Highlander [retro viewing]

So, I really wanted to review Highlander. Really really. It’s fun and ridiculous and culty and one of my favorite movies of all time. Unfortunately for me, it’s also already been reviewed pretty much to a tee by Kyle. I had nothing to add. What’s a struggling mutant to do?

As in all my times of need, I turned to my darling mother’s advice on writing: “Alan,” she said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get long-winded.” Lo and behold, you have before you Highlander: The Mutant Viewing. Blow by blow, minute by minute, Queen song by Queen song, here are my thoughts, impressions, and snarks on the film that, for good or ill, launched Christopher Lambert into our collective living rooms and maybe-just maybe-our hearts. Thanks, mom!

:20 Onscreen text. Never a good way to start a movie. It always says to me that the filmmaker (or screenwriter) was too inept or too lazy to work whatever they’re saying into the screenplay organically. Be you Star Wars or Alone in the Dark, you get points off for written exposition. Thankfully, Sean Connery’s voice over does a good job of making it suitably eerie and epic.

:45 Of course, ‘Princes of the Universe’ (Queen Song #1) kicking up immediately afterwards goes a long way towards shrugging off any cheesiness and ignoring the bland red-on-black credits. Freddie Mercury just makes everything better (and if you don’t share this opinion, this is probably not your movie because Queen seems to be the only band that New Yorkers of the 1980s were allowed to listen to). On another note, I’ve always sort of wondered whether this song was made specifically for Highlander, or it just happened to be uncannily appropriate.

2:15 …And we’re off, with the always promising introduction of ‘Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell and the Tonga Kid, and their opponents (with a total combined weight of 725lbs) the Fabulous Freebirds. Remember, this is just one year after the original Wrestlemania, so the WWF was a fairly hot property at the time. It always makes me smile thinking about how excited the filmmakers must have been to have the WWF in this movie, and then they arrive on set only to find out that they’re filming with Jim Brunzell and the Tonga Kid. Talk about bursting a bubble.

3:15 The introduction of our protagonist, Conner McLeod, who is sporting the always attractive ‘slouched over in the poorly-lit cheap seats of a pro wrestling event’ look. I also like the idea that after being alive for 500 years, he has nothing better to do with his time then watch the WWF.

4:13 What’s with the guy in the bloody hockey mask in the crowd? I’ve been to several pro wrestling events in my life and I’ve *never* seen people wearing bloody hockey masks. Is he just being prepared in case a game breaks out?

4:30 Conner leaves the arena. If I had paid money to watch a Jim Brunzell match, I probably would, too.

4:45 The first good look at our hero. The shaggy hair, three-day beard growth, and trenchcoat that just looks a little too short all scream “Empathize with me!” but I think it’s the bright white Keds lo-tops that really sell the whole ‘Champion of All That is Good and Noble’ angle. Or is that the ‘Run if He Offers You Candy’ angle? I always get those two confused.

5:30 Enter Aviator Glasses Guy and our first major swordfight. I’m as big a fan of sword fights as any red-blooded male, especially ones that give a plausible reason (well, sort of) for large explosions to go off during every single strike, but it’s also my first major Errrrgggghhhh moment of Highlander: most of the swordplay just isn’t all that good. Given the entire premise revolves around immortal swordsmen dueling until only the best of the best remain, I’m pretty freaking disappointed in the fight choreographer. I honestly feel like the guys on our college fencing team would stand a decent chance against these two. Oh well, there are enough explosions to distract me for the time being.

9:05 Aviator Glasses Guy bites it. How many years did it take before beheadings on film looked even passingly realistic?

9:23 Our first look at The Quickening, basically a lot of yelling and screaming, badly animated lightning, and explosions. As I am all about extra explosions, I am pretty okay with this. I really can’t help but think, though, that this sort of thing should have attracted more attention before now, since he just raised the auto insurance premiums of all three thousand people in the parking garage.

11:00 We’re in the past, and Connor looks way better covered in furs and hair extensions. It’s actually pretty impressive with all the natural scenery and neat old bridges and whatnot.

