Review: Highlander (1986)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #630

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: March 7, 1986
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, United States
Budget: $19,000,000
Box Office: $12,600,000
Running Time: 116 minutes
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Producers: Peter S. Davis, William N. Panzer
Screenplay: Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, Larry Ferguson
Special Effects: Martin Gutteridge
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Score: Queen, Michael Kamen
Editing: Peter Honess
Studios: Cannon Films, Highlander Productions Limited
Distributor: EMI Films, 20th Century Fox
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown, Beatie Edney, Alan North, Jon Polito, Sheila Gish, Hugh Quarshie, Christopher Malcolm, Peter Diamond, Celia Imrie, Billy Hartman, James Cosmo, Corinne Russell

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Queen “Princes Of The Universe”
[2] Queen “Who Wants To Live Forever”
[3] Queen “A Kind of Magic”

I feel obliged to commence this appraisal with a double-barreled apology. Firstly, to my dear friend and neighbor Rob, who requested almost four years back now that I cast my critical eye over Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander and has been waiting patiently ever since. And secondly, to the film’s leading man, Christopher Lambert, for whom my unexplainable illogical fear has prevented this from happening. I’ve put it off for long enough now and there seems no better time than the present for a quickening. However, before we get to the nuts and bolts, I feel it is high time that I banish those Lambert demons once-and-for-all.

You see, I have absolutely no idea where my aversion to the Frenchman actually stems from although I was once taught never to trust a man with an elongated forehead. However, it’s not like he hasn’t cropped up in a number of movies that I have fond recollections of. Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Luc Besson’s Subway, Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian and Stuart Gordon’s shamelessly entertaining Fortress each provided Lambert with top-billing, yet still he left me decidedly cold. To be fair, he’s hardly the most naturally charismatic actor on the planet, but neither is Clive Owen and I’ve learned to love him over the years. There’s just something about him that grates a little and I have a fair idea that I’m not alone in my indifference.

That said, while he’s unlikely to become my favorite screen star any time soon, his dedication to his art is never in question. Indeed, for his role Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor’s 2012 film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Lambert willingly underwent three months of intensive sword training and even shaved his head. If ever dues have been earned, then he would be at the very top of the list, thus as a much deserved olive branch, I shall revisit Fortress the very moment I wrap this one up. Right now however, there can be only one, and Highlander could really do with someone fighting its corner after the rough ride it received upon its unveiling back in 1986.

Astonishingly, the American media were almost unanimous in their harsh critique of Mulcahy’s film and it was left to the European market and a successful run on home video to bail it out from oblivion. Its box-office total doesn’t make for comfortable reading and you’d be forgiven for expecting a big-budget flop like this to vaporize soon after. Not the case. No less than four sequels, a television series, and numerous other spin-offs later and the name Connor MacLeod is no longer such a mystery to the masses. It’s no less than Highlander deserves, as while some way from perfect, it’s a wonderfully entertaining movie with a great deal to commend. Besides, it has Sean Connery in it, and there are few females on the planet who would turn their noses up to having him read them a bedside story, even at the ripe old age of 86.

The thing about an artist of Connery’s vintage is that you have to accept him on his own exclusive terms. He’s a Scot and damn proud, but not what you would call the most versatile of actors when it comes to his one-strong array of accents. Hire Connery and there’ll be no question of the bang you’ll receive for your buck, but he’ll do it either his way or the highway. I’d say he’s more than earned that privilege wouldn’t you?

Of course, the sheer notion of casting him as an Egyptian-born Spaniard and a Frenchman as a Scot is almost too ludicrous to entertain and a fair few pinches of salt are required to buy into their respective characters. Given that the medium of film is driven towards escaping reality for a couple of hours, it’s no great hardship to a cinematic space cadet such as Keeper. But I do still find it rather amusing.

Heralding from the Clan MacLeod, Connor (Lambert) is an 16th-century immortal and has survived more bloody conflict than the rooster from Family Guy. Nowadays, he plies his trade as an antiques dealer in present-day New York, parading under the less conspicuous alias of Russell Nash. However, the thing about the past is that it has a tendency to catch up with you eventually, and after running into and dispatching one of this kind in an arena parking garage, he learns the cunning plan of ancient arch-nemesis The Kurgan (Clancy Brown).

