What better time to review a movie than when it’s 25 years old? When it’s 25 years old and on the verge of being remade. The original Highlander is being remade as Highlander: The Reckoning (at least that’s the working title), due out in 2014, and though that’s still a few years away it immediately begs the question “Does Highlander need a remake?” How good is the original really? How does it stand up after all these years? And In The End… Should There Have Been Only One?
The Plot (Chronologically)
In 1536 in the Scottish Highlands, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is killed in battle by an ancient barbarian warrior named the Kurgan (Clancy Brown). When he recovers from his mortal wounds and awakens the next day, he is accused by his kinsmen of being a witch and driven from his village.
A few years later Connor has built a new life for himself with his wife Heather (Beatie Edney), when Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery) makes a flamboyant entrance on horseback, interrupting a intimate moment. Ramirez is a fellow immortal who tutors Connor on the dual gift/curse nature of his immortality and teaches him the rules of “the Game”: Immortals don’t grow old and can’t have children; they can only die if they lose their heads (if killed by another immortal, the victor takes his power); and they must never fight on holy ground. And, oh yes, one more rule: “In the end, there can be only one.” That last immortal will receive “the Prize”, a fabled reward even ancient immortals do not know the nature of. Ramirez teaches Connor to be a better swordsman and to be a survivor and as time passes and they grow to be friends, he tries to warn Connor of the pain of losing his mortal wife and friends. He urges Connor to let Heather go to spare himself the pain of watching her age and die, and to allow her to find new love and have children, but Connor is far too in love and devoted to her to be persuaded.
One night, while Connor is away on business, the Kurgan returns to finish what he started, but finds only Ramirez and Heather. Ramirez slashes Kurgan’s throat, leaving him scarred for centuries, before Kurgan finally overwhelms him in a brutal close quarters duel (which demolishes the MacLeods’ home in the process). Ramirez convinces Kurgan that Heather is his woman, realizing that if Kurgan knew she was MacLeod’s wife he would use her as bait to trap and kill Connor. The Kurgan then takes Ramirez’s head, before apparently turning his wrath to Heather…
In the following decades, Connor stays with Heather as she ages and eventually dies, just as Ramirez warned he would have to endure. He buries her on a hill near their home, marking her grave with his clan’s claymore and leaves the highlands carrying his mentor’s katana.
In 1985, Connor is still alive and kicking and making a living as an antique dealer in New York City under the name Russell Nash and living with his secretary (and mother figure?) Rachel (Sheila Gish). Ambushed in a parking garage by immortal Iman Fasil (Peter Diamond) Connor is forced to kill him and flee. Connor is detained by police nearby, making him the prime suspect in Fasil’s death. He is then simultaneously stalked by the bloodthirsty Kurgan, eager to finish off the rest of the immortals and claim the Prize, and Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a forensics expert who is looking for the sword that killed Fasil – a katana that shouldn’t exist (which happens to be the one Connor inherited from Ramirez). Connor and Brenda end up falling for each other and Connor reveals his immortality to her.
Kurgan finds Connor in a church (where he knows they cannot fight) in order to taunt him with news that he has killed MacLeod’s immortal friend Kastagir (Hugh Quarshie). In a heated exchange, Kurgan provokes him with details of Ramirez’s death – Connor first learns that Kurgan had raped Heather after the battle, and Kurgan finally comes to realize that she had been Connor’s wife, not Ramirez’s. The two are finally on a collision course to a final duel as the Gathering comes to an end… but it is not one the Kurgan is about to fight fair.
Kurgan abducts Brenda and lures Connor to an abandoned factory. In an epic duel that starts on the roof and ends up crashing through a skylight, Connor finally claims retribution for the Kurgan shattering his life, attacking Heather, and killing his friend and mentor Ramirez. With justice achieved and his heart finally mended, he finally returns home to the highlands, where he reveals the nature of the Prize to Brenda: he is mortal and can have children and a normal life with her, and he also been gifted with the ability to know the hearts and minds of all people, to use for the benefit for all mankind.
