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Highlander (1986)

by on 2011/01/17

“You have power beyond imagination.  Use it well my friend.  Don’t lose your head.”

* * *

What is Highlander?  Lazy medieval high fantasy?  Swords and sorcery?  Historical fiction?  Police procedural?  Romance?

Yes.

Invert The Terminator, infuse it with Star Wars, and that would be Highlander, sort of.

Like RoboCop, it should have been a one-off affair but, apparently, nobody was able to accept its claim there can be only one.  Now we have sequels and spinoffs, TV series and cartoons, new developments on its shaky foundation.

Two major plots run tag-team throughout the running time.  In one, modern-day New York antique dealer “Russell Nash” (Christopher Lambert) is stalked by a series of killers.  Though they seem intent on his decapitation, the police are little help.

In the other thread, Sixteenth Century Scotsman Connor MacLeod (also Christopher Lambert) is visited by a flamboyant Egyptian with a Spanish name, played by an actual Scotsman (Sean Connery).  Ramirez teaches Connor about the secrets of immortality, and together they prepare to face an equally immortal nemesis, the Kurgan (Starship Troopers’ Clancy Brown).

The leapfrogging plots lend a sense of time travel, and the centuries-old rivalry evokes The Terminator but, more than anything else, I felt the Force in Highlander.  The Star Wars series may or may not have been on the storyteller’s mind, and yet the similarities were overwhelming.

Ramirez’s inability to explain certain ideas had him invoking the sun and the stars in a way reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker, “What I told you was true from a certain point of view.”  The Jedi, while not corporeally immortal, do:

  • experience a life after death,
  • commune with other creatures,
  • sense others with similar abilities,
  • absorb external energies,
  • hear the voices of deceased comrades,
  • and fight with “Heart, faith, and steel.”

Does the last line seem like “Force and light sabers” to anyone else, or just me?

I don’t mind the similarities myself, though I do find it interesting, I haven’t seen them mentioned before.

Mostly I wish Lambert hadn’t said “It’s a kind of magic.”  Twice.

The jumps in time show different segments of the MacLeod/Nash history, allowing director Russell Mulcahy to compare and contrast events of disparate eras.  The device is common now.  Family Guy often relies upon it, jumping into history for the sake of an offshoot joke.  The tangent’s commonality doesn’t undo its potential, however.  While never fully realized here, it also never confuses us as it might have.

The transitions between past and present are clear, and often elegant as well.  Usually visual in nature, some work better than others.  An enigmatic look fades into a Mona Lisa mural.  A fish tank’s water breaks into the surface of a loch.  In one more awkward example, an “explosion” wipe transitions us back into World War Two.

The edits may be elegant, but the visuals fall short of perfection.  While it’s hard to fault the framing of the cityscapes and countrysides, the grainy stock, muddy colours, and often blurred periphery recall the shortcomings of a cheaper Seventies film.  The primitive grit, which suits the medieval scenes, doesn’t work as well in the urban environments as you’d expect.

On top of the hazy image, the makeup for aged and wounded characters are among the worst I’ve yet reviewed.  The electrical and “quickening” effects are similarly poor, a parodic mashup of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s denouement and Forbidden Planet’s invisible attacker.

Then there’s the audio.  Oh boy.  The sound design itself is fine.  The music, on the other hand . . . well, two words:  Michael Kamen.  Frequent readers will know I’m not a particular fan of his.  With a score my illustrious partner suggested “sounds like an orchestra falling off the stage” the movie limps along, occasionally goosed by the antics of Queen.  Their best offering here is “Who Wants to Live Forever”, a song which recalls the pathos and tragedy of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In fact, the presence of Queen’s over-the-top pomp rock reinforces a through-line of the Highlander experience, the entire project’s tendency toward camp:

  • The sound of voices speaking underwater.
  • The dreaded Kurgan constantly bested, often falling down.
  • The unfunny duel of a pincushioned immortal.
  • A kidnapper’s joyrides.

One man’s myth may be another man’s farce, but all of these moments, and many more, add up to a goofiness nearly on par with Army of Darkness. Whether the camp was intended or not, the filmmakers should probably pretend it was, because the whole is less successful when considered otherwise.

I don’t believe this effort represents an inability to execute properly a promising idea, but the filtering of that idea through an oddly incongruous sensibility.  There’s a reason it’s a cult hit:  it could never be anything else.  Its fans forgive it despite itself.

What is Highlander, then?

An inexplicably endearing mess.

* * *

Rated R/18A for adult situations, language, nudity, and violence

116 minutes (Director’s Cut)

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