"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, when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you -- until now."
The 1986 film Highlander established one of the most successful fantasy/adventure franchises of the past twenty-five years, spawning three sequels with a fourth on the way, an animated series, two live-action television series, a videogame, oodles of novels, and a slew of related merchandise. A Google search for the word 'Highlander' returns 406,000 results, with an additional 462,000 posts on Usenet. Not only is its fan base large, but fiercely loyal and quite vocal. Somehow, I managed to avoid seeing the film until now. Shameful, I know. I've never seen Pulp Fiction either. I'm not sure what the hell's wrong with me.
Highlander features Christopher Lambert in his first English starring role as Connor MacLeod, the titular four-hundred-year-old immortal. MacLeod was born in 1582 in the Scottish Highlands and, from all outward appearances, was perfectly normal. All of that was tossed in the air when he fell in battle, skewered by the evil Kurgan (Clancy Brown). It's not so much becoming a human shish kabob that terrified the locals so much as his subsequent revival from the dead. Fearing he'd entered into some sort of agreement with the man downstairs, a rather confused MacLeod was booted out by some decidedly unfriendly villagers. Thankfully, he was discovered by Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, an Egyptian-cum-Spanish metallurgist and fellow Immortal (the oddly cast Sean Connery, who thankfully makes no attempt at whatever accent such a man would presumably have) to fill in some of the blanks. He informs MacLeod of some of the base rules of The Game. There are a number of Immortals strewn about throughout the world. When one Immortal severs the head of another, he receives the strength and knowledge of his victim. At some unspecified point in the future, what Immortals remain will feel compelled to travel to a faraway land (an event appropriately titled The Gathering) and duke it out in a fight to the finish. As the tagline says, in the end, "there can be only one." The time turns out to be 1986, and the place, New York City. Want to venture a guess as to who the participants in the final match-up will be?
Highlander's popularity, based on two viewings by someone with little more than a cursory knowledge of the material beforehand, seems to stem from a combination of its detailed mythology and some impressive battle sequences. Those are both definite pluses in its favor. The screenplay spots a number of intelligent, creative ideas, and I find the very concept of displacing the sword-and-sorcery genre to then-modern-day New York City to be fairly inventive. The dialogue and performances don't quite match many of the film's concepts, though. The tone seems somewhat uneven, as if Highlander is unsure if it wants to be seen as a straight adventure epic or if it's a campy action flick.
Sean Connery and Clancy Brown both put in fun, campy performances. A little reminiscent of Yoda and the Terminator, respectively, but there are far many worse characters to reference. Christopher Lambert's discomfort with English is evident, and he's much more effective with his non-verbal acting than at any given time when he opens his mouth. His character is interesting, though, and this is one very few action-driven movies where the protagonist isn't portrayed as a one-note, weak-pun-spouting bad-ass. There's also more character development than is the norm, though I would imagine that some action fans would actually see this as a negative.
Highlander does seem a little corny, particularly after sixteen years, but there's no denying its influence on pop culture and its many millions of fans. The half-hearted DVD release from Republic/Artisan left nearly every single one of them sorely disappointed, though Anchor Bay has stepped in to fill the void. Aside from a standard special edition release, Anchor Bay has assembled an "Immortal Edition" with spiffed up packaging and a bonus 3-track CD.
Video: The original Highlander release, despite its THX certification, was a mainstay in the 'worst transfer ever' threads that would pop up with some frequency on DVD Talk and the Home Theater Forum. This new release, for what little it's worth, has been THX certified as well. I don't have the original disc to do a side-by-side comparison, but if the posts on various message boards are any indication, this DVD is quite an improvement.
That is, of course, not to say that this is a very attractive movie. Highlander is grainy. It's very, very grainy. Its low budget is often pointed to as the cause of its appearance, though $16 million in 1986 doesn't strike me as a shot-on-a-shoestring production. Perhaps all of that money went in front of the camera. But anyway, it is my understanding that Highlander, during its theatrical run, was grainy as well. Reducing the grain would almost certainly compromise the quality. If this indeed how the film should look, then kudos to Anchor Bay for resisting the urge to mar the image with the sort of undetailed, lifeless, overprocessed appearance that generally accompanies such fiddling. I didn't catch Highlander theatrically, so I can't offer any sort of authoritative opinion one way or the other. The presence of such grain is somewhat inconsistent, ranging from "scarcely noticeable" to "[invite readers to insert the expletives of their choice here]". Footage that was not present in the American cut does not, as a whole, appear to be significantly grainier than the rest of the movie. If there's a pattern of some sort, I didn't pick up on it.
It's definitely arguable that the grain may be representative of how Highlander was intended to be seen. That does not apply to the very noticeable edge haloing present in certain portions of the film. As I mentioned in my review of Texas Rangers, I am not typically one to complain about edge enhancement, or whatever you'd like to call it. If haloing catches my eye, it must be pretty extreme, unless I've gotten to be pickier about video quality than I give myself credit.
Color saturation and overall detail are passable, though unremarkable. There's one transition from the past to the present that looks considerably lower in quality than the remainder of the film, appearing as if it was sourced from a low resolution videotape. That particular shot is explained away in the commentary and, obviously, should not be held against Anchor Bay.
Highlander is, from all indications, not a movie that will ever stand out as particularly gorgeous. Given Anchor Bay's stellar track record over the past couple of years, I would imagine that this is the best Highlander will realistically look until The Next Big Format™ rolls around.
