Directed by: Russell Mulcahy.
Music by: Queen & Michael Kamen.
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown & others.
There’s a lot of less-than-original ideas in Hollywood these days. Reboots are a dime a dozen, and freshening up an old franchise for current markets has become a very common, safe practice in order to guarantee returns.
But rewind three decades, and you’ll find an industry running on the most batty notions ever to get the green light. Films about invisible aliens fighting special forces in a jungle, a young boy getting taken off in a silver shell-like alien craft… Heck even a movie spanning hundreds of years about an immortal Scottish swordsman, battling other such individuals in a noir cityscape got made, with a soundtrack by one of the biggest rock bands of all time & SOMEHOW it found it’s way to the silver screen.
You would never get it made in this day and age, it is as simple as that. Highlander features some fairly shaky acting at best, a tone that flies all over the place, and a plot that gives up on all notions of even being slightly coherent. But damn, it is hard not to like the movie – partly because it encapsulates the unique brand of gross opulence that only the 1980’s could provide.
Technically it flopped during it’s initial 1986 theatrical run, having made $12.9m on a budget of $19m, but garnered an incredibly loyal cult following. This eventually lead to a spin-off TV series after a series of increasingly maligned sequels, in a pattern that afterwards seems to have been oft-repeated despite the very obvious diminishing returns.
For the uninitiated, here is a very brief rundown of the movie:
Conor MacLeod fights a fellow swordsman in a darkened 1985 parking lot, and upon killing his opponent is struck by an indoor lightning storm. Then he is promptly arrested.
For the most part we flit back from modern day to 16th Century Scottish Highlands. Conor is a warrior who is wounded in battle by a barbarian named The Kurgan. After he heals overnight from a mortal wound, he is chased out of his home by the townsfolk, believing his recovery to be witchcraft.
Out in the highlands, he lives the simple life with new wife Heather, until one day a Spanish swordsman by the name of Ramirez appears to train him. He explains that they belong to a group of immortals, who will decapitate each other and gain the power of their fellows (the lightning surges known as ‘The Quickening’), until only one remains to collect the ‘prize’. Ramirez tells him that The Kurgan, also immortal, must be stopped from winning or the future of man will be a dark one.
The Kurgan kills Ramirez and rapes Heather. Eventually, we discover that immortals cannot bear children, and Heather dies in Conor’s arms, while he has not aged a day. Back, in New York, a reporter named Brenda follows up on the police case surrounding Conor’s fight in the parking lot, and discovers that Conor lives in the city as an antiques dealer, but has in fact been passing assets down an ancient ‘family’ line, faking his own death and leaving possessions to himself via assumed identities. She becomes his lover, but Conor keeps her at arms length, not wishing to love another woman until her death while he remains that same.
The Kurgan has been searching for Conor all this time, and kidnaps Brenda to draw him out. The two fight and Conor wins, receiving a massive quickening that imbues him with the ability to hear the thoughts of all people. He returns to Scotland a complete man. He will now age and can bear children, with the power to bring peace to all the peoples of Earth.
It sounds like an epic tale to be sure – and mostly succeeds through some dramatic scenery in the beautiful highlands and neon-soaked cityscapes, all bolstered by the aural bombast that only Queen could lend to proceedings. The swordfights too, while accompanied by some truly ludicrously loud sound effects and equally loud visual
effects, are suitably over the top and remarkably tense.
Where it does mostly succeed, it does so to rather humorous effect in many scenes – simply because the main cast all give such wonky performances. In the first instance, Canadian actor Christopher Lambert, delivering lines in a gravely Cod-Scots accent, sounds oddly like Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine quoting lines from Braveheart. Sean Connery began his slide towards League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by being one of the few Scots in a film about Scotland, but instead playing an Egyptian who later moved to Spain but somehow retained an unbreakable Scots accent. Clancy Brown growls like he’s gargling rubble as The Kurgan, and despite his height manages to have little actual menace on screen, save for what the lighting and plot adds to his mystique. He went to have several smaller roles in decent fare like Starship Troopers, with a career culminating as the voice of Mr Crabs in Spongebob Squarepants. What a tangled web we weave.
Now, if that sounds like Highlander is a terrible viewing experience, it really is very enjoyable to watch. What can be seen throughout the film is an abandon matching the bonkers premise and complete commitment to its themes. You’ll belly laugh often at things not intended to be comedic, but it is all part of its highly unique charm.
In fact, in view of these unusual merits, we may have stumbled across part of it’s secret. Humour, evenly distributed throughout, elevates what would be a fairly poor action film. In refusing to be Poe-faced, the drama might be mitigated but then it fell flat to begin with – but what comes out is much more fun to watch as a result. You can scoff if you like, but you’ll only add to its power. This is pretty much the reason we’re talking about Highlander 30 years later, whereas I can’t recall much about Tom Cruise’s latest slick sci-fi actioner a year on from release.