12:42 Connor’s wife runs up and gives him flowers to wear as he rides into battle for the first time. As this is long before movies existed and books seem to be of a lower priority in this village than, say, oh, packing new mud onto your hut, she has no way of knowing that this means he is now going to die. No exceptions. Good job, lady.

13:27 Clancy Ever-Lovin’ Brown-the Kurgan, dressed in awesome black knight armor. You know, it’s the nuances of this movie that really draw me in: you can tell he’s the villain because he’s pale as death and his armor is completely covered in skulls. Yay, subtlety!

15:00 I really like Connor here, desperately wanting to be in the battle and everyone just runs away from him. He has a great expression of confusion and a creeping sort of dread on his face.

15:10 A throat-slitting priest. That’s the man I want advising me on how to live my life.

15:42 It’s a bit unfair that Kurgan is the only guy here with a horse. He does, at least, get off before he stabs Connor in the stomach. That’s pretty sporting.

16:09 The first uttering of There Can Be Only One. It’s just such a good catchphrase. No wonder there were so many sequels. Except that doesn’t make any sense at all.

16:29 Iris out into an actual iris. Heh.

16:47 So after 450 years of sword fights, Connor has learned the best thing to do after beheading an opponent and causing massive property damage is to burn rubber out of the parking garage at fifty miles an hour on the wrong side of the road in the flashiest car he can find instead of going back up the stairs to the sporting event where there are thousands of people around to blend in with.

16:54 Tell me he doesn’t look like a serial killer here. No wonder he gets arrested.

17:20 I love how super-pissed this cop is for no apparent reason. He also looks so proud that he gets to handcuff a suspect.

18:00 The past again. Connor is dead, according to the priest with the silly haircut. His wife weeps and looks particularly hideous.

19:50 Back in the present, er, 1986. I’m pretty sure the black guy in the crowd around the crime scene is the immortal who turns up later in the movie during the bridge scene. I hope so, because I’ve always thought it was a nice touch.

20:30 We learn Connor is living under the name Russell Nash and is an antiques dealer. We also meet Brenda Wyatt, who apparently works in the medieval weapons division of the NYPD. She identifies Aviator Glasses Guy’s sword as a Toledo Salimanka Broadsword and appraises its value at ‘about a million bucks.’

21:51 Connor finally speaks during a police interrogation. Instead of the Scottish brogue of the flashback, it’s coarse and indistinctly Eurotrashy. The director says he and Christopher Lambert worked very hard on creating an accent for Connor that was ‘nonspecifically foreign.’ They did a pretty good job, mostly because I don’t think he’s stopped using it for the past 20 years. Really, listen to Mortal Kombat again. Or Beowulf.

22:33 Connor bashes Jim Brunzell’s wrestling ability. I knew I liked this movie for a reason.

23:00 The same pissed off cop is back again and I just don’t know what his issue is. I like to imagine it’s problems at home that are bleeding over into his professional life because there is really just no other explanation for all this hostility. His wife is sleeping around but he can’t bring himself to face her about it, he’s estranged from his dying father and doesn’t know how to reconcile, and when he was putting away his son’s laundry this morning, he found a baggie of pot in his sock drawer. Now, at work, he’s faced with this slimy Euro-dude in a trenchcoat. Letting his pent up anger flow, he tries to egg Connor on with his theory of why he and Aviator Glasses Guy were alone in the parking garage together (use your imagination). When Connor doesn’t bite, he explodes and decks him. It’s sad, really. The man needs counseling.

23:45 Kurgan again, 1986-style, listening to Gimme the Prize (Queen Song #2), pimped out in chains and leather.

24:21 Note the giant, nasty scar across Kurgan’s throat. That always skeeves me out.

24:47 We see Kurgan’s Build-A-Broadsword set, and finally just a little bit of swordplay that convinces me he deserves to have survived to The Gathering.

25:46 “Hi, I’m Candy.” “Of course you are.” I love 80’s Kurgan. Also- did prostitutes in the 1980’s really look like this in real life? Ever? ‘Cause she’s making a bold statement, right there.