Highlander is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and, unlike the previous release, is enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Audio: Message boards have been abuzz, especially from one poster in particular, that Anchor Bay has removed lines of dialogue from Highlander. He goes on to claim that the reason that the original stereo track is not included on this DVD release is because, as he put it, "Anchor Bay has excluded original soundtracks on some releases for fear of people finding mistakes." This seems awfully 'cloak and dagger' to me, and I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that Anchor Bay would go to such lengths to cover up material from the handful of people with the time and inclination to meticulously compare soundtracks. It is not my intention to sound as if I'm bashing or demeaning anyone, particularly someone who obviously has a much greater knowledge of the film than myself. Still, I'm having a tough time buying this entire argument, even if parts of it are true. After all, if someone were dedicated enough to do an A/B comparison of different soundtracks, wouldn't they also be willing to compare this DVD to a release on another format? Anyway, the couple of lines referenced in his posts -- "MacLeod! This is the Quickening!" and "I want to go home." -- are, at least according to the Internet Movie Database (not the most reliable resource, I'll admit), exclusive to the original U.S. release. Who's right? I'm not sure. Anchor Bay does have a history of altering soundtracks to the dissatisfaction of DVD enthusiasts, Suspiria being the most frequently referenced in horror circles, so this would not be without precedent. If anyone reading this has more detailed information, please contact me and I'll update this review accordingly. [*]
In any event, there are four audio options on this DVD release of Highlander, most notably the Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES tracks. Stereo surround tracks in English and French are also included. As mentioned somewhere in that lengthy paragraph above, though, the English 2.0 track is a downmix of the Dolby Digital EX audio, which may disappoint many purists. The age and condition of the material are evident, though despite these limitations, Anchor Bay somehow did manage to summon a hellish amount of bass. When it looks as if an Immortal is about to get his head lopped off, batten down the hatches and cover your ass. Dialogue is generally discernable, despite some occasional harshness. It did seem a little low in the mix, though, and I hate adjusting audio when I'm in the middle of watching a movie. My current receiver is not DTS capable, but I can't imagine that the DTS track could sound remarkably different from the Dolby Digital audio.
Supplements: The commentary track with director Russell Mulcahy and producers Peter Davis and William Panzer should be familiar to owners of the 1996 Republic laserdisc or the previous DVD release. I spent a fair amount of time poring through various Highlander FAQs and web sites for this review, as ignorant and uninformed as the end result probably seems. As a result, I'd already read many of the sorts of tidbits I typically quote in my reviews, such as Clancy Brown's allergy to the glue used in applying prosthetics. There's an extensive amount of technical information exclusive to this discussion, which is dominated by Mulcahy. Nearly every scene is accompanied by comments about where it was shot, what second unit directors may have had a hand in it, contributions from Mulcahy's music video crew, where the extras were from, techniques behind certain shots... There are no lengthy pauses of any note for the nearly two hours that the commentary runs. Well-worth a listen for more technical-minded viewers.
Two trailers, cast/crew bios, and two still galleries (127 images in the Highlander gallery and 32 in the Queen gallery, by my likely inaccurate account) round out the supplemental material on the DVD itself.
The DVD in the Immortal Edition, which is what is being reviewed here, is the same as the disc in the standard release. It does, however, come in a very attractive metal slipcase (a la Terminator II: Ultimate Edition), a 22-page insert booklet, and a 3-track CD with Queen songs from the movie. Those songs, which musically run the gamut, are "Princes Of The Universe" (natch), an extended version of "One Year Of Love", and "Friends Will Be Friends". "Princes Of The Universe", which was also used as the theme for the Highlander TV series, should be familiar to most. "One Year Of Love" is a rather uninteresting ballad, and "Friends Will Be Friends" is simply embarrassing. Did Raffi go uncredited as one of its lyricists? Because I'm somewhat of an ass, here are some sample lyrics:
Friends will be friends
Yikes, Freddie. The band also appears in three music videos exclusive to the Immortal Edition: the Highlander-themed "Princes Of The Universe", "Who Wants To Live Forever?", and "A Kind Of Magic".
When you're in need of love, they give you care and attention
Friends will be friends
When you're through with life and all hope is lost
Hold out your hand 'cause friends will be friends...right 'till the end!
The insert booklet offers some background information on the project, devotes a few pages to Queen's involvement, and includes a series of photos and the like. There is also ordering information for Highlander merchandise, including the season 1 DVD collection.
Conclusion: The current rumor floating around is that Best Buy will carry the standard Highlander release for $9.99, while the Immortal Edition will run $22.99. Even though I'm not wildly enthusiastic about Highlander, for ten bucks, it's more than worth a purchase for those with a casual interest in the movie, and an upgrade for owners of the current disc won't break the bank. The Immortal Edition is a little tougher to recommend. The bonus CD is unlikely to spend an extensive amount of time in many CD players, and most would be better off investing in one of Queen's "best of" compilations instead. The packaging of the Immortal Edition really does look great, to the point where I've considered moving it off of my DVD shelf and onto my mantle or some place similarly prominent. Whether or not these relatively minor differences between the two versions warrant the $25 disparity in list price is entirely up to the individual.
Updates: I received a response from Jan The Man with the following information about the audio.
I read your review of 'Highlander - The Immortal Edition' and...
I'll continue to post further responses as I receive them.
The IMDB is right about those specific missing lines. Before a director's cut was available in the US, those lines were missing on
import bootlegs as well. They are also missing on the 1996 DVD. The interesting note is that you CAN hear the lines when the
audio commentary is playing on the 1996 DVD. Since the same commentary was used for the Anchor Bay version, I assume that the case
is the same for this release as well...