Directed by Russell Mulcahy.
Starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown, Roxanne Hart, Sheila Gish, Hugh Quarshie, and James Cosmo.
An immortal warrior is pursued through time by a brutal barbarian looking to be the ‘only one’.
Continuing to trawl the vaults of their catalogue of cult movies from the 1980s to bring to 4K UHD, StudioCanal have decided to give 1986s Highlander a polish. Whether you think this is a great idea or not probably depends on your relationship with the movie and when you first saw it, because unlike its protagonist, Highlander has not aged all that well.
That protagonist is Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a Scottish(!) warrior of the MacLeod clan who is critically injured .in battle with a rival clan who are being assisted by the brutal barbarian The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), a hulking beast of a man who is part of a race of immortals, the only thing killing them being decapitation.
Believing Connor to be dead, his fellow clansmen are taken aback when he appears the next day and, assuming he has turned to witchcraft, force him from their village where he eventually takes up residence in the Scottish Highlands with his true love Heather (Beatie Edney). Turns out, though, that Connor is immortal too, because Egyptian warrior Ramirez (Sean Connery) finds him and tells him so.
Anyway, that was all hundreds of years ago and now Connor is living in modern-day America as an antiques dealer, which would be a good career for someone who is immortal. However, The Kurgan is still after him and shows up dressed like he was in a black metal band and the stage is set for the ultimate prize because, apparently, there can be only one.
Okay, so Highlander is not a movie to be taken seriously, which you hope was the intention all along, but you know it probably wasn’t. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way – Christopher Lambert is French and has clearly never heard a Scottish person speak, which is odd when you think that he was on set and shared many scenes with probably the most famous living Scottish actor at the time (no, not James Cosmo).
Even if he had stuck to his native French accent it would have been more credible but Lambert somehow thinks that trying to accentuate certain words and lowering his register is good enough, creating a sort of transatlantic-cum-European mumble. Granted, he does look the part but every time he opens his mouth you can feel your eyes starting to roll in their sockets, no doubt as some sort of bodily distraction to shift the pain from your ears. And then they went and cast one of the few genuine Scotsmen in the cast as an Egyptian, albeit an Egyptian with a Scottish accent and a fake tan.
Despite his muddled genealogy, however, Ramirez is the saving grace of Highlander because a) he is the kindly mentor character and gives us most of the much-needed exposition, and b) he’s played by Sean Connery so naturally you warm to him, because who else could deliver a line like “I was born 2,437 years ago. In that time, I’ve had three wives” and make it sound sincere?
Which leaves Clancy Brown as The Kurgan, the antagonist of the movie, and he is also magnificent but in a slightly different way. Whereas Connery knows exactly what he is doing, just stopping short of winking at the camera every time he offers MacLeod some advice, Brown throws everything he has into his villainous role, taking The Kurgan to the next level when it comes to being terrifying whilst also trying to chew large portions of the scenery. Like Connery, Brown also knows what sort of movie he is in but he takes his role seriously, never making The Kurgan a figure of fun when the balance could easily have tipped into camp territory.
But despite two-thirds of the three main cast members being superb, Highlander is a movie that cannot maintain the level of quality that the casting brings to the table. The whole mythology is a little skewed and doesn’t bear too much examination, the action scenes are clunky and rely on the energised score and soundtrack to make them a bit more exciting than they actually are, and pretty much all of the characters who aren’t any of the main three are all a bit bland and don’t really do much, except add to the list of awful performances that pepper this movie; not Sean Connery or Clancy Brown obviously, but pretty much anyone else who gets more than two lines of dialogue is just dreadful, and being a near two-hour movie it does get more than a little frustrating when you consider that these were the best takes they could get.
Coming backed with a decent Highlander retrospective, an insightful featurette about the soundtrack – which sees Queen trying to reattempt what they did in Flash Gordon but, to the filmmakers credit, they weave the songs into the movie to add exposition through Freddie Mercury’s lyrics (but if you’re not a Queen fan it just gets annoying) – and a fun interview with Clancy Brown, who is always good value when talking about his films, along with audio commentaries from director Russell Mulcahy and various other alumni.
Picture-wise, the 4K upgrade is a bit of a mixed bag, as the exterior scenes in Scotland are awash with details and splashes of colour, and the night scenes in America are suitably dark and ominous, but there are scenes featuring heavy grain throughout and there aren’t really any major effects sequences that pop out like a modern blockbuster, the colour palette not really going further than the greens of the Highlands or the occasional red blood squib. The images themselves don’t seem particularly sharp or as intense as they possibly could be but that could be down to how the movie was shot in the first place.
Overall, Highlander is a movie that resonates with a lot of people who saw in back in the ‘80s, and the combination of fantasy swordplay, a thumping Queen soundtrack and a scary Clancy Brown performance will still be as much fun for them as it was back then, but viewing it through a 2022 filter it barely passes as a no-brainer movie to throw on and enjoy/laugh at on a basic level but time has not really been kind to it as the action is a bit pedestrian compared to more modern movies, the choppy direction is jarring and the performances that you thought were bad back in 1986? Don’t expect them to be any better, not even on an ironic level.
Still, there’s always the proposed remake on the cards, and Highlander is a story that would definitely benefit from a modern retelling because, ironically for a movie featuring immortals in different time periods, the original is still very much stuck in 1986 and is probably best left there.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ / Movie ★ ★