In the mid-90s, I made a big mistake at the video store. I wanted to rent Highlander, but I didn’t look at the tape carefully enough and instead I went home with a copy of Highlander II: The Quickening. I watched it, my weekend was ruined, I swore off the Highlander franchise with a vengeance, and I didn’t actually get around to seeing the original film until 2004 or thereabouts.
The lesson: Never judge a film by it’s sequel.
Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is an immortal, doomed to roam the Earth until all others of his ilk have been decapitated in a battle known as “the Gathering”. After several centuries, the time of the Gathering has come and only two immortals remain: Connor and his age-old nemesis, the Kurgan (Clancy Brown). Caught in the middle is police forensic scientist Roxanne (Brenda Wyatt), who isn’t sure if Connor is crazy, a murderer or exactly what he claims to be.
Highlander is one of those movies that’s extremely embedded in the era in which it was made and all attempts to modernize it have been notoriously catastrophic. It reeks of New York City trash, it sounds like Freddie Mercury screaming in your ear, and it looks like leather jackets studded with metal snaps and safety pins. Highlander was born an ’80s movie and wields that asset to its overwhelming advantage.
The story can be convoluted, not so much in how complicated it is but rather the manner of delivery. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, illustrating Connor’s life throughout the ages, and they aren’t all served to us in a chronological order (one moment he’s in the Scottish highlands, then it’s World War II, then it’s back to the highlands, then its Victorian England, then the highlands again). There’s a mythology and a fascinating world in this movie somewhere, but the tunnel vision focused on Connor prevents us from witnessing the full scope (the Gathering evidently amounts to 5 people, 1 of which we don’t even see because his death is only reported by a cop).
With that in mind, I can understand the temptation to make sequels and TV shows and all sorts of continuations and spin-offs, yeah. But that leads me to another topic that also folds right back into my intro paragraph.
Highlander is a relic of a bygone age when people made movies to tell complete stories in and of themselves, not as preludes to multi-film franchises. Highlander is a conclusive film; the story ENDS and there’s nowhere left to go. I miss movies like that. Sure, they made sequels, including the heinously awful one I mentioned at the start of this review, but the fact that they were never able to make a single GOOD sequel kind of proves that they didn’t need to be made in the first place.
Okay, I’ll concede that Search for Vengeance was alright, albeit an animated film. And even then, Highlander’s batting average on the cartoon front isn’t so hot. I dare you to watch Highlander: The Animated Series. I fucking dare you. I FUCKING DARE YOU.
There’s another aspect of Highlander that I really love, and it’s how dirty and lived-in this movie looks. Everything but the obvious sets (more on that in a minute) looks authentic and trashy and old and real. This movie doesn’t have that sparkling Hollywood sheen to it and everywhere from the flophouses to the streets look shot on location. And man, I’ll take location shooting over “let’s just film the thing in front of a green screen and paste a background in there later” any day of the week. That being said, when this movie DOES use a set… Ooh boy, they’re pretty bad. Connor’s apartment has one of the worst cityscape backdrops outside its windows that I’ve ever seen. Like, sitcoms have better depth of field in their backdrops than this. And as cool as the battle between the Kurgan and Sean Connery was at the ruins of the tower, I felt like the thing was filmed on an opera stage (those background cloud paintings are pretty pathetic).
Such cheesiness does add a certain charm to the film, though. It has a music video look and feel to it (in large part thanks to the all-Queen soundtrack), and things like the corny sets and the weird cartoon demon monsters serve to give the movie it’s long-loved personality. And brother, I adore those cartoon demon monsters. Straight outta Conan the Barbarian.
The sword fights are clumsy, but not in a bad way, as they aren’t cartoonishly over-choreographed like a lot of sword fights we see in movies today. The battles look HEAVY and the characters have to work hard to land each blow. It doesn’t slow the fights down or make them appear awkwardly deliberate, but rather it makes them feel more spontaneous and less “rehearsed dance routine”.
Now, the editing in Highlander can be utterly baffling at times and I’m not talking about the flashbacks. It’s very rapid and sometimes I think the people making the movie got confused or motion sick or something and pasted the wrong reels together in their throes of vertigo. Like, just try and make sense of that opening battle in the parking garage. The rapier guy is running toward Connor, then he’s doing backflips across the asphalt for no reason, then he’s running again, then blackflipping again, and then he and Connor are locking blades. Sometimes he’s carrying his sword, sometimes he isn’t. What the fuck is going on? I don’t know. But who cares? He just got his head chopped off and now there’s lightning and all the cars are coming to life.
As for the cast, the leads carry the film on their shoulders and it’s a great ride. Christopher Lambert seems to have his faculties in control in this film, as opposed to his deer-in-the-headlights performance in movies like Mortal Kombat, and he infuses Connor with enough humor to make him likable. I was expecting a dull monotone or at least a lot of whining about living too long, but Lambert plays the part with a smile and pep when the scene calls for it.
Clancy Brown is just fuckin’ rad as the Kurgan and there’s no other word for it. When we see him in the flashbacks at the start, he’s this lumbering and typical bad guy character, but when he’s reintroduced in the present he just goes freakin’ bonkers. He’s funny, weird, and really REALLY high energy. While he isn’t exactly a villain you’re supposed to “like” (he’s also a rapist), he is one you like seeing and his performance will leave an impression on you.
Just try to ignore the fact that he’d use the same tone of voice 15 years later as Mr. Krabs on Spongebob Squarepants. That can get a little distracting.
Sean Connery doesn’t phone in his performance, contrary to everything I originally expected after suffering through that bullshit sequel where he was an… alien or something? Granted, I’d sooner buy Sean Connery as an alien than a Spaniard, as he’s supposed to be in this movie, but whatever. He’s also really pumped and putting a lot of energy into his performance as Connor’s mentor in the flashbacks. All combined, the three leads actually come off like they give a shit about the movie they’re in and are having a good time on set. Boy, times really HAVE changed.
Look, is Highlander a genuinely good movie? It’s an entertaining movie and in my book that makes it a good movie, but others might disagree. It’s not without it’s problems, but the imperfections are part of what makes it special. Some of the excess plot does get in the way and the movie can feel overstuffed (all the shit with the police trying to find the murderer; immortals show up for the gathering like they’re going to be important characters and die in their second scene; etc.). Despite whatever flaws it may have, it remains enjoyable and a quintessential ’80s action movie.
Just pretend they never made any more of them.