by Marc Kandel
“Highlander” is epic fantasy blended with a guerilla 80’s movie, placed in a New York film that captures and satirizes the era. This is fine storytelling with an obvious love of cinema, spawning countless 1st year NYU film student knockoffs (by 2nd year its off to the races of aping Scorcese and Lee, and hopefully 3rd and 4th years earn a budget where the would-be Spielbergs and Lucases emerge, finally culminating in a new batch of assistant PA’s upon graduation). “Highlander” numbers amongst my favorite films, sporting memorable characters, unique voice to its hack n’ slash contemporaries of the decade, and the simple, heart-pounding wonder so necessary in effective fantasy.Through the eyes of Connor MacLeod, a Scottish clansman who discovers he is immortal in 1536 AD, we witness the “Gathering” of the last of a group of immortals in New York City of 1986 waging their final contest from which only one can emerge alive. The victor will either aid humanity in its journey through the ages, or rain destruction upon it throughout time. By law of Marc Kandel, HBS/EFC Reviewer & Sometime Deity (I bring rain for your crops!), there’s no shitass sequels or marginally less shitass but ultimately unnecessary TV shows. Never happened. There can be only one- and this one’s The One (lick mah balls, Neo).
"A kind of magic only found in Ed Koch’s apocalyptic ’86 NYC."
Our protagonist is an oddly conspicuous chameleon. In the film’s first 20 minutes the covert immortal is arrested fleeing a crime scene, resisting police officers and baiting them once in custody, prompting one of the detectives to strike him. Not a creature of subtlety, MacLeod has no fear and nothing to lose- this particular establishment no more formidable or binding to him than the dozens, perhaps hundreds he has watched rise and fall throughout the centuries.
It’s jarring to watch this sneering, brazen protagonist acting so counterintuitive to his best interests, but having witnessed the man in his own time only seconds before, one can see that underneath the affected veneer of this disheveled, jaded Soho misanthrope is a man still dealing with problems as if he is slogging around on the moors where justice is an elusive concept, decided by force more often than not, his damp, muddy kilt traded for a dingy, weather-beaten trenchcoat. Not a bad way to tackle NYC, actually, and part of the movie’s curious charm. After all, nobody else respects the cops in this town, why should Connor? When Connor hits the cop back, hookers and thugs cheer him in the background as the Chief looks on with an appreciative smirk himself- it's a hilarious scene that could only happen in a smoke filled, 80’s beat cop precinct, where even the cops wonder what the fucking point of it all is- insane).
The much ballyhooed “Gathering” of the immortals is brilliantly smudged by throwing these ageless enigmas into the trash strewn alleys and steaming, tarred rooftops of a curdled, dingy Manhattan that makes for a better kennel than it does an arena fit for a world altering contest of demigods. This is the conceit of the film- after ageless discovery and adventure through some of the most beautiful histories and vistas the world has to offer, it all comes down to a grudge fight on top of a ramshackle Queens film studio. What more appropriate setting for an uber-fantasy such as this than a New York that has attained legendary status in history as a time of rampant lawlessness and depravity? Even more apropos, the movie begins with a nod to the world of Pro-Wrestling (brilliantly intermingled with Connor’s recollections of the battlefield juxtaposed against a bloodthirsty crowd roaring approval at a garish, staged exhibition), and wraps up the tale with a glorified cage match, as Connor and Kurgan duck and weave through the iron lattice of the Silvercup Studios sign. Mulcahy doesn’t make the picture a complete hate letter to New York however, the beauty of Manhattan shines through now and then in captivating shots of the warm Soho streets, and this film still sports the best use of Central Park’s Bow Bridge in cinema.
Those looking for Princess Bride footwork, Zorro showmanship or even the ferocious blade tactics of Rob Roy are not comprehending the stakes. Elegant parry/thrust swordplay, intricate feints and strategic retreats give way to fast, brutal, slashing death matches as Claymores collide with katanas and broadswords spark off of scimitars in steel collision. What is lost in grace is more than fulfilled in savage zeal. These are not men interested in showcasing elegance and style. This is combat, plain and simple; sweaty, desperate effort to stop metal biting into flesh. In fact, the fights are reminiscent of the Obi Wan/Vader duel from A New Hope where we have two men keenly aware of the dangerous weapons they hold, both unwilling to sacrifice safety for spirit, making them no less effective warriors for their palpable caution. Sometimes it’s not about the art of killing, it’s about the killing- and that’s just fine as paint with me.
