USA / UK, 1986
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 27 June 2009
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
Categories Favorites: The Action Movie
A while back, director Edgar Wright wrote a blog entry that revolved not around Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 feature Highlander, exactly, but rather Queen’s music video for the Highlander soundtrack cut “Princes of the Universe.” Wright explained that while his enthusiasm for the film itself had been dampened with the release of Highlander’s infamous, time-tripping sequel Highlander II: The Quickening and his subsequent reassessment of the original, the Queen music video “manages to encapsulate in four minutes what is so cool on paper about Highlander.” And truth be told, the clip for “Princes of the Universe” is a sheer eighties delight, reaching its apex when Highlander star Christopher Lambert launches into a duel with Freddie Mercury. But I’m not as quick as Wright to dismiss the pleasures of watching Highlander at its full feature length.
When I decided to write about this film for our action feature, I knew that it was of the utmost importance for me to somehow convey the defining aspect of Highlander to our readers. And that is that Highlander is awesome. “Awesome” in the totally eighties sense of the word, awesome like Space Invaders and gooey mall pizza, awesome like secretly watching your friend’s brother’s VHS copy of an R-rated movie about swordfighters who glow in the dark before your parents get home (which wasn’t my first Highlander experience, but which seems like the ideal one). When Clancy Brown, as our towering, throaty, vile-even-by-villain-standards antagonist, Kurgan, careens around the Big Apple, howling and shouting and generally reveling in his own evilness while Queen raucously covers “New York, New York,” it is, most assuredly, awesome.
The film’s plot, which revolves around a centuries-long contest between the immortals, only really makes sense if you take the whole thing at its tagline (“There can be only ONE!”) and skip the questions. But while that maligned sequel, The Quickening gets messily lost in its own convolutions, the original Highlander wears its nonsense with sweet conviction. As Chris Hewitt wrote in a capsule review for Empire magazine, “It’s clumsily put together and it makes bugger all sense, but dammit, there’s something alluring about this story.” And there is. Sometimes a straight-ahead B-movie with a good heart is just the thing, and Highlander fits that bill.
And let’s consider unlikely action star Christopher Lambert (billed as Christophe in his other life as a Francophone film star), previously known to American audiences as Greystoke’s revised Tarzan before taking up the role of our hero, the titular highlander Connor MacLeod. While Lambert is pretty well-suited to the dark and brooding thing, and can swing a sword just fine, the unexpected quirks of his performance are what make it fun. When reviewing Highlander for the New York Times in 1986, Walter Goodman observed that Lambert imbued MacLeod with “a boyish manner that is odd considering he is four centuries old.” MacLeod’s boyishness is a strange wrinkle to be sure, but not necessarily an unwelcome one. Lambert’s MacLeod is one of the few angst-ridden, immortal warriors prone to breaking into a disarming grin or laugh (I particularly love the bit where, realizing he cannot drown, MacLeod unleashes a torrent of bubbly, submerged giggles.), making him a bit more pleasant to have around than your typical granite-jawed action star stoic. The actor, whose own unusually cosmopolitan background (something like American/Swiss/French) doesn’t feature Scotland very prominently, also speaks with an intentionally confused accent (meant as a reflection of the character’s long, nomadic life) during the modern part of the film, a choice that has a kind of funky charm, even if it is a bit of a distraction.
Of course, Lambert’s touch-and-go Scottish burr during flashbacks bears hilariously little resemblance to co-star Sean Connery’s authentic accent—which, in turn, is entirely inappropriate for Connery’s Spanish (or was it Egyptian?) character, Ramirez. Welcome to the world of Highlander. Connery’s presence is perhaps one of Highlander’s most indisputably awesome qualities: grinning puckishly in dandyish attire – and is that eyeliner? – he dispenses Ramirez’s age old wisdom and helpful expository dialogue with high style and just a soupcon of smugness. Even if Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was Connery’s defining outing as cranky-action-hero-mentor, Highlander at least merits an honorable mention. As far as swordfighting-immortals-in-New-York films go, Highlander is certainly second to none. It’s not the kind of film that gets prestigious awards, or lovingly deconstructed in seminar papers, but it is the kind of film that causes people to raise their voices when they speak about it, the kind that’s always welcome into your house on a slow Saturday afternoon; the kind that you let under your skin despite yourself. It is awesome. Or, to quote Freddie Mercury, it’s a kind of magic.
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