Well, I admit I love this movie, but it’s far from a flawless film. Let’s start with what this movie has going for it.
The plot is actually pretty basic: Guy’s life gets ruined because he is destined to be something greater; mentor teaches guy about his destiny before dying horribly; guy endures much to fulfill his destiny; guy is rewarded for his sacrifices with a happy life and reconciliation with humanity as a whole. Basic is not a bad thing though, this plot structure has worked for as long as there has been language, from the ancient Greeks to George Lucas. Highlander takes that plot and wraps its very own mythology around it and brings it to life with larger than life characters. Sure there’s the police investigation and Connor’s romantic entanglements going on too, but nothing overwhelming. The complexity of this movie comes from use of flashbacks keeping you from experiencing the story in a linear fashion and just having it force-fed to you (Like I did in my synopsis). This can be a little disorienting at times, to great effect. It keeps you guessing at what’s going on and makes a bit of a puzzle for you to try to put together.
The music in this movie is amazing, with a breathtaking score by Michael Kamen and songs by Queen. I buy every version of this score/soundtrack I can get my hands on, because I love every moment of it and though there have been many versions there doesn’t seem to be one, perfect, uber-complete release (unless its horribly out-of-print). It’s especially hard not to forever identify the opening theme “Princes of the Universe” with this franchise, particularly since it was used not only for the film, but all six seasons of Highlander the Series. There was even a particularly horrible cover of it in the franchise’s final installment Highlander the Source (but that’s a whole other kettle of rotten fish). In my opinion, any reboot/remake would have to include at least “Princes of the Universe” to be recognizable as a Highlander movie.
Then there’s the cast, and oh boy what a cast it is. Sure you can make cracks about Christopher Lambert’s “Scottish” accent, but it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in this role. Lambert’s nonverbal acting acting skills certainly exceed his ability to suppress his own accent enough to sound convincingly Scottish (but then again the culturally mismatched casting in this franchise is almost a running joke). His eyes do a lot of speaking for him. He’s the mysterious loner AND the likable underdog. Can even costar Connery manage to be both those things? (More about him in a minute) No one is better at playing the Big Bads than Clancy Brown, and the Kurgan is the biggest and baddest of his Big Bads. Physically, Brown is perfectly cast as an imposing giant marked with the battle scars of thousands of years and vocally he is probably ranked behind only Darth Vader, Unicron, and maybe Hal 9000 when it comes to iconic sci-fi/fantasy villain voices. Kurgan may be the the most pivotal casting choice in a remake as a hero’s quality is measured by the class of villains he battles. I’m hoping for Vinnie Jones (“HE’S THE JUGGERNAUT, BITCH!”) That brings us to Sean Connery. I love Sean Connery, but I’m only “meh” about his Bond. I loved him as Malone in “The Untouchables”. I loved him as Indy’s dad, and most of all I love him as Ramirez. That said, does Sean Connery really act? Or does Sean Connery just show up on a set, be himself, and make movies become awesome? I think it’s the latter. But if you’re Sean Connery you can make a career out of just being your awesome self.
Now, time to dash this baby on the rocks. Like I said this movie is not without flaws. Director Russell Mulcahy was primarily experienced in music videos up to this point and so was accustomed to telling stories visually without relying on dialogue and does so successfully for the most part in Highlander. He executes some very artistic shots and scene transitions, some more fluidly than others. Some come across as innovative, while others come off as a bit amateurish and jarringly abrupt. Parts of the movie seem coarsely edited, which does help the narrative of the gritty 1985 New York setting stand apart visually from the 1530’s-40’s scenes. At times though, it also gives the movie a very unfinished feel. This is no wonder considering how much material was in the shooting script and rough cut that didn’t make it into the finished film and the fact that Sean Connery’s availability was extremely restrictive. In fact, virtually every shot Ramirez is in where you don’t clearly see his face is his stunt double.