Amid the clangor of swords, the movie establishes the joy and anguish of eternal life. Immortals are fearful of exposure to both mortals and others of their kind. Despite never aging they can die, must die, rendering complacency or lasting comfort a virtual impossibility. It is a fascinating twist on immortality, having all the time in the world, yet constantly looking over one’s shoulder for fear of impending death and surviving only to witness death all around oneself. When the immortals meet, even those that have become friends, there is always a moment of unease as the hands emerge from the voluminous trenchcoats and cloaks- will it be a hand open in ancient friendship or a closed fist gripping life-severing steel?
But the film counters by illustrating the rewards of such an existence, providing not only the incentive of a life able to see every corner of the world, every achievement and advancement, but the opportunity to merge one’s spirit with the life of the planet, a talent called the “Quickening”, voluntarily achieved in small doses by force of will, overwhelming, empowering and all-encompassing at the moment a victorious immortal strikes off the head of another immortal. It's a strange mysticism, not easily relatable to the audience but a cool enough concept that allows for a visualization of the magic surrounding these beings, and played like the ultimate orgasm with accompanying lightning bolts to give the viewer an inkling of what they are missing. If that still doesn’t work for some of you, well, what can I say? May The Force be with you.
Despite an accent defying categorization (Scottish? French? Peter Lorre?), Christopher Lambert, never to be confused with Lawrence Olivier, gives a strained but appropriate performance, strongest when in the presence of more able actors like Sean Connery and Clancy Brown. His finest moment as Russell Nash comes in the form of a sniff of 1783 brandy, as a wave of witnessed history washes over him, smiling at a random memory that is left to our imagination (this moment was actually based on a real incident of the director’s that inspired the concept of the film).
Otherwise, Lambert’s Nash plays like a character smarter than the actor playing him (there is a restored 1930’s flashback on the DVD that induces wincing at Lambert’s sub-Halle Berryesque line delivery despite the scene’s importance for establishing the existence of one of the supporting characters). But this gaffe is countered by the very capable bit of dialogue he shares just before, giving the movie one of its tag-lines and setting up an important scene later in the film- It's a kind of magic).
Its as Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod that Lambert is most comfortable and likeable, helped along by an excellent rapport with Connery (the two became fast on-set friends and it shows in their interplay), and a believable relationship between Connor and his wife Heather (Beatie Edney) that is performed so well, with such adoration, happiness and grief it doesn’t even require back story to establish the relationship (despite the fact that the relationship is a back story itself).
Sean Connery is a pleasure to behold as Connor’s gregarious mentor. Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez, Chief Metallurgist to King Charles V of Spain (just saying it makes me smile) is amongst Connery’s most vivacious, spirited performances and his unbridled joy and charm is infectious. Connery is having such a great time here, happy to be standing in the hills of his homeland, enjoying the well-crafted role and displaying a penchant for swashbuckling that would give even Errol Flynn pause; “My cut has improved your voice!” he suggests with a grin, as he dances along the stone staircases and oaken tables parrying off against a vicious opponent. Rarely have I seen Connery having such a good time, and the result is magical. Though his character’s existence is mostly expositional, Connery fleshes out Ramirez with rippling, intoxicating presence, and his friendship with Connor, unearths a surprisingly effective buddy-movie element to the proceedings, another innovative twist in this strange, wonderful film.
Michael Kamen produces a scintillating film score that combined with the rock and ballad numbers from Queen, makes for a fantastic listen, with or apart from the film. Connor’s loneliness, his joy, his loss, his entire history ripples through Kamen’s complex melodies, and Queen grounds the piece in our time with three memorable tracks and some adequate background music for softer scenes. I might have to Sonic Death Monkey the thing, at least as a tribute to the late composer, who turns in one of his finest compositions here, right up with his best effort, his score to The Dead Zone.Warmly aware of its own silliness, hypnotizing in its fresh, exciting mythos, Highlander manages to provide rich entertainment and joy. Don’t take my word for it, go… Feel the Stag
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=1014&reviewer=358
originally posted: 08/17/07 16:54:24