In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in December’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
It’s hard to think about Highlander and not cringe at how its creators contorted the 1986 cult classic into a cumbersome, craven and creatively bankrupt cash-grab franchise of unfathomable breadth. Three sequels (two of notorious awfulness in separate decades), six seasons of syndicated TV, novels, comic books, an animated series, online animations, even (shudder) radio plays. See, the people are supposed to be immortals wandering Earth for centuries, not the franchise itself.
Although said many times, it bears repeating: There can be only one … and there should have been.
But set aside the sequel’s ludicrous origin stories for the immortals, that stultifying and stupid TV series with the Ferrigno-meets-Ferrell folly of whatever star Adrian Paul called acting and, again, that extremely frightening prospect of ever hearing a Highlander radio play. Instead, try to remember when you knew (or if you know) nothing of Highlander and consider the novelty of its prologue.
A ponderous epigram, yes, but then “Princes of the Universe,” the first of many Queen songs written for the film, strikes with fleet-footed, smash-mouth intensity. We watch an aerial shot inside Madison Square Garden, where the camera seems borne aloft on the bluster of a crowd screaming for pro-wrestling blood. When the image lands on a trench-coated man’s scowling face, engulfed in shadow, it feels like a gritty graphic novel. Incongruous, fast-cut flashbacks to Scottish clan violence flitter by while some meathead bellows in the man’s ear. And then, in the parking-garage bowels of the Garden, a battle between two men brandishing broadswords beneath their jackets rather than guns.
We’re not entirely sure what the hell is happening with this contemporary Arthurian duel. But in visuals and concept, it’s all in and it’s awesome. Their faces reflect in aviator shades rather than woodsy ponds. The combatants skitter across sedans’ hoods rather than rock ledges. A sprinkler system soaks them in lieu of a waterfall. It’s a modernized, manmade moor for gladiatorial combat. And the blithe way the trench-coated man decapitates his foe seems ritualistically cold-blooded … until the air crackles, windows explode, lights flash, car alarms screech and something transforms he who is left standing.
Thirty years, and many unfortunate digressions on, Highlander’s” first 10 minutes sizzle with wild, WTF energy. Quite honestly, the remaining 100 blend just enough poetry with that pulp, and certainly enough to sell the central conceit behind co-writer Gregory Widen’s original lodestone: Standing before a Scottish suit of armor and wondering what life would be like for that man were he alive today. Here’s what works about Highlander, and what doesn’t about everything that follows: It is as much, if not more, interested in the inevitable woes inherent to immortality than it is the inspiring wows.
Widen (who also wrote Backdraft and The Prophecy) sold the script for $200,000 while still an undergraduate in UCLA’s screenwriting program, and it’s said his original draft was darker with immortal protagonist Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) able to bear children and shown watching them die.
Of Connor’s past, the theatrical version of Highlander shows only his 16th-century Scottish days in which he learns, the hard way, of his immortality and is storied in the rules of his curse by fellow immortal Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (a name that takes almost as long to type correctly as it does to say and a character played, rather amusingly, by Sean Connery of all people; more on him later).
As it turns out, Connor can die, but only if he is decapitated by another immortal (as he did to the man at the Garden). When one immortal fells another, he absorbs their power in an event called “the quickening.” And whenever only one immortal is left standing, that man will be granted “the prize” of omniscient knowledge and access to the thoughts of all mankind.
Though still fun, the theatrical version foregoes the fringes of this story to more quickly hurtle Connor toward: 1) his climactic clash with the Kurgan (Clancy Brown), a gargantuan ghoul from the steppes of Russia who is the most powerful immortal and who has stalked Connor for centuries; and 2) the bed of Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a police consultant and also a coincidental expert in medieval metallurgy.
Director Russell Mulcahy’s longer, preferable cut restores a World War II flashback (in which Connor rescues a girl named Rachel to whom he becomes protector and ersatz parent). It also adds an 18th-century duel Connor cannot lose no matter how often his enemy runs him through. Restoring this scene also adds a morbid punchline that further underscores Highlander’s unexpectedly thoughtful take on violence and war. Most director’s cuts traffic in indulgence; these fleeting moments add flesh to a good movie’s bones.
