Archive Review: Highlander (1986)

It only takes a few great cinematic elements to turn a helter-skelter sci-fi fantasy into a cult classic. Russell Mulcahy finds that edge in directing Gregory Widen’s story “Highlander.” Part of it is Christopher Lambert’s hardened hero Connor McLeod as well as Clancy Brown’s exceptionally psychotic performance as the Kurgan, but Mulcahy commands how we feel about these characters and pilots them into memorable battle sequences and grandiose stunts for a film released in 1986. Fantasy and science-fiction fans will easily be able to overlook some of its messiness and appreciate the winning concept and enjoyable lore behind “Highlander.”

The ripe “Highlander” concept allows for an effective story. McLeod is fatally wounded in battle in 16th Century Scotland only he somehow survives. Fearing he’s possessed, he’s banished by his wife and neighbors and eventually settles on his own with a new wife in an isolated part of the highlands. Sean Connery then arrives to inform him of his greater calling and warn him of his immortality. He has essentially joined a “club” of immortals (of which there are an unknown number) who compete throughout the centuries to become the lone Highlander by beheading other immortals.

Unfortunately, that part of the movie doesn’t come first, making the “Highlander” concept much more difficult than it needs to be. At least what Widen fails to do in terms of organizing the film in a logical order he makes up for in delivering an idea with classic themes of immortality, power and love. Because Connor can’t settle down without watching those he loves die of age, he wins our sympathy and that’s the goal with any fantasy hero.

It helps that Lambert’s furrowed brow and emotionally exhausted look communicates a feeling of inner sorrow, an always ideal hero combination of hard on the outside, soft on the inside. Mulcahy draws close attention to his eyes, which at the beginning makes us think of Lambert as a bit of an ugly brute because of his large forehead, but eventually succeeds in portraying him in a sensitive light.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Brown’s Kurgan, the immortal hoping to be the last one standing by killing Connor in New York City, where the Gathering (an unofficial tournament to become the Highlander, sort of) is happening. Every second Brown spends on screen just induces more and more hatred, especially when he does a poor job of shaving his head. Villains are so much more effective with a psychotic twist and Brown delivers. It’s also not the kind of crazy villain that tries overly hard to be funny with poorly written dialogue, but the unexpectedly randomly licking people type of insane.

The sporadic pacing hurts our ability to become invested in the main love story between Connor and forensic metal specialist Brenda (Roxanne Hart). It’s more an example of great potential unachieved rather than offensively poor writing. The same goes for the relationship between Connor and his personal assistant Rachel (Sheila Gish). A flashback takes us to World War II when he saves the young Rachel by taking bullets for her. Their friendship and affection for one another has the power to be a fantastic subplot in the film, but it never cooks.

Little else can be said negatively about “Highlander,” unless you’re not amused by people in New York City fighting with broadswords attempting to slice each other’s heads off. The entertainment appeal won’t be for everyone, but there are plenty of explosions (every time an immortal is decapitated a “quickening” happens and stuff in the area breaks and shatters), and with a Star Wars-esque fight scene at the end, it’s easy to see why “Highlander” spawned a number of future films and a TV series, etc.

3.5/5 Stars

Highlander (1986)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
Written by Gregory Widen
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown, Roxanne Hart, Sean Connery

1 Comment

  1. Mark says:

    This movie was shit. I kept hoping that the Kurgan would finally behead Lambert’s McLeod due to his bad acting and atrocious accent. I also think the the score by Queen has been over-praised, with the horrendous ‘Princes of the universe’ being one of the worst songs that the band contributed to the film. However, the main problem with Highlander is the host of truly awful sequels that it spawned.

    The tv series staring Adrian Paul was also rubbish, with nearly every episode being a forgettable melu

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