28:00 Brenda in the bar, listening to “One Year of Love” (Queen Song #3) and drinking wine. Can I take a moment to mention how annoying I find it when someone is having their glass filled and the Fillee says “When.” because the Filler said “Say when?” It’s not funny or clever, so please quit it and start talking like a grownup. The same goes for you, people who say ‘beep beep’ because I’m in your way. Seriously.

28:30 Anyway, back in our movie, we’re at the point where Brenda meets Connor and he tries to put the moves on her. Through sheer force of will, she resists his child-molester-ish charms and rebuffs him.

30:38 Kurgan and Connor duel. Connor loses his sword and resorts to Ninja Turtles 2-style weapons substitution. It doesn’t work nearly as well as it did for our heroes on the half-shell, and thankfully, cops show up just in time to stave off his need to sell his hat collection.

31:54 That is perhaps the most ineffectual police helicopter ever. Connor runs away and the guy on the bullhorn actually says “Hey! Come back here!” and then moves the searchlight in the wrong direction.

32:40 Back in the past. The villagers are gathered in the pub, talking in hushed voices about Connor and how he’s come back to life. His always supportive wife suggests he’s ‘got the devil in him.’ Why is it always the devil in these movies? Does no one ever think it could be a miracle instead of immediately jumping to “He’s in league with Lucifer!”

33:50 And with a beer bottle to the head, which really looks like it hurts, Connor is an outcast. He is beaten, pelted with what would appear to be potatoes, and is being run out of town on a rail. Well, an oxen’s yoke, actually, but he is running.

34:47 When I get married, I think I’m going to make sure there’s a passage in her vows about ‘I will never burn him at the stake’ and have her pinky swear to it, too, because Connor’s first wife in this movie is the most inciteful little hate-monger ever.

35:36 I really like the dissolve here from Connor’s beaten face to the Mona Lisa as we go back to the present.

36:05 One nice thing about immortality, I guess, is that you can set yourself up with some sweet real estate. This apartment rules.

37:10 Back to the past, but not as far back as before. It’s five years later, Connor has found a new wife, Heather, and he’s landed a total hottie this time.

38:24 The final cast member of our little troupe is introduced, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, chief metallurgist to King Charles V of Spain; aka Sean Connery. Only Sean Connery can put on that much absurd clothing and make it look awesome. Believe me, I’ve tried.

39:17 Connor is struck by lightning, presumably because there hasn’t been an explosion in nearly fifteen minutes, and Ramirez tells him this is the Quickening. Interestingly, every other piece of canonical Highlander lore says that what happened after the swordfight with Aviator Glasses Guy was the Quickening, which means that lightning was apparently just an accident.

40:29 1986. Look at Connor’s mug shot. His eyes seem to follow you wherever you go…

40:50 So Brenda wrote “A Metallurgical History of Ancient Sword-Making.” Do I smell a love interest?

41:38 Back to the past.

    MacLeod: You look like a woman with all of that clothing, you stupid haggis.
    Ramirez: Haggis? What is haggis?
    MacLeod: Sheep’s stomach stuffed with wheat and barley.
    Ramirez: And… what do you do with it?
    MacLeod: You eat it!
    Ramirez: How revolting!

Hee. I love these two together.

42:39 I like Conner hanging out on the bottom of the lake laughing to himself. I suppose I don’t have much more to say about it. It’s just a neat moment.

44:16 Ramirez’ explanation of why the Immortals exist: “Why does the sun come up? Are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of night? Who knows?” This, my dear filmmakers, is an example of a good answer. Bad answers involve alien planets and Michael Ironside with long hair. I’m looking at you, Highlander II.

45:00 The hours approaching, to give it your best
You’ve got to reach your prime.
That’s when you need to put yourself to the test
And show us a passage of time
Were going to need a montage (montage)
Ooh it takes a montage (montage)

Connor gets good with a sword and Ramirez delivers a lot of exposition, including the ultimate reason for all their battle: the mysterious Prize, awarded to the last immortal standing. Like Cracker Jacks, no one knows exactly what to expect, but it’s sure to be good-unless it’s a knock-knock joke or a crummy sticker or something. Connor actually shows enough skill during this sequence to let me assume that Aviator Glasses Guy just caught him on a bad day.

