Lionsgate // 1986 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // November 12th, 2010
"Here we are! Born to be kings, we're the princes of the universe." -- Queen
Highlander was one of those flicks in the mid to late '80s that made a life for itself on late night cable and in video rental stores. The far flung tale of an immortal Scottish clansman (Christopher Lambert, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) and his Egyptian mentor (Sean Connery, Medicine Man) dueling down through the centuries, and finding love in 1980s New York, would become something of a cult phenomenon by the time the '90s rolled around. Its prime may now be long behind it, but Highlander has arrived in high definition. Is this a disc worth holding onto for eternity? Or is it worthy of a beheading?
"From the Dawn of Time we came, moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the Time of the Gathering, where the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you, until now." -- Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez
It really is an awesome premise, the sort of crazy stuff that could only come from the mind of some kind of mad genius. In Earth's ancient past, people suddenly become immortal, kind of like they're going through puberty, only instead of noticing girls, they have to get killed to find out. These Immortals secretly live amongst mankind, meeting once in a while for a kick-ass sword fight before beheading their opponent (the only way to kill an immortal). Said opponent then passes on their collective experiences to the one who put the kibosh on them. So on and on these immortals battle, down through the centuries, until they reach the time of "The Gathering," where the remaining few will duke it out to the death until only one remains.
Anyone over the age of 25 should at least recognize the name. Highlander went from box office under-performer and cult contender to bonafide multimedia empire in the decade or so after its 1986 release. Sequels followed, along with a TV series, animated series, feature films starring the TV-series characters, divergent timelines -- basically a huge confusing mess brought on by execs who had no idea what they were doing. Many purists take the film's "There can be only one" motto to heart, and ignore anything that follows the original story, but I'm here to say, the first film really ain't all it's cracked up to be.
For starters, director Russell Mulcahey (Resident Evil: Extinction) was new to the game and it shows in his handling of the action. Hot off of music videos, Mulcahey sticks with what he knows, giving the film a pretty kinetic visual style that at times feels almost too kinetic. When the fight scenes aren't erratic, they often linger a little too long, feeling woefully forced.
The screenplay is also somewhat weak, with the prize feeling a tad amorphous. This McGuffin is never really explained in satisfying detail, and doesn't give us much of an indication of why these Immortals see the need to skewer each othe beyond "That's just what they do." The clunky dialogue doesn't help, and there's a lot of fromage to sift through for some middling sword fights.
And then there's the cast. Sean Connery, cast entirely for name recognition, shows up in many of the flashback sequences (a huge chunk of the flick) and is about as convincing an Egyptian as your average Scotsman would be. Then there's the character's decidedly Spanish name, not that Connery could have played a convincing Spaniard either. Either way, Connery is having fun with it, and gives it his all. His chemistry with star Christopher Lambert is palpable in the scenes they share. Connery does get one of the best scenes of the film as well, when he comes face to face with the film's villain. Speaking of Lambert, he tries, but as a native Frenchman with very little knowledge of the English Language at the time of filming, there's not a whole lot he can do. He just sort of stumbles through, switching between happy go-lucky and dark and moody depending on the time period the film finds him in. Roxanne Hart (Letters From Iwo Jima) does a fine job as the requisite love interest/damsel in distress.
Highlander's Blu-ray treatment isn't the high-definition revelation fans might be hoping for. The picture is grainy and uneven, with some scenes (notably the stylish time-period transitions) looking especially bad. There are even times where it seems like different prints were spliced together, some looking pristine while others look haggard and degraded. When other cult classics released the same year (I'm lookin' at you, Big Trouble in Little China) look absolutely fabulous in Blu, I can't help but think this transfer was a half-assed affair.
The audio fares no better. Highlander has always had some pretty poor Foley work, and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio it's as wretched as ever. This sounds like a mono track where everything is muted save for the rockin' Queen soundtrack. Not a great technical presentation.
Extras are lacking too, especially when there's a loaded UK edition overflowing with substance. All we get is an entertaining commentary from Mr. Mulcahey and a few deleted scenes, hardly what you might expect from such a substantial cult film.
Highlander is certainly not without its merits. For one thing, Mulcahey actually has a pretty slick eye, and some of the films set pieces crackle with life. The murky dark textures of '80s New York contrast nicely with the sunny green of Dark Ages Scotland. The practical optical effects work also has a certain charm, and in spite of the middling budget, they manage to look darn good. The episodic flashbacks are also very well integrated into the story, and give the "time-spanning" nature of the film a pretty epic feel. The costuming and staging for these scenes also does a great job of selling us on the specific periods.
Then there's Clancy Brown. Connery may have been on cruise control, and Lambert may have been hindered by being French, but Brown is one of the lowest, sleaziest, most intense villains of '80s cinema. The Kurgan is just such a vile, awesome bastard that you can't help but be captivated when Brown brings it. His scenes with Roxanne Hart, ripping around New York City with reckless abandon, Queen blaring on the soundtrack -- all are just plain awesome. It doesn't hurt his stage presence any that when he first appears he's decked out in crazy medieval battle armor with a six foot sword and a skull for a hat. His baritone voice at full dramatic bellow also probably registers on the Richter scale. Yes, The Kurgan is badass.
Let's face it, Highlander has never looked particularly good, whether on video cassette, DVD, or in a theatre, and there are no hidden miracles to be found here. To say that Highlander has never looked and sounded better than it does here is a bit of a misnomer. It's a truth to be certain, but don't get the wrong idea. There's very little to satiate the cult of MacLeod in the way of extras, and the film is hardly the work of a misunderstood genius or seasoned craftsman. There's also the ridiculously lavish UK Blu-Ray edition to consider, if you're the sort of die-hard fan that would consider an import. On the upside, the film really has never looked better, and you should be able to find a copy for less than 20 bucks if you feel the urge to take a little nostalgia trip.
Guilty, but released into the custody of its ravenous fanbase until the eventual double dip comes along.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes