“There can be only one.” —Practically every character, every 15 minutes or so, Highlander
The first time I saw the 1986 film Highlander—and the last, until now—was in 1991, under optimal conditions, in front of a large, appreciative midnight-movie audience. I was in misery from the jump, as the camera swirled drunkenly around a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden; to paraphrase Leonard Maltin’s one-and-a-half-star review, I was already reaching for the Dramamine. Director Russell Mulcahy made a name for himself as a music-video pioneer, responsible for the first video to appear on MTV (“Video Killed The Radio Star”) and all of Duran Duran’s major singles. Seen today, Highlander’s excesses seem quaint; while it’s true that Mulcahy was making overstylized, borderline-incoherent movies while Michael Bay was in short pants, the action here is relatively austere by today’s standards. (Though it’s still edited into a fine hash.) Exiting the theater that night, I was left with a rhetorical question: Why are so many people in love with this cheesy, plodding, badly written, laughably acted, showily directed piece of shit? (A piece of shit that inspired several sequels, including the infamous Highlander 2: The Quickening, a TV show, and an in-the-works remake.)
Twenty years later, I wanted to revisit Highlander and turn that rhetorical question into an actual one. And to my surprise, the answers were easy and the question too harshly phrased. Cheesy? Plodding? Badly written? Laughably acted? Showily directed? Absolutely. A piece of shit? Not at all, because the film, however significant its flaws, delivers where it matters—in epic swordfights set against striking backdrops, in the outsized emotions (okay, bombast) suggested by the Queen soundtrack, and in the man-of-destiny sweep that’s been the lifeblood of modern fantasies from The Matrix to Harry Potter. It’s hard to speculate on this—and maybe you Highlander die-hards can help me out in the comments below—but I’d guess that cultists would concede that the movie they love is far short of perfect. But as a piece of fantasy, its sheer centuries-spanning grandiosity has few equals: Just the idea of Highlander carries it a great distance, no matter how shabbily that idea is supported.
“From the dawn of time we came, moving silently down through the centuries.” So begins the famed epigraph, read by Sean Connery for extra gravitas. That one sentence—driven home by an icon of Connery’s stature—encapsulates the film’s appeal as well as any one sentence could: The sense of importance and singularity that comes with being an “Immortal,” one of a shadow society of warriors that exists among us (and always has, from the dawn of frickin’ time), and a voice that lends instant credibility. (It’s amusing to discover, via the IMDB, that Connery recorded that bit in the bathroom of his Spanish villa, which accounts for its echo-y quality. Talk about demystifying.) Then the epigraph ends, and—boom—there’s a Queen song over the opening credits to pump up the audience like many an ’80s montage song, followed by a wrestling match at the Garden, followed by one of the cool time-transitions that are perhaps the film’s greatest asset. This is fanboy service before the term even existed.
From there, Highlander just keeps moving relentlessly forward, and it’s a good thing, too, because like a shark, it dies whenever it isn’t moving. In a performance that mixes personal magnetism with placeless, garbled, Tommy Wiseau-like line-readings, Christopher Lambert stars as Connor MacLeod in one era, Russell Nash in another, and the Highlander wherever he lays his 2,500-year-old decapitating sword. MacLeod/Nash is one of the Immortals, an ageless Scottish warrior who can survive any battle wound, so long as he keeps his head from being lopped off. He and the other Immortals are destined to travel through history until they reach “The Gathering,” a battle royal in which only one can survive to receive “The Prize.” In the meantime, they form some alliances, fight amongst themselves, and take an active role in history’s biggest conflicts. Like fighting the Nazis, say:
Mostly, Highlander slips seductively between two time periods, with love interests in each: Scotland 1536, when an exiled Connor MacLeod meets the flamboyantly named, incongruously accented Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Connery), who helps him understand his fate and learn the deadly arts; and modern-day New York, the site of “The Gathering,” where MacLeod, now Russell Nash, squares off against The Kurgan (a terrific Clancy Brown), an eternally evil foe who’s been pursuing him across time. In the Scotland timeline, Connor lives to regret romancing a pretty maiden (Beatie Edney) only to watch her grow old and die; in the New York timeline, Russell breaks his 400-year-old rule about not dating, and falls for Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a police investigator who just happens to specialize in weaponry. (Her mammoth tome, A Metallurgical History Of Ancient Sword-Making, looks like a real page-turner.)
The segues from Scotland to New York and back again are the chief innovation Mulcahy brings to Highlander, which otherwise fully deserves the “music-video guy” pejorative attached to a lot of films from directors with that background. But the time transitions are spectacular, both as a standalone effect and as a way to suggest the seamless continuity between two vastly different periods. In the space of a camera move and an invisible edit, Mulcahy whooshes from a protracted swordfight in a parking deck to a battle between clans on the Scottish highlands, or from the fish tank in Russell’s spacious loft to the lake where Connery’s Ramirez gives Connor a semi-comic tutoring session on a rowboat. The action between these transitions is often supremely silly—Gregory Widen’s script can’t entirely commit to playing the material straight, so it’s burdened by jokey self-consciousness—but it’s the right way to handle time travel.
Large swaths of Highlander are intolerably awful: Namely, anything involving the two women in Connor/Russell’s life (Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” shoulders much of the emotional weight in the Scotland section); any fight scene featuring more than two players, which is too much for Mulcahy to orchestrate coherently; and any time the film slows down enough for Lambert to brood quietly or engage in casual conversation. (Good move on Widen’s part to have Lambert say “lots of places” when someone asks where he’s from.) Some of the dialogue is too clever for its own good, while other lines read like the kind of poetry that isn’t well-served by being read aloud. (“Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of night?”) And whenever the Fates make their presence felt, the screen goes haywire with cheesy electrical effects, as if the same gods who created the Immortals were also responsible for Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science.
Yet the fantasy lingers. What more potent appeal could be made to the average science-fiction/fantasy nerd than a hero with special powers who’s also doomed to an eternity of loneliness? Christopher Lambert is therefore both extraordinary—an immortal swordsman who kicks ass across a vast historical landscape—and identifiable, forced to spend the average night alone, “sharpening his blade” (a euphemism for every century) and reading thousand-page books on metallurgy. There’s a reason Highlander keeps getting sequels and serials and remakes across all imaginable platforms, and the original film deserves credit for bringing an irresistible concept across with dopey bravado. “There can be only one!” goes the oft-repeated catchphrase, and Highlander, whatever its many shortcomings, remains singular.
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