Few will (or ought to) make the case that Highlander is some kind of unassailable classic, whose memory must never be tarnished by a remake. Which is just as well, as one has been (inevitably) percolating for a few years now. Russell Mulcahy’s original, made at the height of MTV’s influence on cinema, was only ever a patchy affair at best. It gave rise to a string of even patchier (outright dreadful, even) sequels and a TV series, none of which made good on the promise of Gregory Widen’s arresting premise. In some cases, they pissed all over it. While it might be suggested the movie hasn’t aged well, the truth is it was thoroughly cheesy even back then. And yet, it has a certain something; Highlander is an amiable brew of the grandiose and witty and the dumb and trashy. Needless to say, the majority of the former (positive) elements also feature Sean Connery.
Mulcahy came to prominence as one of the formative music video directors; his Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star inaugurated MTV in 1981. Some of the (first half of) the decade’s best-known promos, including Ultravox’s Vienna, Spandau Ballet’s True and Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart followed. Then there were his Duran Duran collaborations, culminating in The Wild Boys (a blatant Mad Max rip-off). By 1984 Mulcahy, an Australian, got his first feature off the ground; outback wild boar horror Razorback.
His subsequent career has been patchy at best, failing to capitalise on his status as one of the world’s most in-demand music video directors. Unlike his predecessors, who moved from advertising into movies (Ridley and Tony Scott, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne), or the later David Fincher who essayed the transition from promos with just one major hiccup (Alien³), Mulcahy never really found his footing on the big screen.
Highlander remains his most recognised work, and he managed to sully its reputation with the dire sequel Highlander II: The Quickening five years later. By the mid-90s he was reduced to direct-to-video movies and subsequently television (the home for many an ’80s/’90s director whose options have dried up). He is currently a mainstay on the Teen Wolf show but briefly returned to cinema screens in 2007 with Resident Evil: Extinction, the second sequel in the franchise and by some distance the best of the series (not a difficult task).
It’s not clear quite why Mulcahy screwed the pooch, since there are much less talented directors out there getting regular work. By the early ’90s he had toned down some of his more excessive flourishes but, looking back at Highlander, it is not so much the flash as the inconsistency that mars his work. His compositions are often highly imaginative, and remain so. His transitions, for example, are tremendous. They may not be subtle, but they are always arresting. The camera pulls up to the bright expanse a Scottish glen from murk of a carpark; zooms out from Connor Macleod’s (Christopher Lambert) eyeball; his face dissolves into an advertisement showing the Mona Lisa. Best of all, a fish tank becomes a loch. Unfortunately, this panache is frequently more impressive than the surrounding scenes. Most damagingly, he seems to have little awareness of the psychology of a scene. He places his camera somewhere because it might look cool, not because it helps the actors, the drama, the tone or – often – the action.
So Highlander looks alternatively sumptuous and shabby. Queen contributes a number of original songs to the soundtrack (including A Kind of Magic and Who Wants to Live Forever) that lend the proceedings a bombast Mulcahy cannot match tonally. Ironically in this regard, his best work is in the flashback sequences where the accompaniment comes from Michael Kamen. His penchant for low angles during fights lacks grace, and choppy editing renders them, if not incoherent, lacking the necessary momentum and excitement.
Gregory Widen cited Ridley Scott’s The Duellists as one of his inspirations, but its superficial similarityThe Terminator most comes to mind on seeing this again. Both films feature protagonists and antagonists out of time, haunted by remembrances of different ages. In both the bad guy is a huge unstoppable leather-clad brute, while the hero runs about in a mac.
The main beats of Widen’s mythology are suitably vague, in a manner you wouldn’t get away with now (while fans of the franchise tend to affirm that there can be only one canonical movie, many of the assumptions on its lore appear to derive from the TV show). There are immortals, where they come from (no, don’t look to Highlander II for answers) no one knows. Why they have to fight, no one knows; they just do. The need to decapitate appears to be a nod to vampire legend, as does nominal safety on holy ground. The employment of flashbacks to depict past eras has since become a standard vampire device. (Also, in terms of the film’s influential status, the post-2005 version of Doctor Who has borrowed the Quickening wholesale for its rather unimaginative regeneration effect.)
The idea of an eternal battle only runs out of juice when the Prize is revealed as a bit of a damp squib. One wonders, given that it is summarised in a vague and wistful voice over, whether this was a hasty after-thought to provide some closure. There’s something a little too close to Blade Runner’s stock footage happy ending in the appearance of Sean Connery’s Ramirez (a bit Obi Wan, that), and the news that Connor is now mortal. We are told he knows “what people are thinking all over the world” and can “help them understand each other”. Okay… And he’s going to do this while he’s getting old and raising the family he’s always dreamed of? Unlike the usual “curse of immortality” plots, there’s no suggestion here that Connor was really hankering to die, so you end up questioning how positive this development is. His main source of sorrow is the loss of his great love, but the present-day scenes do nothing to sell us the idea that he has found someone her equal, or that he’s deeply vexed (Mulcahy mainly succeeds in suggesting any given encounter triggers a full-on reminiscence, which is highly indulgent of Connor/Russell Nash but not necessarily indicative of abject misery).
You’d have thought immortals would be more discerning of ephemeral fashions after centuries or millennia, but Connor and the Kurgan (Clancy Brown) appear to fully embrace eras’ worst excesses. ’80s Connor looks like a tramp, or a flasher. Certainly not someone with a multi-million-dollar antiques business at his disposal. The Kurgan models himself as a heavy metaller which, given his previous aspect, is probably quite fitting. Brown, who sounds like he’s been eating rusty nails, gives a full-blooded performance but it isn’t until quite a way through that he gets a chance to show his acting chops. Most of the time he’s called onto play the meathead. But, during his church meeting with Connor, his obnoxiousness and asides (“Nuns, no sense of humour”) allow him to have a bit of fun (Brown reportedly caused actual offence to the clergy present with his improvisations).