I should also note that this whole training bit actually ends with Connor and Ramirez running on the beach together and laughing. Rocky and Apollo would be proud.

49:57 Connor learns he can’t have kids. Frowny faces all around.

52:20 “The Kurgan is from an ancient people from the steppes of Russia. For amusement they toss children into pits with hungry dogs to fight for meat.” I miss him already.

53:55 There he is! I knew we had gone too long without an explosion.

54:25 Kurgan gets that funky neck scar courtesy of Ramirez and chokes on his own blood until the wound heels. Neat.

55:55 The first explosion of our duel. Weirdly, all the walls that crumble in this fight explode inward instead of outward like you’d expect.

58:00 Au revoir, Sir Sean. See you next film!

59:00 Not much to say here, I just want to note the introduction of Connor’s ‘secretary,’ Rachel, who is doing her best to maintain Connor’s cover as Russell Nash under Brenda’s rather withering barrage of questions. Also, Brenda agrees to a date in the hopes of pumping Connor for information. Let’s move on before I say something tasteless.

1:00:17 PRODUCT PLACEMENT ALERT! Gotta love the old-school Doritos bag at the police precinct.

1:00:40 This flashback was apparently cut from the original North American release. Connor rescues Rachel as a little girl in World War II: “Whatever you say Jack. You’re the Master Race.” Heh heh.

1:03:10 Bookended with their kiss in this scene, Rachel and Connor are given a surprising amount of dimension for such a small relationship in the movie. In that instant, you can see the entire breadth of their relationship: once father and daughter, then man and woman, now mother and son. It’s odd but tender and adds an important bit of tragedy and ennui that I’m not sure any other part of the film hits so squarely on the head.

1:03:48 Hey, Connor shows up at Brenda’s apartment for their date and doesn’t look like a total serial rapist! Way to scrub up, kiddo!

1:04:58 One of my favorite little moments in the movie. While Brenda is in the other room, Connor opens some drawers to discover her turned-on tape recorder and a rather gigantic handgun. “I like your place, Brenda.”

1:06:18 Sniffing the wine, Connor says “1783 was a very good year.” and I love that you can really tell he means it.

1:07:05 Busted, lady! NARC! NARC!

1:08:56 Back to Scotland. Time passes, medieval wife Heather lives a long life with Connor and grows old to the tune of ‘Who Wants to Live Forever?’ (Queen Song #4) Now an old woman, he agrees to light a candle every year on her birthday and she dies happy in his arms. Especially considering that Christopher Lambert is not an actor known for his tremendous range, I’m always amazed what a sweet and sad scene it is. Good job.

1:13:25 Time for the bridge scene I mentioned before with Kastogir, the black guy who was possibly in the parking garage at the beginning of the movie. No great shakes as a setpiece (aside from the neat bridge), but leads into the best flashback in the film: 1783; Connor, too drunk to hold a sword, attempts (badly) to duel to an aristocratic English lord. He’s run through again and again and again until his frustrated opponent is forced to give up and let Connor stumble away, alive and well.

1:17:00 Aaaaaaaaaand we’re back to Kurgan, kicking ass and taking names. Good thing, too. We’re almost on twenty minutes without an explosion and I’m starting to get antsy.

1:17:36 Our last character introduction. I’m too lazy to look up his real name, so I’m going to call him Bernie Goetz. We meet Bernie cruising with his semiautomatic weapons, listening to ‘Hammer to Fall’ (Queen Song #5). You might wonder why he would be packing that kind of heat belted in the passenger side of the car, but remember: New York. 1986. You would be, too.

1:18:20 Bernie stumbles on Kurgan and Kastogir fighting in an alley. Sadly, as Kastogir was introduced to us five minutes ago, he doesn’t stand much of a chance. Once Kastogir’s toast, Bernie opens fire on Kurgan with some of the aformentioned firepower and gets stabbed in the gut for his trouble.

1:20:40 More explosions! Yay!

1:21:27 In celebration of his Quickening, Kurgan indulges in everyone’s favorite past time- terrorizing the elderly. It never ceases to amuse me that the man yells about his car instead of his wife.

