Spoilers remind you not to lose your head.
You probably guessed this one was coming. I’m trying not to steal new movies’ thunder when their premise have similarities to old material, because very often we create new stuff inspired by old stuff. All IPs borrow a little from each other, be it lessons learned or rehashed ideas made anew. This movie was itself a lot of ideas combined and its execution is far from perfect, but it has a charm of its own that is only appreciated in the context in which it existed. Put the 80’s nostalgia lens on.
Highlander (1986) was directed by Russell Mulcahy. The screenplay was written by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson based on a story by Gregory Widen. Two men, brandishing swords from ancient times, meet in the parking lot of the Madison Square Garden in New York for a duel to the death. When one of the guys is beheaded, a strange energy from the dead body causes havoc as the winner of the match seems to absorb it. This is the story of Connor McLeod (Christopher Lambert) of the Clan McLeod, an immortal scotsman from the highlands who’s known in modern times as Russell Nash.
If you want to talk immortals who battle each other with swords, it’s hard that this movie doesn’t enter the conversation. Truth be told, it’s pure 80’s nostalgia in every sense of the matter. There’s a wrestling match going on while the Russell/Connor is facing Fasil (Peter Diamond). The cops are so much down to caricature that you can see them being made fun of by a street vendor in a scene that could fit in any movie from the 80’s. You half expect the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 to drive by and Superman to fly over. It’s 80’s New York.
But then we get some clever transitions in which we get to go back in time without an explanation required. We see the Scottish Highlands and we learn that Connor McLeod is the pride and joy of the Clan McLeod. That is, until he faces the Kurgan (Clancy Brown), a black knight that wants to claim his life – and does. However, when Connor completely recovers after a mortal wound inflicted by this invincible warrior, he’s shunned by his people. Only the intervention of the clan’s chief prevents him from getting executed for witchcraft.
In the present, we see forensic investigator Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Heart) as she slowly starts to uncover the truth of who Russell Nash is. As all genre films, this are really the seeds of a blossoming relationship between the two. However, we also learn that Connor did once have a wife back in the highlands, named Heather (Beatie Edney). He aimed to have a life and form a family. That is, until he got a wake up call in the form of a dashing swordsman called Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez (Sean Connery).
The movie has great ideas. Some of them executed better than others. I love that the transition between the past and the present happen without any explanation and yet are crystal clear. Connery, Lambert and Brown shine in their roles of Ramírez, Connor and the Kurgan with over-the-top performances and quips. And yet, there’s that inexplicable casting of an Australian playing a Scotsman while a Scotsman plays a Spaniard-Egyptian character. The cops are laughable. The swordplay is very Hollywood-esque, with a lot of sword-twirling. It’s funny how Ramírez tells Connor not to overextend his reach.
Although you could call it corny, campy and cheesy it does have a certain charm even if some of the effects have aged poorly. The sound is also a mix bag, as you can hear character speak to one another in normal volume above what is supposed to be a noisy crowd. This is repeated at least twice. Brenda talks to Lt. Frank Moran (Alan North) in the middle of the crowd gathered at a crime scene. Kate (Celia Imrie) calls after Connor in the middle of the crowd cheering them on before battle. Some lines seem to have been added to the film in post production for added context.
But when it works, it works. The scenes from the highlands are breathtaking. I wanted more scenes at the room in which Connor has keepsakes from all his past lives. The final battle between Connor and McLeod is filmed with a camera that circles them to give the battle a sense of escalation even though it’s dark and we can barely see the combatants. Most of all, the lore of the immortals battling each other to the death feels tangible. They don’t battle each other in holy ground, not even the Kurgan. This film inspired a franchise, a TV series and then there’s the amazing pieces of music by Queen.
Highly recommended only for 80’s nostalgia viewers. I would have to admit that it wouldn’t work today. Some of the flaws in its execution are only forgivable in the context of the time it existed in. Others form part of its charm, which is probably the strongest and most inexplicable of its features. Given its longevity as a 80’s cult phenomenon, it will live forever in the minds of its fans. Yet, I prefer not to watch the sequels too closely, knowing how far off the mark some landed. For its lore. its charm and the inspiration it provided those of us who love it with flaws and all will always claim there can be only one.
That will do for now.