No version of Highlander makes you watch Connor bury centuries worth of children, but Mulcahy’s director’s cut is far more persuasive about his pitiable perspective on life — shunned by kinsmen for being “in league with Lucifer” and whose every love will die, to his eyes, in no more than a few rapid blinks of time. Indeed, we see his 16th-century wife, Heather (Beatie Edney) age in a flash, as it must feel to him.
It’s amplified by “Who Wants to Live Forever?,” a mighty and melancholy song that, in understanding Connor’s quest for happiness is forever futile, transcends its ’80s power-ballad trappings. (Interestingly Brian May trades vocals with Freddie Mercury throughout the song.)
(The song’s sole disservice: It stalls Connor and Brenda’s passion from connecting with even an eighth of the power of his past love. Indeed, Brenda following Connor’s false-identity trail to learn who he really is — details we already know — too often bogs down Highlander. To a degree, it’s interesting that Brenda is eager to understand a past Connor is pained to recall, but their heat is strictly perfunctory.)
Queen never got its hands on a James Bond theme; imagine what Mercury would’ve made of the milquetoast “Writing’s on the Wall.” But they’ve arguably done one better here in terms of sonic storytelling. That an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song eluded “Forever” seems impossible, but 1986 was already a pop-heavy year there (“Glory of Love” from The Karate Kid Part II, “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail and winner “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun).
The rest of their songs — especially “Gimme the Prize” and a vocally anarchic version of “New York, New York” for the villainous Kurgan — play out as internal monologues with lush complements from the late composer Michael Kamen. Queen originally intended to write just one song, but the film inspired them and their engagement with the peaks and valleys of Highlander’s narrative certainly shows.
Less subtle is Mulcahy’s approach — sweat, shadows, glass and sunlight shot from every conceivable angle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. An Australian filmmaker, Mulcahy not only cut his teeth on high-profile music videos; as director of the first ever aired on MTV, Mulcahy arguably invented the medium’s very aesthetic. He pushes his style agenda to the absolute edge here, perhaps even exceeding it when shafts of sunlight seem to stab the dark interior of a bar … while it’s nighttime outside.
Rarely does Mulcahy ride the line more than in the wild scenes in which Brown’s Kurgan runs rampant through New York. At first blush, the Kurgan seems like little more than this movie’s wannabe Terminator until he turns the stated rules of engagement (and the film itself) a little cattywampus. It’s easy to see why Brown still cashes in on cult cred from this gargantuan, pale demon (as well as from being a member of the Hong Kong Cavaliers); he brings unpredictably anarchic energy, and believable indomitability, to the part.
Here’s a guy who, when nearly-but-not-quite decapitated, adorns the scars with safety pins and shaves his head for the hell of it, seeming to have done so with eyes closed and mouth cackling. Brown revels in several profane moments of trash-talk with Connor at a church (immortals can’t fight on holy ground), and a third-act revelation about a past run-in only ratchets up the Kurgan’s putrescence. (Another wisely restored scene in which the Kurgan spies on Connor also smartly establishes him as a soldier of stealth as well as strength.)
Whatever his stylistic sins, Mulcahy atones with the right pauses for minor-key moments. In flashbacks to Connor’s Scottish days, we see the Kurgan instigating a familial feud as a pretext to get a shot at his rival immortal. Coupled with a padre who slits throats and delivers last rites with equal fervor, Highlander does, however temporarily, get us thinking about the many that have fallen to war for the wishes and machinations of the few. Even the cartoonish boasts of contemporary cops arresting Connor outside Madison Square Garden play into the oodles of overeager combatants he’s certainly seen trampled underfoot across the centuries.
Conversely, Connor becomes the one man martyred for the misguided fears of the many, given an option to burn or be banished from his village forever. We get the feeling he packs his sword at all times only out of obligation, preferring to lay low until he absolutely must and having forgotten life’s pleasures, however fleeting. As much of a C-movie joke as he later became, Lambert imbues Connor with Gaelic goofiness and malcontented moroseness in the right measure. He seems genuinely shattered by the loss of his family’s kinship … and as believably renewed by his friendship with Ramírez.