The stunts in Highlander are really topnotch, especially for the time, but I do have a problem with unevenness of the action throughout the film. The first duel of the movie is arguably the most exciting in the movie. No wonder considering that Connor’s first opponent Iman Fasil is played by the film’s stunt coordinator Peter Diamond. For you barbarians out there who don’t know, Diamond had a long history of stunts with Z-Cars, Doctor Who, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Indiana Jones movies, but as far as I’m concerned Highlander and the Princess Bride are his masterpieces. An amazing action sequence right at the beginning is certainly a great hook, but it makes subsequent scenes seem to drag in comparison and, in my opinion, even Connor’s final duel with the Kurgan seems lazy compared to the parking garage fight with Fasil.
At this time, I’d like to point out that for ten years the only copies of this movie you could get your hands on were the U.S. Theatrical Version. For the tenth anniversary a Director’s Cut was released featuring about 5-ish minutes of additional footage. The only meaningful new scene is a World War II flashback, showing Connor’s first meeting Rachel as a child, rescuing her from a Nazi officer. Other additional footage includes an unnecessarily extended cut of the duel flashback with Bassett (ruining what I felt was brilliant comic timing of the theatrical version) and a soul-rendingly pointless post-sex zoo scene of Brenda and Connor trying to figure out the future of their relationship while Kurgan lurks in the background. The Director’s Cut also omits Connor’s line “I want to go home.” from the aftermath of his duel with the Kurgan, a line that was quite poignant coming from a guy who had (presumably) not been home in 400 years and just fought the battle for the ultimate Prize.
So which edition is better? I go with original U.S. Theatrical Cut, but take the Theatrical Cut and edit in the W.W.II flashback and you have the ultimate cut. Unfortunately, the Director’s Cut is the only version that has been released on DVD to date.
Highlander is one of my favorite movies and is one of the films that taught me to pay attention not only to movies, but how movies are made. It does a great job of making you care about Connor’s struggles and imagine yourself experiencing the good and bad of living forever. I’m not saying Highlander should win the Oscar for “Best Movie Ever Made” as Ricky Bobby said, but it’s definitely a movie that anyone who loves the art of film making should see. Also, if you like swords. I like swords.
Available from Amazon in Immortal Edition (features a bonus CD with some of the Queen songs), standard DVD, and now… Blu-Ray!
Now, to the matter of whether there should be a remake. Why not? I doubt that a remake, no matter how good it is, will take the original Highlander’s place in my pantheon of favorite movies (or the cult following of Highlander) as it will lack its gritty 80’s charm (and Sean Connery), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try. Considering the muddled messes that 3 out of the 4 sequels to the original were (and parts of the series), the greatest risk is another movie I’m gonna pretend never happened. I mean, I love Transformers, but I hate the live-action films (not to mention “Robots in Disguise”, “Armada”, “Energon”, and “Cybertron”). That doesn’t mean “The Bayformer movies have ruined Transformers forever!” like some fans have exclaimed, just that I still have to wait and look forward to someone making some good Transformers movies some day. The possible reward is one of my favorite franchises getting a transfusion of its former greatness that was derailed by two lackeys from the Planet Zeist. Like I said before though. there is one ingredient essential for the remake: the Queen soundtrack.
“Tonight you sleep in Hell!” – The Kurgan
“Whatever you say, Jack! You’re the master race.” – Connor
“You have the manners of a goat, and you smell like a dung heap, and you have no knowledge of your potential. Now… GET OUT!” – Ramirez
“Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows?” – Ramirez
“Happy Halloween, ladies! Nuns… no sense of humor.” – Kurgan
“Father! Forgive me. I am a worm… “ – Kurgan
Ramirez: The Kurgan. He is the strongest of all the immortals. He’s the perfect warrior. If he wins the Prize, mortal man would suffer an eternity of darkness.
Connor MacLeod: How do you fight such a savage?
Ramirez: With heart, faith and steel. In the end there can be only one.
Ramirez: Haggis? What is haggis?
Connor MacLeod: Sheep’s stomach, stuffed with meat and barley.
Ramirez: And what do you do with it?
Connor MacLeod: You eat it.
Ramirez: How revolting!
P.S. Don’t worry. I intend to review the entire Highlander franchise eventually, and… Oh, yes, there will be blood.