I’ll let you skip to the end with this review. Despite its many many faults, Highlander is an 80s movie that still reigns mighty atop a pile of videotapes that rotted along the way. Starring Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert and now available to stream on Netflix, this centuries-spanning bombastic action movie, in which immortals spend the aeons chopping off each other’s heads so that the last standing can claim ‘the prize’, is a broadsword in the guts of glorious nonsense and one which simply could not have been made in any other decade.
What is it that somehow gives 80s movies a magic pass when it comes to durability? The frequent backdrop of money-grubbing greed, sexual politics still in the wince-worthy stage, and a ‘meh’ attitude to racial or cultural appropriation bafflingly bubble together in a pop culture cauldron, and yet when decanted, the sparkling result is something that no modern retro nostalgic recreation can duplicate. Of course, having a huuuge soundtrack from Queen (who wrote six songs for the movie) also helps to cement the time capsule cinematic qualities that Highlander possesses in abundance.
Apparently fatally wounded during a battle between rival clans in 14th Century Scotland, Connor MacLeod (Lambert) makes a miraculous recovery but is subsequently accused of witchcraft and banished by a baying mob. He makes his new life as a blacksmith and falls in love, but learns from flamboyant newcomer Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez (Connery) that he is in fact an immortal, unageing and undying save for decapitation. The unknown ‘prize’ awaits the last one left alive and so immortals must fight through the centuries. Ramírez, in fear of the brutal Kurgan (Clancy Brown), trains MacLeod in swordsmanship and such fuzzy magic as ‘the quickening’ (a rather useless but cinematically fun bit of grandiosity).
The movie flits between modern (i.e. 1986) New York, where MacLeod’s true identity is on the verge of being discovered by girl boss reporter Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), and the titular medieval Highlands, where Connery proceeds to steal the entire movie with a hugely memorable sum total of 18 minutes screen time. Yet even though he steals his scenes with huge aplomb, in doing so he elevates his co-star with an endearing master/student dynamic.
Lambert is sadly patchy. The big emotional moments are sold with commendable conviction, but he hardly exudes an action hero presence and clearly struggled to morph his native French accent into first a rough Scottish and then a garbled American (but that’s only fair considering Connery sounds like, well, Connery, despite supposedly being an Egyptian who resides in Spain). Yet Ramírez’s ‘giant peacock’ aloofness sparks mightily with MacLeod’s ragged and brash Scottish and long after the credits roll you will remember these scenes fondly.
Similarly, it would foolish to not place a huge chunk of credit for the movie’s success on Clancy Brown as ‘the Kurgan’. Brown’s guttural voice and huge imposing presence already score big on the nasty villain scale, but Brown’s decision to go all out in every scene means that his threat looms large even as director Russell Mulcahy structures the movie to keep him away from MacLeod for the vast majority of the run time.
Stand out scenes such as the sword battle between Ramírez and the Kurgan in a lightning storm framed disintegrating castle, or Brown’s magnetic 80s punk attired confrontation with Lambert in a Church, all showcase what a fine actor Brown is. As an action movie, Highlander hits all the right beats building up to a climactic big battle that still, even now, delivers spectacle in spades.
Where Highlander drags is all the other stuff. There is still that time capsule dirty New York charm to enjoy, but despite some good chemistry between Lambert and Hart the stamped and pressed ‘insert love story here’ plot line merely fills time. Various flashbacks have more impact than the love story does, with both humorous outcomes (a jolly good duel, old sport) and serious implications (rescuing an orphaned child from Nazis).
So what makes Highlander so iconic, even now? Two standout performances from Connery and Brown fill it with a kind of magic, whilst Lambert swinging his katana sword is endlessly posable. Despite frequent bad dialogue (with some beautiful flirtations, such as Connery’s linguistic shrug as to why they are immortal) and some tropes that have aged badly – of course men should stalk a woman and then give her the shrug off! – the big unifying factor is Mulcahy’s unabashed style. Scenes clearly filmed in sets still feel massive thanks to his swooping angles combined with snappy editing, but he also gives room for the big swelling emotional moments to breathe.
Highlander is elevated beyond base ingredients by an unshakably cool flair that cuts through the noise and makes the movie pop. Proof, if any be needed, that when it comes to Highlander there can be only one!*
Words by Mike Record
*Seriously. There were no other movies or spin off shows or anything**. Nope
**Actually the long-forgotten animated show was really good.