Rather unexpectedly, Highlander proved a turning point in Connery’s career. Unhappy with 1983’s unofficial 007 knockoff Never Say Never Again (and for good reason), Connery had made no films with a major studio for two years. If 1986’s The Name of the Rose revived Connery’s cred for craft, Highlander planted his commercial stake as the wise-mentor man of action. The next year, Connery won an Oscar for a similar, if definitively more sophisticated, role in The Untouchables. Two years later, he played the other Dr. Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Then The Hunt for Red October, in which his Scottish accent as a Russian named Marko Ramius seemed a bit off, but you rolled with it anyway.
That cognitive dissonance makes perfect sense next to the convoluted ethnicity assigned to Ramírez. With that name, you presume Spaniard. But he bristles at the suggestion, proudly asserting (through a thick brogue, mind you) that he’s an Egyptian. That explanation only compounds the comedy rather than clearing anything up, but that’s partly the point. Ramírez is a 2,437-year-old man with peacock feathers, too much mascara and a mangy ponytail. He is patently ridiculous, but with his preening gestures, Connery has a grand time flying in the face of the macho gravitas he’d cultivated in his career. And whatever ethnic mustard Connery puts on his accent, it’s hilarious just to hear him utter the word “pendejo.” Ramírez’s fateful fight with the Kurgan in a crumbling tower house also feels, appropriately, like Alexandre Dumas crossed with Mary Shelley. Plus, Connery is nimble with so. Much. Fantastical. Exposition. And he even puts a lithe, lovely spin on lines like, “Are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of night?” Shakespeare it ain’t, but don’t tell him.
As buddy-buddy as Connor and Ramírez are in the movie (a scene of them sprinting in the sand is a low-key delight), so were Lambert and Connery in real life. So much so that Lambert refused to return five years later for Highlander II: The Quickening unless Connery was in tow. The sundry problems with such an idea start with the ending of Highlander, which arrives at a very definite, and thrilling, conclusion atop the Silvercup Studios building. The Quickening more or less tosses that out altogether — asserting that Connor and Ramírez were actually aliens exiled to Earth from the planet Zeist and forced to roam immortal for “the prize,” which would then give them the choice to return to Zeist. There’s also a bunch of ecological nonsense about the Earth wilting under an electromagnetic shield Connor built and Connor’s ability to resurrect Ramírez simply by saying his name. Connery’s work here amounts to disrupting a play, getting a tailored suit, riding in an airplane and helping out once before disappearing. At least his $3.5 million salary for a week’s worth of work went to some good charities.
Mulcahy returned for Highlander II, but Widen noticeably did not, and all Mulcahy does is try jamming the gas on a high-mileage, second-tier Paul Verhoeven approach with all of the violence but none of the vitriol or verve that made those films go. When producers ran out of money thanks to the cratering Argentinian currency, they placed the film in the hands of creditors who crafted something they thought would make money. What they delivered was a film as all-time bad as it’s been made out to be. (Mulcahy’s “renegade cut” of this film deletes the Zeist talk, adds 20% more footage and is, at best, 2% less terrible. No amount of rehabbing can fix it. Here is the only decent thing in it. Witness how low the bar.)
Producers have equivocated the creative failure of Highlander II by shifting blame to the audience, saying it was their response to fans’ questions about where the immortals came from. Caveat emptor, indeed. Had Highlander II made no money at all, they might have stopped. But it clearly earned enough to suggest interest persisted — thus the milking of the franchise. (Long-running remake rumors have recently receded, although Tom Hardy and Dave Bautista’s names remain semi-attached.)
Do bad guys perform backflips for no goddamn reason? Yes. Does Christopher Lambert sound like he only recently learned the very basic mechanics of English? Yes. Are visual effects in the final quickening head-smackingly dumb? Absolutely. But before it came to a thudding halt, the rich world of Highlander — in all its bombast and bereavement — was, and is, worth getting lost in for two hours.