Highlander - Immortal Edition Review
As is customary with my reviews I shall nail my colours to the mast early on. I am a huge Queen fan and as a result this film gains at least 1 mark for having a sublime soundtrack. It is ironic that Queen should provide the soundtrack, as the director Russell Mulcahy was a renowned music video director when he was approached to direct this film (his work with Duran Duran is well documented). His only previous feature to this was the cult Australian film, Razorback.
The plot should be well known to most of you. Connor MacLeod (Lambert) of the clan MacLeod is a member of a race of immortals who have been summoned for the “Gathering”. This is a time when they must meet and fight until only one remains, he shall win the “Prize”. The story plays out fairly typically with numerous flashbacks to MacLeod’s origins in Scotland where he is banished from his town and is trained by the Egyptian, Ramirez (Connery). In the present, the sword fights come thick and fast as the immortals whittle their numbers down until only two remain (A severed head ends an immortal’s existence). The big bad guy is the Kurgan (Brown) who is the epitome of evil and of course before the end MacLeod must face him. Amongst all of this a pathologist, Brenda Wyatt (Hart), is trying to solve the mystery of Russell Nash (MacLeod’s latest in a long line of identities).
At the time of its release this film was unfairly slated although one memory will always stick in my mind. Barry Norman on Film 86 made the comment that the main Scotsman in the film was played by a Frenchman (Lambert) and the Egyptian/Spaniard was played by a Scot (Connery)! This is an amusing comment but the criticism of the film is mostly misguided. Indeed Barry Norman completely missed the point of the film (not unusual for him with mainstream genre films). The film’s reception was so poor that a soundtrack album was planned but never released so Queen incorporated all of the film tracks into their studio album “A Kind of Magic”. In the end the film garnered a cult following on video and as a result we see a great release from Anchor Bay on DVD.
The main thing I should point out with this film is that you can tell that it was directed by a music video director. In fact the whole film plays out as one big music video. The gratifying thing is that for the most part it works admirably. Visually the film is delightful with sweeping cameras following the many fight scenes. The only failing with this approach is the romance between MacLeod and Brenda. This seems awkward and unnatural. Ironically the flashback romance with Heather (Edney) seems far subtler and the chemistry between the actors seems much better. Indeed this culminates with the fantastic montage showing the end of that relationship accompanied by the haunting song “Who wants to Live forever?”. Other high points are the other flashbacks. One is in World War 2 Germany where MacLeod meets a small girl who he saves from a German soldier; she becomes his secretary and confidante. The second is the flashback to a drunken duel against tricky Dicky from EastEnders (I kid you not).
The acting throughout is patchy. Clancy Brown and Sean Connery steal the show in the present and past respectively. Brown’s presence is fantastic and the scene in the church is his signature piece. Meanwhile in the flashbacks Connery simply blows away the opposition even though he seems to be sleepwalking the part to some extent. Lambert and Hart don’t fare nearly as well. Lambert has a great face and his expressions help to carry his performance and character through the film. However his grasp of English when he made this film was shaky veering towards non-existent and it shows. Much like Schwarzennegger in the Terminator he is best when silent. Hart doesn’t have much to work with and she has no chemistry with Lambert making her pretty much useless to the film especially when stacked up against Beatie Edney who easily wins the battle of the love interest.
Now I get to wax lyrical about Queen’s contribution. The popularity of the film and the plaudits it has received in recent times can be laid partially at the door of the soundtrack. The film starts with “Princes of the Universe” and this is an inspired opening to the film both visually and aurally. The camera sweeps over the wrestling arena as Queen blasts out of the speakers and it helps set the mood perfectly. Also Michael Kamen’s work with Brian May on the orchestral arrangement for “Who Wants to Live Forever?” helps to give the film an emotional grounding. The other top moments are the more heavy tracks associated with the Kurgen; Gimme The Prize and Don’t Lose Your Head spring to mind.
Overall the film is not perfect by any means. It is a good solid fun film (more than can be said for its sequels). It isn’t a true classic and if it wasn’t for the Queen soundtrack it may well have disappeared completely. If you aren’t a Queen fan you can deduct 1 mark from my score but as I get to choose the score it’s going to get a good solid 8.
Highlander has had a tough time on DVD. The original R1 director’s cut was an atrocious release. The picture was plagued with artefacts and given the films frequent use of smoke and mist this made it look an absolute mess. Since then we have had a decent R2 barebones release, which had reasonable picture and sound. Now Anchor Bay has given R1 another chance of having a definitive release. Please note here I have reviewed the Immortal edition, which is the 2-disc special edition, there is also a single disc version.
The packaging for this two-disc edition is rather special. It comes in a double Alpha case and slots into a rather nice metal tin slipcase (A bit like T2 R1 but better). Inside there is a reasonable booklet with two short essays. The first is a piece on Russell Mulcahy and the making of the film; it is superficial but interesting nonetheless. The second covers Queen’s involvement in the film, again it is short but informative. Once you pop the disc in you are presented with some good, appropriate animated menus and 28 chapters in the scene selection.
Given the previous R1 release this one could only be better. The picture is 1.85:1 as originally presented and is anamorphic. The print is clean and mostly free of specks and flecks. The picture itself is fairy sharp with some grain in the flashback scenes (possibly intentional). The transfer itself is solid with no noticeable artifacting introduced. The colours are reasonable and the shadow detail accurate. Overall it isn’t brilliant but it is a million times better than the original release and it is marginally better than the R2 barebones release. It hasn’t looked better to me and I’m pretty sure this is the best it can look.
Given the musical bias of the film we need the soundtrack to be polished and vibrant. Luckily Anchor Bay are on the ball as usual. Here we have a 5.1 EX remix track and a DTS-ES 6.1 track. The 5.1 EX track is very lively and the music really hits you in the intro. The dialogue is clear for the most part with only a couple of scenes seeming a bit quiet. The use of rears is as active as you’d expect from an Anchor Bay release. I still feel these remixes can be a bit intrusive and this one is no exception. The DTS-ES 6.1 track is very similar to the 5.1 although it seems a little bit richer with a slightly livelier soundstage. Again as is usual with Anchor Bay the original soundtrack is not available, which is a shame. Please note I don’t have a 6.1 DTS setup so I haven’t commented on the difference the extra rear speaker makes.
Here is where you have to make your decision between the 2-disc and single disc versions. The simple difference is that the second disc is unique to this set and also the music videos on Disc 1 are only available in this edition. Analysing the differences between the sets, this set could quite easily have been called "The Queen Fan Edition"
First we have a commentary from Russell Mulcahy, Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer (producers). This track starts off a little dry and technical. After a while it warms up and towards the end there is a fair amount of banter flying back and forth. There are plenty of production related anecdotes and stories. The scenes shot in Scotland/London/Wales/New York are pointed out and this is certainly very interesting. Queen fans please note that there are quite a few references to their contribution.
Next up we have three music videos from Queen (Directed by Mulcahy). “Princes of the Universe” is first and it is definitely the standout. Just watching Freddie duelling with Lambert is a treat… Also I believe Queen broke the mould again as being the first film music video to have the actual star deign to show up for filming. Second is “Who Wants To Live Forever?”, this is a slightly muted video that suits the song. The third is the “Kind of Magic” video, which contains no footage from the film. This video is very inventive and enjoyable. All three videos look a little rough visually and it is a shame that Anchor Bay didn’t afford them the same attention as the main feature. Please note these videos only appear in the "Immortal edition".
Finally we have a poster & stills gallery, two trailers and some cast & crew biographies. The trailers are bog standard stuff and the biographies are slightly better than the norm giving a decent potted history of each actor. The posters & stills are a nice collection, but nothing special.
The second disc is one of the main selling points of this edition and it is disappointing. It is a music CD containing three Queen tracks. These are “Princes of the Universe”, “One Year of Love” (Extended version) and “Friends will be Friends”. Basically this is a missed opportunity. For instance why didn’t they use the “Princes of the Universe” extended remix? This is a relatively rare track (especially in this country). The “One Year of Love” extended mix is a welcome track as again this isn’t that easy to find. But then we have “Friends will be Friends”… Why? This is a great track, but it has nothing to do with the film! Queen wrote this and One Vision to fill out the studio album “A Kind of Magic” surely including a track from the film would be more appropriate?
This is a great film with a handful of flaws, visually amazing but lacking in depth. The Immortal edition is a mixed bag. The picture and sound are great and I don’t expect them to bettered in the near future. The extras package is disappointing and the additional disc is a missed opportunity. Queen fans will snap this up and so they should. Highlander fans and more neutral observers may want to dip their toe in the water with the single disc version.