.

    30th anniversary coming up on Monday (3/7/2016).

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