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Highlander – film review

April 16, 2016

HIGHLANDER

Still holds up after all these years.

Reviewed on Friday 1st April 2016

highlander

Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Screenplay by Gregory Widen and Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. Story by Gregory Widen. Starring: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown and Beattie Edney. Original year of release: 1986. Running time: 116 mins.

Connor Mcleod, an immortal sword-wielding clansman, alive for four hundred years, finds himself in modern day Manhattan where he faces off against other immortals who have gathered to fight for ‘The Prize’.

It was a real thrill seeing Highlander on the big screen again – for the first time in thirty years (yikes!). And seeing it with a small, but appreciative audience (numbering fifty to sixty – or thereabouts) added an extra layer of fun to the whole experience.     It was also great to see I wasn’t the only one who found the over-the-top depiction     of New Yorkers particularly amusing – the cops in particular; venturing into Verheovenesque caricature (before Robocop was even a twinkle in Verhoeven’s eye).

Highlander is the brainchild of firefighter-turned-screenwriter Gregory Widen (Backdraft) who, at the age of twenty-two, felt compelled to pen the first draft of Highlander as part of his UCLA screenwriting class after visiting the Tower of London’s armor exhibition during a back-packing trip across Europe. He wondered what it might be like if he were the owner of the collection of armor from different centuries and cultures and had personally worn each piece into battle down through the ages. Widen’s then screenwriting lecturer, Richard Walter (who was also George Lucas’ mentor), famously championed Widen’s screenplay (then titled Shadow Clan) and even referenced it in his book ‘Screenwriting: The Art, Craft And Business Of Film And Television Writing’ – citing Widen’s success in finding a major studio buyer the first time out the gate for the then princely sum of three hundred thousand dollars. Tonally, the final screenplay; credited to Widen with an extensive re-write by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October, Maximum Risk) differs considerably from Widen’s original draft – which was far more serious. As Widen revealed to journalist Alan Jones in Jones’ Highlander article in the May 1986 issue     of Cinefantastique Magazine, “My script was much darker. It has gone from being brooding to something more like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Along the way it has gotten more black and white in the lines drawn between who is good and who is evil. In my version the hero could easily have done evil if he wasn’t careful. Scene for scene it is almost exactly the way I wrote it except the dialogue has been altered to give the characters a different feel. It is now more high-gloss, high-adventure than leaning towards a favorite book of mine, Interview with the Vampire. Immortality plainly sucks and I am not sure that quality will come through in the finished product.” As Widen later revealed in an interview on the special edition edition Blu-ray, Ridley Scott’s 1977 debut feature The Duellists was also a definite influence on his writing of his orginal draft; particularly with respect to his take on The Kurgan’s obsessive drive to duel Mcleod down through the ages – much like Harvey Keitel’s character in Scott’s film. This is an aspect director Mulcahy has clearly picked up and run with; especially evident in the humorous 17th Century flashback where a drunken Mcleod refuses to stay dead during a duel to the death. The cinematography by noted British lensman Gerry Fisher (Wolfen) during this sequence in particular also appears deliberately reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s film.

highlander final duel

It was truly an inspired and, some would say, brave choice in hiring rock video pioneer Russell Mulcahy to helm Highlander – as the Aussie director wasn’t particularly known for visual restraint; as demonstrated with his insanely frenetic (and ahead of its time) feature debut Razorback. While not as wildly out of control as his first feature, Mulcahy still goes all-out incorporating specific visual flourishes from his own music videos: sweeping camera moves, heavy back-lighting, flapping doves, falling rain etc. The helmer also cheekily cribs a moment from his previous feature, during the parking garage scene under Madison Square Garden which features a car’s hub cap rolling past the camera at the climax (after McLeod has dispatched his adversary) – clearly a nod to a similar rolling barrow wheel at the water hole in Razorback. The best-remembered flourishes, however, are the beautifully executed scene transitions back and forth between scenes taking place in mid-80s Manhattan and 15th Century Scotland – a signature effect Mulcahy utilized both in his music videos and also, most notably, in his feature debut. And the subversive streak which Mulcahy shamelessly demonstrated throughout the running time of Razorback is most definitely present in Highlander; particularly in terms of how members of the NYPD are portrayed (as crazed eye-rolling thugs keen for a bit of biffo at the drop     of a hat).

French actor Christopher Lambert brings an appropriately world-weary quality to the role of Connor Mcleod (a role originally offered to Kurt Russell – who turned it down at the behest of his partner Goldie Hawn). And while Lambert’s Scottishness is just as hokey as Sean Connery’s turn as an Egyptian, his being an immortal actually justifies his odd mix of accents. Playing Mcleod’s sage-like mentor, Ramirez, Connery is clearly having fun with this; possibly due to the fact he was paid one million dollars for seven days work. And likewise, Clancy Brown also appears to be having a ball here as Mcleod’s arch nemesis The Kurgan; despite the fact he was less than impressed with last-minute line additions and direction which made his character way more cartoonish than he would have liked. Roxanne Hart as Mcleod’s present-day potential love interest, Brenda, is fine – although her character’s screen time appears pared back considerably from Widen’s original draft.

highlander - connery and lambert

Seeing Highlander on the big screen in a cinema for the first time in thirty years really does accentuate the film’s strengths – as well as its technical imperfections. The (admitedly wobbly) SkyCam shot during the opening wrestling sequence at Madison Square Garden is somewhat impressive on a technical level – being the first (and only) time SkyCam has been utilized indoors in a feature film – but it still appears rushed and clumsy (even with the inclusion of helicopter rotors on the soundtrack     to mask its wobbliness). The Scottish highland locations, however, particularly the crowning sequence where Connery and Lambert spar with swords atop a craggy outcrop of rock jutting out from a mountainside – as a 360 degree helicopter shot reveals these guys (or most likely their stunt doubles) are indeed standing precariously atop that very rock – are truly spectacular and awe-inspiring to say     the least.