1:22:41 The police look so crestfallen when Bernie says Connor is not the droid they’re looking for and ID’s Kurgan as the headhunter.

1:24:20 The hotdog vendor here cracks me up reading the newspaper to the cops; he’s such a smartass. “What does incompetent mean?” “What does baffled mean?”

1:25:24 Brenda unravels the mystery of Russell Nash. Didn’t Sideshow Bob win an election like this at one point?

1:26:38 Man, computers in the 80s could do anything. I wish I had a 286…

1:27:30 Connor lights a candle for Heather in the church and chats with Kurgan in the pew. Did I mention that they can’t fight on Holy ground? Well, they can’t.

1:32:00 Kurgan is so wonderfully, horribly evil throughout this entire scene, and all he does is talk. I love it. Clancy Brown seriously needs an award of some kind. Now.

1:35:20 The cat’s out of the bag. Brenda confronts Connor and calls him on his unusually long permanent record, so Connor kills himself. Naturally, they end up having sex.

1:37:10 Kurgan captures Brenda, ’cause, well, that’s what happens in these movies. Playing in the background is “A Dozen Red Roses for My Darling” (Queen Song #6)

1:38:02 Kurgan and Brenda go joyriding. I love Clancy’s mock-terrified expressions here and the transition from his rendition of “New York New York” into Freddie Mercury’s (Queen Song #7). He’s such a jerk.

1:43:00 Kurgan vs Connor. This time, it’s personal! A fun fight on the billboard scaffolding. Lots of Metal + Lots of Neon = Lots of Explosions = Big Goofy Grins Coming From My Direction.

1:44:00 Act two of our final battle in the water from the knocked over water tower is also entertaining to watch. It’s visually interesting, what with all the water whipping about, and sort of has an Apocalypse Now I’m-a-killer-rising-out-of-the-water thing going on.

1:47:00 Act three in the warehouse is the least interesting location, but allows them a lot of large empty spaces for actual swordplay and swelling, triumphant music. Plus there’s a bunch of windows so you know there’ll be some sweet explosions later on.

1:49:03: Conner wins. Kurgan’s neck flops open like a Zippo and begins leaking Prizey goodness.

1:49:40 THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE. BOOM! – There’s those explosions I was talking about! Yee-ha!

1:50:20 A big animated tornado sweeps Connor off his feet with the help of really, really poorly hidden cable wires: “The Quickening overwhelms me! I see everything! I know everything! I am everything!” Well that’s… vague.

1:51:30 We’re back in Scotland, but in the present day. Er, 1986. Connor and Brenda talk about the Prize: “If I concentrate, I know what people are thinking all over the world . . . I can love and have children, die and grow old.” So, he can now read minds and die. I mean, that’s cool and all, but so can Jean Grey, and she gets a big, flaming bird-spirit to boot. The director says they didn’t have an ending for their movie when filming started-they didn’t know what the Prize was going to be. I believe them.

1:53:00 The End. Credits song: A Kind of Magic (Queen Song #8) No immortals were harmed in the making of this picture.


And that, folks and folkettes, is Highlander. Well, my pointing-and-laughing, building-up-and-tearing-down of Highlander. I really do have a lot of love for Russell Mulcahy’s piece de resistance, and certainly hope I was able convey all the lessons it has taught me:

(1) With eight songs in a movie under two hours long, Queen is clearly an unstoppable force of nature and will one day rise again to claim our world as it’s ottoman as it reclines triumphantly in the La-Z-Boy of the universe.

(2) Clancy Brown is awesome and desperately needs more flashback appearances on Lost.

(3) Christopher Lambert could quite possibly spend most of his free time luring small children into his car and I can’t say I’d be surprised.

(4) Telepathy is seriously not worth half a millennium of swordfights.

So thanks, Russell! You rule!

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2 Comments

  1. All the songs from Highlander can be found on the unofficial Highlander Soundtrack… the record is called “A Kind of Magic” and of course, it’s all Queen, and it’s a must have for any Highlander fan. This is the best movie out of the entire run of films, but I actually liked the TV series a little better… though it’s format got extremely repetitive over the run of the series.

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