Highlander: Immortal Edition Review
It is 1518 and Connor Macleod is born to the Clan Macleod in the Highlands of Scotland. He grows up an unexceptional child when, in 1536 and aged eighteen, he rides into battle against the Clan Fraser. Across the battlefield he sees the man the Clan Fraser have put their hopes in, a fearsome warrior known only as the Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who, amongst all of the men on the battlefield, picks out Macleod. Cutting down every man who stands in his way, the Kurgan meets Macleod and defeats him easily but whilst he prepares to cut off his head, Macleod's own family rallies to him and drags his body from the battlefield, taking him home to nurse his wounds and to speed his recovery. But there is no recovery and Macleod soon passes away or so it seems. From receiving the last rites, Macleod recovers and is, within days, up from his bed without a mark on him. In a superstitious age, the talk is of the devil and Macleod is driven from the clan.
450 years later, Macleod is now living as antiques dealer Russell Nash in New York, which is host to an ever increasing number of immortals, the Kurgan amongst them. The NYPD is taking an interest in the number of decapitations in the city and it is after the death of Iman Fasil (Peter Diamond) that they arrest Nash/Macleod, bringing him in for the murder but at a loss as to why an antiques dealer might be involved. But it is the age of The Gathering, a bringing together of the remaining immortals to leave only one. As Macleod contemplates death or glory, he reflects on his life, on those he loved, those he counted as his friends and, above all else, how years of conflict, loss and murder has left him alone. As the Kurgan comes to meet him once again, Macleod sharpens his sword and prepares for The Gathering.
There can be only one! Or two, three, six or even fifteen. Actually, it was never particularly clear the numbers of Immortals there could have been. Or what it was that they were to achieve by being the only one. Highlander 2: The Quickening actually made this no clearer by suggesting that all of the efforts in this film were made for little more than growing old underneath a thick layer of makeup and for inventing something to do with the ozone layer, the earth's magnetic field or global warming. And that's not to mention what came next with a Duncan Macleod on television, Kane (Highlander III: The Final Dimension), Amanda (Highlander: The Raven) or that the Immortals were actually aliens from the planet Zeist. Oh, I don't know. None of that mattered a jot, though, when this film was released back in 1986, a B-movie made good that married the lopping off of heads to the flash of pop video visuals and the rock of Queen. It was all nonsense but it was the nonsense of Golan and Globus of Cannon and it's brothers in film were less serious action fare than Delta Force, Cobra and Commando. A generation of kids hanging around video shops were doubtless glad at its mix of horror and sci-fi.
Highlander could have been a miserable film but it dressed up what misery there was in the beautifully-lit glimmer of a pop video, never letting its audience sense that being an immortal is anything but a marvel. Macleod might well tend to mope about the Scottish Highlands, war torn Europe and New York dwelling on the past but the Kurgan has a wonderful time. And Highlander has a lot of fun with its premise, which errs somewhere between time-hopping sci-fi (Back to the Future, Trancers and Biggles: Adventures in Time were also released around the same time) and Dungeons & Dragons, mucking about whilst drunk and duelling on Boston common and saving a little girl from a trigger-happy Nazi one surprise away from learning the truth about his not being part of the master race. Just as Ghostbusters suggested that actually being a Ghostbuster might well be the greatest job opening ever so Highlander has it that wielding a sword, surviving all manner of flesh wounds, falls and drownings and living for ever was as much fun as one could have in several, possibly hundreds, of lifetimes.
What underpins the film is The Gathering, specifically the meeting in battle between the Kurgan and Connor Macleod, which takes 450 years to be resolved. The film doesn't do a good job of explaining exactly what the reward for being the last Immortal standing is and you might as well forget any attempt at understanding the Quickening, what running after a stag has to do with Immortality and why Macleod, having grown up in Scotland, speaks with a French accent. However, simply accept that this Gathering has been spoken about by Immortals for centuries and that it is something of the utmost importance to them and Highlander becomes a run of action sequences set against some supernatural hokum and terrible special effects. In many ways, it's a film that fluked an audience and, with it, one that remained with it no matter what canon it threw up. But it's easy to see why. Twenty years ago, violence to the body was something that had remained safely ensconced within horror, leaving films like this one to take beheadings, slicings and being skewered on the end of a sword into popular culture. Doubtless it's fantasy setting helped matters but so too did a fairly original premise and a certain humour, particularly Sean Connery's Egyptian Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez and Clancy Brown's Kurgan, a man who know's a villain's proper disrespect for church property and men and women of the cloth.
It all builds to a climactic swordfight between the Highlander and the Kurgan in, this being a budget Cannon offering, an abandoned industrial building in some rundown part of New York. Much awful animation and the strings holding Macleod in the air are all there for the audience to see but if you've made it that far, the fumblings of the special effects crew are as nothing to the general air of the film, which is both inept and yet forgivable. Forgivable, that is, to one who well remembers the Highlander that appeared on VHS in the mid-to-late eighties when the worth of a film was measured by how infrequently its box appeared on video shelves. I have much, perhaps too much, time for it and for its awful sequels but its appeal might well be limited when heads roll on Saturday teatime television and Raven (on CBBC) does the whole takedown thing a lot better. But for anyone who still, twenty years on, still finds a way to say, "There can be only one!" at least once daily, Highlander lives on.
Like so many films of the late-seventies to the middle of the eighties, Highlander was probably first seen by many as a rental copy from a video shop and, later, on television. The BBC have shown it regularly in the years following its first showing on television, until recently in a pan-and-scanned version. At first, it's something of a revelation to see Highlander in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and, with an anamorphic presentation, it does look good. But then the first of the white spots in the print appears and though Optimum have done a decent job in the actual transferring of the material onto DVD, they have done very little to clean up the print.
As the film goes on, the quality of the picture can be variable. It looks as though Russell Mulcahy used a mix of techniques in the making of his film - some scenes have much more grain than others - and, being a rock video director, he also tends towards the heavy use of fog and strobe lights common in the years after Blade Runner, with DVD doing little to make either look good. But then individual scenes stand out and it's clear that the quality of the print has much to do with the standard of this DVD. When it's good, Highlander looks very good indeed but the faults are evident, as they are during Macleod being interviewed at the police station or during the burial in the Highlands, it's a rotten watch.
The default DD5.1 audio is fine but don't expect anything from the rear channels. There is some use of them during Highlander but only in the occasional moment of ambient noise or in the Queen soundtrack. But in spite of that, it's clear enough, even if Christopher Lambert's enunciation isn't, and only in its quieter moments does one detect any background noise. Finally, though, this being an Optimum release, there are no subtitles to accompany the English dialogue track.
Commentary: Russell Mulcahy is own his own for this one and for a man who directed Duran Duran larking about on a boat in the Caribbean, he's rather dry. And not as mad as one who dragged Highlander II to the screen. There's much that Russell passes over in his commentary for this film, it being that age or the passing years has dimmed his memory of events but he seems to pick himself up and dust his mind off from the more important events even if his typical comment isn't some way off, "Scotland...lovely country!" And remarking on just how handsome Christopher Lambert was, which is true, but he's a whole hunk of man let down by an utter inability to act.
Documentary (85m11s): Happily, there is a documentary on the second disc that does a much better job of describing the making of Highlander, which begins, as it ought to, with the writing of the script and carries on to its eventual release. What's particularly good about the opening part of this feature is how it gently taps the memories of writers Gregory Widen (who scripted a more serious film) and Peter Bellwood (who did not) and how it places one in conflict with the other, one saying that they wanted the characters of Macleod and the Kurgan to be torn by their very long lives whilst the other strived for more laughs. But this is only the first part of the documentary, which carries on with DoP Gerry Fisher and Set Decorator Allan Cameron discussing the visual style of the film and, in the third part, Roxanne Hart on her character in the film and the experiences of being a woman in a film dominated by three men (Connery, Lambert and Brown).
Christopher Lambert Interview (8m32s): Hmmm...he is still a very handsome man, albeit one with a liking for purple sunglasses, which is just so wrong. Speaking in French and with English subtitles, Lambert talks a little about the making of Highlander but he is most animated as regards his favourite moments from the film, working with Sean Connery and how, "There can be only one!" is what people would remember. Yeah, he was right about that.
Finally, there is a set of Trailers, one for this film (2m26s) and others for Azumi (1m18s), Immortal (2m01s) and The Wicker Man (2m04s, original film).
Just to confuse matters somewhat, there was an earlier Highlander Immortal Edition, which might have been better titled the Queen Edition given that it skips over the likes of these extras in favour of a bonus CD and music videos of Freddie Mercury duelling with Christopher Lambert. Which does sound enormously exciting until one thinks that John Deacon, the dullest man in rock, is probably in there somewhere and the Queen/Highlander crossover is suddenly very tarnished. This release lives up to its billing much better with a decent documentary coming alongside a reasonable picture and soundtrack. And, of course, the film itself, which is often so enjoyable that the night after watching this on DVD, I was tempted to watch it once again on an ITV2 broadcast of it. That's largely the joy of watching the film, being daft but carried through with such enthusiasm and a willingness to wade about in fantasy, sci-fi and horror that is likeable, if not charming. But certainly not immortal, at least not after so many awful sequels.