Highlander (1986) is a real curiosity, a huge commercial and (initially) critical flop that has nonetheless spawned four sequels (the last one a straight-to-cable release) and a big-budget remake now in pre-production, a successful television spin-off that lasted a respectable six seasons and 119 episodes, a less successful Canadian-French animated series, and an American-Japanese anime feature - not to mention books, video games, and other merchandising.
The original Highlander, an epic fantasy-drama about an immortal Scotsman named Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), spans several centuries though mostly the film moves freely between Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands of 1536 and present-day New York City. The picture is notable for Russell Mulcahy's stylized direction, its songs by Queen and score by Michael Kamen, and for Sean Connery's major supporting role. Critics were sharply divided: reviews were generally negative in the United States though many European critics loved it and the film has gained a loyal cult following, though it bombed badly when it was new - the $16 million production grossing a mere $12 worldwide.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray of the 1:56:39 director's cut is visually pleasing most of the time; a high-profile director of music videos before this, Mulcahy's quick-cutting and restless camera generated much criticism back then but today Highlander's visual style seems almost ordinary. Mulcahy discusses the film in an audio commentary and several deleted scenes are included as an extra.
In present-day (i.e., 1985) New York City, wealthy antiques dealer Russell Nash (Lambert) becomes embroiled in a broadsword fight with Fasil (Peter Diamond) in the parking garage at Madison Square Garden. Nash decapitates his opponent, triggering a meteorological-type disturbance in the garage. Nash ditches his sword and is arrested by the police, led by Lt. Frank Moran (Alan North - a strange bit of casting as he had only recently played Leslie Nielsen's partner on Police Squad!).
Meanwhile, in 1536 Scotland, in a battle with the Fraser Clan Russell Nash, then known as Connor MacLeod, is fatally wounded by an Immortal warrior known as the Kurgan (Clancy Brown), the latter wearing a comical skull-shaped headpiece straight out of Spinal Tap. Connor seemingly dies but inexplicably fully recovers the following morning - turns out he's immortal, too. Suspecting black magic, the clan banishes him.
Back in 1985, forensics expert Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) finds Nash's made-in-ancient-Japan sword, and immediately recognizes its value and historical significance. She becomes obsessed with the mysterious, elusive Nash, slowing uncovering his true identity.
Back to the 16th century, where Connor, now living with a beautiful woman named Heather (Beatie Edney), meets Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery), another Immortal, who for no clear reason decides to teach Connor the Immortal ways, which involves a lot of dueling on mountaintops. Ramirez, who despite his name is an ancient Egyptian (this is never adequately explained), tells that the Immortals, scattered across the globe, are destined to fight one another - the title, it seems, is something of a misnomer: an Immortal can be killed after all, by decapitation. "There can be only one," Ramirez (and the film's advertising) explains. The last Immortal standing will win some sort of prize (from whom?) granting them power over all mankind. The seasoned Immortal trains Connor the ways of the sword, which seems rather foolish on Ramirez's part.
The rest of the picture, mostly, bounces back-and-forth between these two worlds building to a climatic duel between Connor/Nash and the Kurgan in New York City.
Highlander is odd in many respects. It seems downright perverse in a film made in the Scottish Highlands about an immortal Scotsman to cast Sean Connery as an Egyptian dressed as a Spaniard. (He's even given the line, "What is haggis?" which must have elicited a guffaw or two in Connery's Edinburgh.) Conversely, Lambert is about as Scottish as Toshiro Mifune: though born in Great Neck, New York, he was raised in Geneva and Paris with French as his first language, accounting for his oddly accented (not flat French-accented)English. He started in French films (as Christophe Lambert) but this and 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes established him as a leading man in the fantasy-action genre.
His limited range and brooding, pouty, but otherwise generally inexpressive features, most notably Lambert's signature, unblinking stare from behind his heavy brow (partly the result of severe near-sightedness and an inability to wear contact lenses) - would seem to sharply contrast writer George Widen's intentions for the character. Were it not for the obvious age difference, Connery and Lambert would have been better off switching roles.
A big part of Highlander's appeal obviously stems from several lushly romantic ideas about the doomed love life of Immortals. The story introduces two interesting concepts, first that Connor would remain with Heather, their love unaffected as she becomes an old, sickly woman; and, second, Connor's platonic, present-day relationship with middle-aged Rachel, apparently his secretary (?), later revealed to be Connor/Nash's adopted daughter, whom he rescued from the Nazis during World War II, when she was a little girl. Both these relationships have big emotional payoffs, but Lambert's stiff performance severely undermines their effectiveness. A more likeable, warmer actor would have been a better choice. (Maybe Irish actors Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, or Daniel Day-Lewis would have worked.)
In trying to be mysterious, Highlander is merely confusing and many obvious questions go unanswered, such as Ramirez's motives for training Connor. Connor is stabbed several times in the story but as an Immortal his wounds seem to heal within a day, yet the Kurgan carries an ugly scar around his neck for centuries following his duel with Ramierz. Why doesn't it heal? Only decapitations can kill an Immortal, but what about things like explosions?
The picture is alternately entertaining and intriguing, visually stunning yet boring. For instance, there's a nice scene where Ramirez drops Connor into a loch to show the young Immortal that he can breathe underwater. That scene and others use clever transitional devices to move from one time period to another. The stunning Highlands locations, augmented by excellent aerial photography, are another asset; that and the large exterior and studio sets (and extras) suggest a movie much more expensive than its $16 million cost.
Video & Audio
Released in 1.85:1 widescreen, Highlander looks okay but not great in its 1080p presentation. The image is inconsistent - sometimes sharp, often a bit soft and muddy, but generally acceptable if unexceptional throughout. I don't think the transfer is the major source of the problem, but rather the use of different labs and film stocks during production, and in general a very '80s approach to the cinematography. The region "A" encoded disc includes a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track along with a 2.0 DTS-HD Spanish mono one, and English, Spanish, and French subtitle options. The audio is more impressive than the video, with impressive range and clarity.
Supplements are limited to an okay audio commentary by the director and about six minutes of deleted and expanded scenes, in high-def but minus their original and presumed lost audio.
Christopher Lambert's inexpressive performance, the lugubrious pacing, murky plot points and character details, and a general aimlessness make Highlander seem much longer than its two-hour running time. It's interesting but dull and ineffective as drama, though individual moments are nicely done and the basic story has potential - maybe the remake will be better. Those new to the series will want to Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.