*½/**** Image A Sound B Extras B
starring Christopher Lambert, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown, Sean Connery
screenplay by Gregory Widen and Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson
directed by Russell Mulcahy
by Walter Chaw It is perhaps the very definition of a cult classic: a film so bad it breaks through that fetid envelope into the heady climes of "camp." So much is forgiven when a picture's earnest ineptness translates into that subterranean rhythm heard by those "in the know," and the twelve-year-old in me remembers the derision I ladled upon those who just didn't "get" the coolness of Russell Mulcahy's Highlander. The passage of seventeen years brings the realization that not only have I gotten very old very fast, but that I may have arrived at the age where it is no longer wise to revisit films that I liked as a child.
Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the titular Scottish highlander, a berserker all a-woad who, during a badly choreographed battle in 1536 flashback, gets skewered on the humongous claymore of the monstrous Kurgan (Clancy Brown). After recovering from the mortal wound, he's shunned by his clansman and cruelly stoned until the benevolent Angus (James Cosmo, who would play this character again a decade later in Braveheart), delivers him into the wilderness. Inexplicably finding himself with a woman (Beatie Edney) and a mentor, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery), while in exile in the suspiciously mountainous Scottish countryside, MacLeod learns that he is immortal and invulnerable to all manner of offense save beheading.
Answering the next question, seeking to behead him, the other "immortals" gain a benefit in power when they slay each other. The rationale behind the oft-muttered death-cry of "there can be only one" is never really explored, nor are the tricky intricacies of walking around in twentieth century Manhattan with a broadsword concealed under one's raincoat. Sufficed to say that Highlander's faux-interesting premise is hollow pretense for a series of shoddily-executed swordfights in different period costumes and temporal locales ending with an interminable battle atop a billboard in a strangely empty Big Apple circa 1985.
The most memorable aspect of Highlander is a Queen soundtrack that lends just the right amount of perverse Flash Gordon melodrama to another Eighties-tainted fable. At its essence, the film is a juvenile vampire fantasy composed of women, money, and immortality focused in the shape and heft of a giant sword. It's a homoerotic journey punctuated by Freddie Mercury's ecstatic wailing, by the strange equation of a stab in the gut with foreplay, and by Lambert's captivating, rubber-lipped inability to act like a human being. (What does it say about Lambert that Highlander is his shining moment, and that he remains the only living actor out-performed by Andie MacDowell (though Glenn Close's dubbing of her is partially to blame) in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.) Its gothic blood-lusty brooding and anti-establishment posing goes some way towards explaining why this movie gained a legion of supporters, though not entirely explaining the three sequels and television series spin-off.
The violence is soft, the performances are hilariously over-played or otherwise wrong, and the screenplay is a spider's breakfast of awkward pronouncements and non sequiturs. Mulcahy's direction is long on rushing Louma crane establishing shots, helicopter pans, and gimmicky transitions and short on perspective and visual sense. Just as Mulcahy's fun zero-budget debut Razorback was an Outback take on Jaws, Highlander is a less-poignant spin on The Terminator--a comparison that rings uncomfortably exact when the Kurgan stalks MacLeod's new girlfriend through her apartment to the strains of Michael Kamen's moody bass score.
Still and all, Highlander is not without its charms. Laudably dedicated to its silliness (to the point of dementia), the film casts the one true Scotsman of the piece (Connery) as an Egyptian Spaniard and gives the underappreciated Clancy Brown a chance to chew the scenery. Best of all, Lambert's MacLeod is stabbed more than any protagonist since Caesar, his unnatural resilience providing the funniest moment of the film as the drunken highlander gets repeatedly hoisted upon the petard of an irked French aristocrat. Because its success is reliant on the extent to which it gleefully makes no sense while capering about like a flaming monkey, Highlander is reliant on a demographic that is either too young (or too arrested) to know any better. For me, it joins Pete's Dragon, Condorman, and Unidentified Flying Oddball in the category of films better remembered than re-watched.
