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Highlander - 30th Anniversary Edition (2-Disc Set)
With those concerns in mind, I had my reservations as I sat down to watch Highlander for the first time. Although the franchise was a legitimate phenomenon, spanning six films, 10 novels, two comic books, three television series, and several games, video and otherwise, and yet I'd managed to miss out on it. Thankfully, the movie not only lives up to the hype, but serves as a great reminder of what legitimately might've been lost between the 1980s and the present day: a boundless imagination, with no obligation to the modern idea of "worldbuilding", little apparent ambition toward establishing a franchise, and even gaps in internal logic. The movie just makes up weirder and wilder ideas, and expects the audience to follow along.
The story follows Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), living under an assumed name in New York City. He is arrested at the scene of a mysterious parking lot incident in which a body is found beheaded, alongside an antique sword worth around a million dollars. Police officer Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), who happens to be an expert in historical weaponry, becomes obsessed with the case and the weapons involved, one of which seems like a historical impossibility. Her only lead is Connor, who, unbeknownst to her, is not only the owner of the sword, but an immortal nicknamed "The Highlander", lying in wait for his nemesis, The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who is picking off other immortals in the lead-up to a final showdown between himself and The Highlander for the fate of the universe.
From the very first fight in the parking lot, Highlander establishes itself as a hugely entertaining action movie. Director Russell Mulcahy gets the energy up right off the bat with his swooping, wildly active camera, which bring the film's swordfighting sequences to life even when the actual choreography isn't that interesting. He pays little attention to continuity in editing, allowing characters to suddenly appear on different sides of the room and ignores spatial geography, which technically shouldn't work, but never matters because the sequences are so energetic and visually thrilling. When the Kurgan and one immortal battle in a 16th century castle while the walls collapse around them in a spectacular display of practical effects, the technical details of the fighting become secondary to the way Mulcahy builds to the image of the two men are battling at the top of a staircase that simply leads into the sky, creating a backdrop of lightning-laced clouds. Similarly, a finale atop a roof with a gigantic collapsing electric sign and a crashing water tower fills the screen with spectacular business even as the battle between the Kurgan and Connor is fairly pedestrian. It would be a backhanded compliment if Mulcahy didn't make it work. Even Connor's swanky New York City apartment has a bit of visual flair, with visible smoke in the background.
The film cuts back and forth between present day and the 1600s, where Connor first learns about his immortality. He gets a mentor in the form of Juan Sanches Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery), who pops up unexpectedly to train Connor in the rules that come with his immortality. It's a testament to the film that the first 15 or 20 minutes are so creative and engaging that I actually managed to forget that Sean Connery was going to show up. He makes for a fine mentor, offering the film a bit of gravitas but managing to avoid leaving a void in the film when his character is off-screen. The 16th century segments are also visually stunning, including a sequence where Connor realizes he can breathe underwater, and a training montage that ends with a helicopter shot on a mountain top, where Lambert and Connery (or convincing doubles) are really standing -- not exactly an effect, but a practical consideration that modern movies would likely avoid).
The film's time travel details are fun and well-integrated into the story, likely one of the primary reasons the film ended up being developed into a long-running franchise. In one sequence (apparently added into the director's cut), we see Connor in WWII, where he saves a young girl named Rachel from a Nazi soldier. Later, it's revealed that the late-50s woman serving as Connor's secretary in his New York "antiques shop" is Rachel (Sheila Gish), all grown up. She and Connor have a nice relationship, as well, adding to the effect. Another good example is a brief character moment between Connor and Brenda, where he makes a toast and reminisces about the events of a certain year, as well as Brenda's general excitement about Connor's sword and its meaning for her as a historian.
Admittedly, if there is a weak link in Highlander, it's probably Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman speaking English, being made to play an Scotsman. In some of the early scenes with Connery, it's hard not to imagine his frequently stiff line readings and general awkwardness is similar to what people feared from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who arguably lucked out with roles more in keeping with his range. It doesn't help that Connor's personality is kind of silly, with his pouty attitude sometimes reading like an Andy Samberg "SNL" character. That said, he does have some good scenes, including the end of his romance in the 16th century, holding his lover as she passes away. Plus, any performance space that Lambert leaves empty is occupied by Brown's performance as The Kurgan -- who, coincidentally, looks like Frankenstein's monster stole The Terminator's outfit. His performance is as broad as Lambert's is limited, creating a great, goofy contrast of personalities. Brown goes so far he might as well be in a comedy at times, mugging for the camera during a climactic car chase sequence.
Having been released on DVD several times dating back to the era of Anchor Bay special editions, this new 30th Anniversary Edition does away with the fancy metal packaging, the more stylized cover art, and goes for simplicity. The same image of Lambert from Lionsgate's previous Director's Cut DVD has been re-used, only less stylized, almost natural, with realistic looking clouds and lightning behind him. The logo has been reduced to color with no lines, a bold yellow that matches the "30th Anniversary Edition" banner across the top. The two-disc set comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (with holes), with no insert, and the entire package comes in a matte slipcover featuring the same art.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, the 30th Anniversary DVD is sourced from a new 4K master, and it shows. This is a fantastic, film-like DVD that briefly, in extreme close-ups, gets to near HD quality in terms of preserving grain structure and fine detail. There are times when the picture looks a little soft, but the fine grain of the 4K master helps the softness appear natural. Colors are bright and vivid, but retain a certain period feel to them -- a glance at the previous edition shows a brighter, more sterile look, whereas this is darker and more evocative. There is one shot, a transition from the past backing out into Lambert's eye, near the beginning, which still looks VHS-quality, but this seems to be an issue inherent to the source (or lack of it). The 5.1 track crackles with energy and spectacular immersiveness as the movie flies from environment to environment, and the supernatural or action elements of the film have plenty of room to shine. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
In addition to a few holdovers from previous editions of the movie (including an audio commentary by director Russell Mulcahy -- different from the Anchor Bay track which also featured producers Peter S. Davis and William Panzer, but still previously released -- an archival interview with Christopher Lambert, and deleted scenes, and the original theatrical trailer), there are some new supplements on hand.
On Disc 1, there are two lengthy new interviews, one with director Russell Mulcahy (23:01), and another with actor Christopher Lambert (20:33). Although the volume of extra content is appreciated, I have to say, neither of these interviews is particularly engaging. Both pieces feel a little listless, lacking in energy or excitement, and Mulcahy is often hard to understand, between his accent and his tendency to mumble. It's a shame that Lionsgate couldn't have gathered a couple more people fro the film, namely Clancy Brown and Roxanne Hart, and created a new making-of featurette that combined Lambert and Mulcahy's story with other material to give it a bit more pop.
This thought comes up again on Disc 2, where the other the other major "new" bonus feature is presented, "The Making of Highlander" (1:55:41), a feature-length making-of documentary made in Germany in 2006. Screenwriter Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, director of photographer Gerry Fisher, set decorator Allan Cameron, Hart, and producer William N. Panzer are interviewed over the course of four segments. In many territories, at least one of these segments has been left out, but the complete piece is presented here. It's a much more interesting and less listless series of interviews, especially the first segment with Widen and Bellwood discussing the development of the script. That said, one wonders if Lambert and Mulcahy couldn't have been folded into this piece, along with Brown, to create something more definitive.
Highlander is not a traditionally "great" movie, in that it's fundamentally incoherent at times, wildly silly, and stars an actor way out of his depth, and yet it is great, an utterly delightful slice of completely uninhibited insanity. Its inventiveness is infectious, and this new 30th Anniversary set, quibbles with the extras aside, is the way to see it (either on DVD, or the simultaneously-released Blu-ray edition). Highly recommended.
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