While little remains of the core concept at the heart of Widen’s draft that life only has meaning if there is an end, my only real issue with Highlander (and something that’s always irked me) is the nebulousness surrounding the mystical mumbo jumbo known as ‘The Quickening’. Taking their cue from the teachings of Joseph Campbell (and citing Star Wars as a clear inspiration) – it appears screenwriters Bellwood and Ferguson concocted the concept of ‘The Quickening’ as something of an answer       to The Force – albeit a confused one. So what exactly is The Quickening? Connery relays to Lambert during his training montage it is the sheer joy of being alive and being one with nature. But it is annoyingly unclear what is exactly to be gained from the dispatching of other immortal adversaries – aside from compelling every window in the immediate vacinity to spontaneously explode in a shower of glass for no good reason (other than for dramatic effect). While the ultimate Prize is as equally ill-defined – being the ability to know what everyone on the entire planet is thinking and being mortal and able to reproduce … or something. It also doesn’t help that following Mcleod’s dispatching of The Kurgan – when Mcleod experiences The Quickening – he appears to be set upon by ectoplasmic entities resembling demons (clearly a nod to a similar scene in Conan The Barbarian, not to mention the finale of Raiders).

Despite these issues, there is still much to enjoy in Highlander. Clancy Brown makes for a hugely entertaining and formidable villain, while the extended second act sequence detailing Connery’s training of Lambert is perhaps the standout section of the film – featuring terrific on-screen chemistry between Lambert and Connery; made all the more palpable as this sequence was shot in chronological order. And Michael Kamen’s soaringly emotional music score – working in tandem with Freddie Mercury and Queen’s perfectly integrated songs (the standout track ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ essentially being the heart of the film) – truly makes for one of the most memorable and iconic film scores of all time.

Rock video operatics aside, it’s remarkable just how little Highlander has dated over the years. As Gregory Widen states in the Blu-ray special features, “It doesn’t disturbingly feel like a mid-eighties movie.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, April 1st 2016.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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16 Comments
  1. Great review Greg. I well remember first watching this on VHS rental and being quite surprised by it. I’ve never actually owned it on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray, so I guess I never liked it enough to actually buy a copy, which seems odd thinking about it. Maybe because its a little messy, somewhat OTT. I think all the pop video stylings were overly distracing although as the years go by some of that might actually seem charming now. I think I’ll have to rewatch it sometime.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Ian! As I may have mentioned previously, I’ve been a long-time admirer of Russell Mulcahy’s trailblazing music videos, and I find it remarkable that all the highly-stylized techniques Mulcahy pioneered back in the day (and subsequently employed in his first two features) are now ‘de rigeur’ in mainstream Hollywood all these years later. As a result, RAZORBACK especially, and also HIGHLANDER to a slightly lesser degree are just as fresh as they were three decades ago. 🙂

  2. gregory moss permalink

    And while I think of it – I can only imagine what RAMBO III would have been like if Mulcahy had agreed to sign on following HIGHLANDER (Stallone was reportedly a great fan of HIGHLANDER and had approached Mulcahy to helm the RAMBO threequel – but it never came to pass for whatever reason) … 🙂

  3. Great review! I kind of totally love Highlander. : ) BUT, have also not watched it in years. I really should again…

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! Yeah, it’s well worth seeing again – especially if you love it already and haven’t seen it for a while … and I’d love to hear your thoughts in a review … 🙂

      • Hmm. I’ll do my best! Lol. I’m lazy about reviews lately. Hey – I just watched two recently that I’m curious of your opinion on, actually. I think I remember reading a review here of one of them (Predestination)? And Space Station 76.

      • gregory moss permalink

        I’m not familiar with SPACE STATION 76 (unless it’s known by another title?) – but I’ll definitely check it out. I did review PREDESTINATION a while ago (and loved it) and I’m glad you finally got to see it. What did you think of it?

      • I thought it was really good! : ) I liked the story (I don’t read enough sci-fi so didn’t know the story). And the actress was great – she should be in more stuff!

      • gregory moss permalink

        Yeah, Sarah Snook was pretty amazing in it, wasn’t she. And, hey, I just checked out the trailer for SPACE STATION 76 on youtube. Love the mid-seventies SPACE: 1999 vibe – and it looks really funny! Why haven’t I heard of this before?!

      • Oh, so, my hubby was right when he compared it to Space: 1999? : ) I never saw that! Hmm – A few people are watching it now after I reviewed it & that has me worried because it’s very… Different. But I really liked it! It’s a very dark comedy – I think people were expecting “funny” so that’s why it seems to have a low rating on things like IMDB. But it’s a genre I love (and you do too!) so I was curious what you’d think of it. I hope you do like it! It really doesn’t seem well known for some reason…

      • gregory moss permalink

        Dark comedy? I love it! And it kinda’ makes sense that this would be the tone they’re going for – as the first season of SPACE: 1999 was indeed incredibly dark. Now I’m even more keen to track it down. 🙂

      • And now I want to see Space: 1999! 😉

      • gregory moss permalink

        The first season’s great – dark and brooding. The episode ‘Dragon’s Domain’ gave me nightmares as a kid. The second season becomes more pulpy and cartoonish – but still has some good episodes … 🙂

      • Hmm. I think I’ll buy it for hubby for his birthday or something. Then I can watch it! (He hates when I buy him gifts that are clearly also for me…) 😉

      • gregory moss permalink

        Nice ploy! But, hey – why not? If it’s something you can enjoy together. 🙂

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