Anchor Bay's Limited Edition metal set of Highlander, dubbed "The Immortal Edition," lives up to the impossibly high standards already set by this, what is very possibly the most important (along with Criterion) archiving house for rare and out-of-print titles for the DVD format. As with previous Anchor Bay releases for such titles as The Wicker Man and The Evil Dead, the perks of "The Immortal Edition" begin with its packaging. An extremely cool metal slipcover--embossed with an outline of the MacLeod family claymore with which Connor begins Highlander--contains a plastic clip-case housing a fifteen-page booklet offering a brief synopsis and background information on the film. Knowing that part of its lingering appeal lies in the endurance of the Queen soundtrack, much of the booklet is turned over to a discussion of Queen's music, ending with a small catalog from which the fanatic might order any variety of CDs, sword replicas, and letter openers.
The first of two discs features a THX-approved 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer (from a Super35 negative) that presents the film in the best condition I've ever seen it. Far from flawless, the print negative is marred with grain in many of its location shots while the colours are generally mute as befitting an original of this age, but the overall picture is surprisingly sharp and free of edge enhancement and moiré. Black levels could be better (its opening duel betrays some over-compensating contrast), as could shadow detail; if you own only one copy of Highlander, this should nevertheless probably be it. Better yet, Highlander: The Immortal Edition features about eight minutes of restored international footage already available through a long bootlegged 'European Version.' They include an extended love scene (with the less attractive of MacLeod's two loves), an extended opening sequence, a ridiculous back-flip talent for the first antagonist, and a stultifying scene involving the "creation myth" of MacLeod's assistant/familiar.
Less satisfying are the disc's Dolby Digital 6.1 EX and DTS-ES 5.1 soundtracks, the fidelity of these formats underutilized in addition to emphasizing the weaknesses of the original track. The dialogue takes on a sort of muffled "coffee can" effect in several sequences, necessitating an increase in volume of the centre channel, while the overall separation sometimes strikes with the similar effect as the old horror show 3-D gimmicks: too many proverbial canes pointed at too many things behind the camera. The battle scenes are satisfyingly enveloping, however, especially the finale, with its sizzling electrical ends, wet, and clashing metal. Not perfect, in other words, though not bad all the same.
The first disc also features a yak track provided by director Mulcahy and producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer that was originally recorded for the tenth anniversary LaserDisc from six years back. It's jovial and informative, providing a great deal of location information as well as the expected bellyaching about monolithic studio heads demanding unreasonable excisions under impossible deadlines. I was interested to hear that director Stephen Hopkins cut his teeth on Highlander as a second-unit director and that Sean Connery spent seven days on the film (I would have guessed two or three). There aren't any appreciable lulls and fans of the film who don't already own the LD will have a good time hearing the commentary.
Still on Disc One, a look at the "Extras" menu reveals two badly dated 1.85:1 trailers that demonstrate by comparison how good the film actually looks after Anchor Bay's telecine wizards had a go; three composited Queen videos ("Who Wants to Live Forever,""A Kind of Magic," and "Princes of the Universe"); a huge stills and poster gallery; a smaller yet somehow more excessive Queen stills gallery; Anchor Bay's trademark filmographies (they're a must-read for any student of this film); and a DVD-ROM feature that just provides links to Highlander and Queen websites. THX calibration tests, a functional and attractive menu animation, and tracks for the film in Dolby 2.0 in English and French round out the platter. The second (and last) disc of Anchor Bay's Highlander: The Immortal Edition is something of a cheat: rather than provide the full soundtrack à la the company's own superlative package for Suspiria, this music CD consists of three songs. Two of them ("Princes of the Universe" and "Friends Will Be Friends") are available on Queen's "A Kind of Magic" while the third, "One Year of Love," is a needlessly extended (6:40) version of another previously available tune. Originally published: April 7, 2002.