Next to my heart, there is another heart. The first heart pumps blood around my body and keep me alive. The second is just full of my emotions concerning 80s sci-fi/fantasy movies that bring crazy concepts into the modern (or 1980’s) world. If I could only watch Warlock, Monster Squad, The Masters of the Universe, Flash!, The Terminator, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, Predator, and Ghostbusters forever I would die a happy man. But at the top of that list is, and will always be, 1986’s Highlander.
The first two things you hear in this movie are the smooth, dulcet tones of Sean Connery and a song by Queen. Realistically, that should be a selling point enough, but there’s the added bonus that the film itself is great. The movie focuses upon a race of immortals who at different points in history died and then came back to life, unable to age or die. These immortals wait for the time of the Gathering, when the final few of them are left and will find themselves in a far-away land, where they will do battle until the final immortal wins the Prize. This plot itself is more than enough high-concept 80’s awesome to go around and then you add in a final detail. The only way for these immortals to die is if their head is cut off. This means that each immortal carries a sword and the movie is chock full of swordfights and decapitations. The movie sounds like it was created by a teenager at the midway point of a bag of weed or a writer who has a meeting with a studio head and had to think of a pitch in the waiting room before the meeting.
The movie succeeds for a number of reasons. First, the writing is solid. It is both po-faced and smirking, full of magical wonder and larger than life characters. It is also directed with aplomb by Russell Mulcahy, a Melbourne native who helped invent the template for music videos in the early days of MTV, and who manages to keep the many swordfights in the movie feel exciting and has a preternatural skill with transitioning between modern day scenes and flashbacks. The soundtrack, featuring mostly Queen songs, is fantastic because, well, the soundtrack is mostly Queen songs (see also Flash!). Finally the characters/actors are killing it throughout. Sean Connery, playing an Egyptian prince with a Spanish name and a Scottish accent, should not be able to make those racial inconsistencies work and yet manages to be one of the best mentor characters in cinema full of wise words and one-liners. Christopher Lambert is a French actor who, when filming began, had just learned English and plays a Scotsman, rises above the language/accent issues to give a compelling, dark, world-weary performance as the highlander himself. And finally, of the three main immortals, we have Clancy Brown as The Kurgan. Brown’s performance in this movie is top tier, over the top insanity. His church in the scene with Lambert is like watching Mozart conduct. It is vicious, funny, cruel, insane, allegedly ad-libbed, and has him sexually harass a group of nuns. When they remake Highlander next year, Dave Bautista is going to have shoes the size of canoes to fill.
The movie has the dramatic high-concept of immortals fighting with swords and lamenting the fact they cannot grow old and die while the world around them changes, but it’s also filled with some humorous moments that give the movie a sense of how fun immortality could be. Flashbacks to a 1700’s duel between a mortal and a drunk immortal is amazing and the Scotland stuff of Connery training Lambert has some great lines and physical comedy, with Lambert playing the exact opposite of his modern day character, as he flails around and falls over, a different man 400 hundred years before the time the movie is set.
Back to Russell Mulcahy’s directing as he manages to make the half dozen swordfights each have its own personality by changing the setting each time and keeping the action crisp and clear, while also frenetic and exciting. You only need to watch the Star Wars prequels to see how quickly swordfights become dull when they occur again and again. The other way in which Mulcahy excels is something that confounds other directors is his presentation flashbacks. Each one is a linear story side by side to the main plot. He doesn’t jump around and keeps the flashback story clearly moving in one direction.
He also doesn’t flashback for no reason. Each time we jump to a different time it is to elucidate a point or explain how characters met. He keeps the Scotland stuff going the longest and the other, shorter ones, snappy enough to make their point and leave. His transition work is amazing with simple pans and move the action to a different time. The best one is when Lambert is thinking about his training and the camera pans to a fish tank, zooms and then rises through the water to show us Connery and Lambert in a boat above a Loch. It is simple, un-showy, and yet, twenty five years after I first saw this movie, it is still impressive in its simplicity. It draws attention to itself to move to the flashback and not to just shout out, look at me, look what I can do.
30 years have been kind to Highlander. Derided upon its release it has become a cult classic of the 80’s high-concept genre movie, and as a great, entertaining movie is its own right. When I watched this movie before writing this article, I was amazed at how quickly it drew me back in, even though this must have been the 8000th time I watched it. As soon as Connery gave his opening speech and Queen kicked in, I felt like I was watching it for the first time again and every sword fight, flashback, and speech by The Kurgan, still felt as fresh as it must have been in 1986. If I had to choose a favourite of my crazy 80’s movie, there can be only one, and Highlander is it.