Yet there are also some adroit choices. Connor becoming an antiques dealer is most logical. His reinvention under a different name every generation or so isn’t original in itself, but having it illustrated with (then) modern computer wizardry is a nice touch. The devotion of Rachel (Sheila Gish) is effectively and economically depicted with a flashback of saving her from the Nazis (“It’s a kind of magic”). Alan North is dynamite as your classic befuddled police lieutenant, adept at the one-liner as only a regular on Police Squad! could be. There’s a nice bit of ragging too, as a newspaper vendor impertinently reads from a report on the case (“What does incompetent mean? What does baffled mean?”) John Polito also appears as a detective, embracing the chance for some snack acting.
Unfortunately, Roxanne Hart’s Brenda is fairly woeful. She has zero chemistry with Lambert and struggles to make anything out of a paper-thin character (why is she attracted to Connor, aside from the lucky coincidence that she writes books on ancient swords and just happens to be investigating a case involving ancient swords?) One of the reasons the ending stumbles is that you’re left thinking, “You’ve succumbed to mortality for this? I give it six weeks”.
Generally, Mulcahy makes a bit of a pig’s ear of his New York set pieces (and the ones filmed in an English car park or alley doubling for New York). A stylishly positioned pair of sunglasses reflects our hero but don’t help the scene. Running across car roofs and engaging in ridiculously hyperactive super-somersaults are no substitutes for coherent fight choreography. He does this again in the initial face-off between Connor and the Kurgan; the arrival of a police helicopter spotlights that this is nothing so much as a couple of big kids playing sword fights. When the so-so finale arrives, it culminates in shower of slow-motion exploding glass before Connor is elevated by some obvious wires and accompanied by ropey animated effects that wouldn’t look out of place in an Iron Maiden video.
As patchy as 1985 New York turns out, Mulcahy rises to the occasion with the vistas of sixteenth-century Scotland. He really should have paid attention to what worked here and gone on to make a slew of period movies. This was Lambert’s first English language film proper (Greystoke gave him a few lines) and he blunders through the film with a kind of wooden affability. His “Scottish” accent causes as much mirth as Connery’s “Egyptian” one (they’re both from “Lots of different places”; Lambert’s “I’m Connor McLeod of the clan McLeod” and “Aye, blossom” are gloriously mangled and highly quotable) but he’s at his most engaging during his highland fling. That all-important chemistry is readily present-and-correct, with Connery and, crucially, Beatie Edney’s Heather.
Indeed, the solid work done during the establishing scenes of Connor (which include the great James Cosmo), his first encounter with the Kurgan and exile from the village (“He’s in league with Lucifer” shouts a young Celia Imrie) puts the sloppy and crude twentieth-century sequences to shame. (There’s also a lovely little comedy vignette set in 1783, where a hung-over Connor must fight a duel.) The action has a sense of the epic sorely lacking elsewhere. The movie’s standout sequence is a fight between Ramirez and the Kurgan in a disintegrating tower. It’s obviously all done on a soundstage, but there’s a real flourish to the editing and visuals. You’d almost think Mulcahy had looked to John Boorman’s Excalibur for his cues.
Because Edney and Lambert are appealing together, Mulcahy succeeds in conveying the sadness of Heather growing old and dying while Connor remains every youthful. But this also unbalances the film, as Hart stands no chance of replacing her.
Connery, meanwhile, is splendidly breezy and personable. This was the first in his cycle of middle-aged reinvention as a mentor figure. In quick succession he would follow Ramirez with a string of defining roles (The Name of the Rose, The Untouchables, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) where, despite assuming the elder statesman role, he seemed more vital than he had in years, decades even. Of course, he sounds as Scottish as ever (“I’m not Spanish, I’m Egyptian”) but how could that be an issue when he’s clearly enjoying himself so much? An orange-tanned, nimble, 2,437-year-old dandy might not be the first thing you’d expect from the actor, but he has an easy rapport with Lambert (the two became good friends) and his presence, a mere week’s work, adds immeasurable production value in class and gravitas.
Highlander did next to no business in the US. In Europe, it found huge success on video (which is how I discovered it, not long after it had exited cinemas). I wouldn’t say it was ever an all-time favourite, but I was looking forward to the sequel. I even went to see Highlander II at the cinema. A terrible mistake.
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is the first timer charged with bringing the Highlander remake to the screen. None of the names bandied about since the reboot was announced in 2008 have persuaded me that this would be other than an uninspired brand cash-in; Justin Lin, then Juan Carlos Fresnadillo were on board as directors. Ryan Reynolds, who went from next big thing to next-to-unemployable, was attached to star (I’m assuming he’s off it). Who knows whether visual effects supervisor Troyan can leave an impression (his short Carrot Vs Ninja can be seen on YouTube; it at least suggests he has a sense of humour…)
Perhaps he will. So far Highlander has been one of the least distinguished franchises out there. There’s no reason the original, an odd mix of fine and not so fine actors, stylish and not so stylish visuals, and inspired and not so inspired ideas, can’t be improved upon. But, with the current credited writers and stop-start development, I’m not overly confident. Just as long as whoever plays Connor McCleod calls someone “a stupid haggis”, that will be a start.