This particular immortal was born as far back as the 10th century BC and has taken it upon himself to eliminate the last few remaining imperishables and claiming his ultimate prize. With a name like The Kurgan, the odds seem stacked in his favor and now would be a pretty decent time for a good old-fashioned flashback to shed a little light on how to defeat such a fiendish foe.

We are promptly whisked away to the 16th century Scottish Highlands and the small village of Glenfinnan, located on the shores of Loch Shiel, where the Clan MacLeod are preparing for battle. It’s the first of numerous visits we will pay to the past, including the one where Connor meets flamboyant fellow enduring warrior cum mentor, Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (Connery), and is quickly taken under his wing. Ramírez soon teaches him “The Quickening”, the art of transferring power from a felled opponent and with The Kurgan gunning for his decapitated head in the present day, this technique could really come in handy.

Meanwhile, back on the rain-soaked noir-esque mean streets of 1985 New York, detective Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) has expressed an interest in MacLeod. Wyatt is investigating a recent string of beheadings in the Big Apple, and in addition to being a forensic pathologist, she is also an expert in metallurgy. Upon recognizing Connor’s defeated opponent’s weapon as an extremely rare Toledo Salamanca broadsword and it isn’t long before the full story of his multiple identities and lives is made clear to her. Considering he’s all man and she’s a woman with needs on her lieu days, what do you think is coming?

Presumably she is curious to find out what kind of bagpipes he’s packing beneath that sporran. So what does she do? Jump into the sack with him of course as this was the eighties after all and the done thing at around the halfway mark of any action movie worth its groin sweat. However, after taking the tip of Lambert’s length in the form of domesticated montage, it’s game time once more as the final duel is looming large and The Kurgan is starting to grow decidedly impatient about claiming a fresh bonce for his mantle.

Highlander may be overspilling with bolshy bravado, but it is not without its flaws, and when it comes, the closing skirmish is somewhat anticlimactic all things considered. That said, Mulcahy’s direction is generally sound, Gerry Fisher’s lush photography makes the very most of the vast highland landscapes, and it has a unique look and feel to any of its contemporaries. To top it all off, rock legends Queen supply the audio bells and whistles, snuggling in cozily alongside Michael Kamen’s typically rousing score.

Connery chews the scenery like it’s made of toffee, Brown (in his breakout role) has a face simply made for trouble and proves a wonderfully menacing villain, Hart comes good as the all-important love interest, and when you consider that Lambert could barely speak a lick of English when shooting his part and needed a dialect coach to assist him through the entire process, he cannot be accused of non-committal. He may be lacking a little in the God-given charm stakes, but his gusto certainly isn’t in question.

To conclude, Mulcahy’s film falls mere millimetres short of being considered a bona fide classic, and was in no way, deserving of the harsh critique leveled at it upon its release. Granted, it is now starting to show its age a little, but so is Connery and that doesn’t stop 90% of the female populous desiring to rummage through that dense chest hair and milk his manly teats until they’re sore, even once the cows have come home.

Like Steve Miner’s slightly inferior 1989 fantasy, Warlock, Highlander is the product of an era and should therefore be granted the eternal life it has been hankering after for so long. The tagline may have lied with the whole “there can be only one” chestnut, but there’s no other film quite like it, so I guess there was some truth in it after all. As for Lambert and my good pal Rob, I trust I am now off the hook. I kind of like my head remaining on my shoulders you see.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: While the blood isn’t necessitated to run freely in an R-rated action flick like this, Highlander does punch its weight with regards to lopped off top boxes, to the tune of numerous rolling heads as MacLeod and The Kurgan begin to gather their trophies. As a matter of fact, here’s a prop head used in the film to start the collection and this weathered bonce currently changes hands for around £2,500 if you think it would tie your mantle together.

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

  1. Highlander was never one of my favorites. I can see why you avoided Lambert’s films. Personally, I knew women who fell for his charms but he has never rung my bell. Plus, he isn’t that good of an actor.
    The premise of this film is unique but I will stand by my lack of interest. You have done a terrific review on this, Rich!

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