It may have been universally panned by critics when it came out, but Highlander has since become one of the most iconic action films are the 80s. I’m not sure that it’s worthy of that status, but there’s no denying the film has a brooding, moody atmosphere that elevates it above standard action fare. In Highlander a race of immortals have been roaming the Earth for centuries fighting each other in one-on-one duels to decide who will become the last man standing and receive “The Prize”. We follow Connor MacLeod who was born in Highlands of Scotland 1518, has loved and fought for centuries and has grown weary of his fate as an immortal. After a winning a duel beneath Madison Square Garden and leaving a decapitated body behind, Connor becomes targeted by the police and in particular forensic analyst Brenda Wyatt, who is intrigued by ancient sword fragments found in the body. As they become romantically drawn to each other, a psychotic immortal known as The Kurgan arrives in New York and lays down the gauntlet to MacLeod to finish their centuries-old feud once and for all.
The set up is everything with Highlander, the idea of immortal swordsmen fighting their way through holds pretty much unlimited potential as far as action goes. What Mulcahy brings to the film is a bittersweet tone and noirish style that really evokes the internal ennui of MacLeod. Highlander is a considerably stylish film and features a high number of brilliant camera movements and scene transitions that remain impressive to this day. The sword fights are quite ambitious in scope and end in audacious explosion set pieces, but the choreography is rather static by today’s standards. There have been a number of rather flawed sequels to Highlander, which is mostly down to a failure to match the reflective nature of the first film’s narrative, which gives Highlander just enough depth to make the story engrossing and thought provoking while Mulcahy and the cast just fling themselves into the project and maintain a rather light approach. In particular Clancy Brown brings a lot of fun to the central villain. I’ve never felt that Highlander was a particularly great action film, but I have seen the film many times over the years and it never fails to engage my interest. It’s disposable entertainment done very well.
The Disc: I can’t say I was holding particularly high hopes for Highlander on Blu-ray, as it’s quite a dark film that’s overrun with mist, fog, smoke, and heavy backlighting which is always problematic on the digital format. In many ways this transfer demonstrates those issues, but when the wrestlers come out in the opening I was really taken aback by how detailed and vibrant the transfer was. The colour scheme was also bright and vivid and nicely contained, and remains very consistent throughout the film. Contrast and brightness also remain naturalistic throughout, black levels are pretty solid and shadow detail is excellent for such a darkly lit film. Image detail does tend to ebb and flow, which is really down to the sheer amount of grain present through most of the film. Highlander is awash with a thick layer of 80s grain that was pretty glaring even on its DVD incarnations, so I’m sure this will prove a contentious release for many Blu-ray fans.
As a result of the grain you are going to see compression noise in the image at times (mosquito, blocking), and you are going to see fine detail obscured in places, but for the most part the grain and its side effects are quite nicely contained. Another issue I found was that of a strange blue outline appears around objects frequently throughout the film, which may be down to refraction of light through the lens. This is present in one of the European DVD releases that I was able to get hold of, which would support the refraction theory. You can find an example of this issue in the final screen grab provided in the box below. I’ll just finish by saying the print has been cleaned up very well and only minor and infrequent EE has been applied. I might sound overly critical of this transfer, but there’s no doubt that this is easily the best Highlander has ever looked on home video.
Audio options excluding foreign dubs are English 2.0 surround and 5.1, both in DTS-HD master. Both tracks are nicely cleaned up and have pretty good dynamics for an 80s film. Dialogue is always audible and sounds pretty crisp, but in terms of bass the 2.0 surround track is far more naturally balanced, with the 5.1 sounding very artificial in the lower register, although both tracks understandably sound hollow compared to contemporary releases. Treble is also harsher on the 5.1 and there seems to be a fake foley-ness about some of the sound effects, even effects that sound fine on the 2.0 track. Both tracks offer a soundstage that seems pretty authentic to the film’s original stereo theatrical run, but the 2.0 Surround track is clearly the better of the two. Extra features are mostly taken from previous DVD releases, there’s a rather dry audio commentary with Russell Mulcahy and a lengthy making of feature that is really just sit down interviews with the writers and cinematographer/set decorator. The one BD exclusive extra is a selection of five extended/deleted scenes that were discovered when creating HD masters.
Note: Only the longer European cut of the film is present on this disc.