WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: In modern-day New York, a decapitation in a Madison Square Garden car park sets off a major police investigation in which antique dealer Russell Nash is the main suspect. But when forensics expert Brenda looks deeper into Nash’s identity, she stumbles upon an amazing secret and comes face to face with one of the ‘Highlander’’s oldest enemies.
Unlike its much-mocked sequels, Highlander has the distinct advantage of having a stall to set out, explaining the presence of immortals who have moved among the populace of earth for centuries until the time of the foretold ‘Gathering.’ I cannot remember another film that has dealt with the idea of immortality (at least without having another condition such as vampirism attached), though I’m sure there are plenty; of course, the pertinent question is not so much whether the film is original, but whether it’s actually any good.
Highlander certainly has a distinct style, immediately apparent as the camera swoops over a wrestling match, accompanied by helicopter-imitating guitar as it seeks out the only still figure in the baying crowd, intercutting the histrionics of the coiffured wrestlers with bloody highland battles. The viewer is immediately set on the quest to discover why ‘Russell Nash’ is the same man (Christopher Lambert) his sixteenth-century colleagues are calling Connor MacLeod; and why the huge stranger on horseback who inflicts seemingly mortal wounds on MacLeod later reappears in punk gear in 20th Century New York.
The first half of the film flits between Scotland and New York in confident style, employing some fancy editing to switch between the two: in the present day, forensic expert Brenda finds pieces of a sword dating back to 600 BC that overrides her professional interest in Nash’s case, leading her to hunt him out. Back in the 16th Century, MacLeod’s miraculous recovery is mistrusted as the devil’s work and he is banished, though he settles down with a bonny girl called Heather (Beatie Edney) and lives a seemingly idyllic life until rudely interrupted by a fellow immortal called Ramirez (Sean Connery): an Egyptian by way of Spain who lived for a long time in Japan, so naturally he has a thick Scottish accent. It is Ramirez who fills in MacLeod’s and our gaps in knowledge, explaining about the immortals, ‘The Gathering,’ the dark forces of MacLeod’s enemy Kurgan (a brilliantly demented and menacing Clancy Brown), and also providing a thoroughly pretty training montage to prepare MacLeod for any further meetings. Connery’s expositional section could have been clunky but he brings great charisma to the role and his chemistry with Lambert is very good. That said, Ramirez’ own fight with Kurgan is overwrought and screamy (on Edney’s part), ending in the decapitation which (in part) caused Highlander II: The Quickening to be so risible.
As the plot progresses, Highlander contrasts the burgeoning relationship of Nash and Brenda with the ageing and death of MacLeod’s beloved Heather, a touching sequence showing the latter’s ageing and death accompanied by Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever, which shows a degree of sensitivity on the part of the writers, who have clearly considered various aspects of immortality (though Ramirez is surprisingly un-world-weary for being 2,500 years old). On a side note, I must confess to being a sometime Queen fan; whilst their best music unarguably belongs to the seventies, their songs here add immeasurably to the drama of the piece (and nowhere else do you get to hear Freddie belting out New York, New York or a ‘test’ version of A Kind of Magic without a prototypic bassline).
Anyway, Brenda’s investigations reveal that Nash is not quite who he appears to be, something of a drag since the audience knew this all along; but her discovery importantly leads to her and MacLeod, erm, bonding and becoming a credible damsel in distress when necessary. It has to be said that the film takes its time to get where it eventually gets, with meanderings involving a vigilante and MacLeod saving his future personal assistant Rachel (Sheila Gish) from the Nazis, but all in all the journey is an exciting one: the highland scenes are well realised and the swordplay is always thrilling, none more so than in the tense last battle at Silvercup Studios. But – not to give the game away too much – the modest budget of the film is given away in the aftermath of this fight when some indifferent animation completely fails to obscure horribly obvious wirework (you can see the winch as well as the wire in some shots!). Slightly shoddy elements like this do detract from the magic the film seeks to bring to the screen, and you could also argue strongly that Lambert’s accent makes a mockery of his supposedly Scottish heritage – he says he’s from ‘lots of different places,’ but the excuse is flimsy. Nonetheless, Lambert’s overall performance is strong, as is the rest of the cast (I like Alan North as the police Lieutenant, in no small part due to his work on Police Squad!).
Highlander shouldn’t be over-praised just because I like the songs, and it would be daft to suggest that it’s not a bit cheap, a bit silly, and in places a bit ropey – what, for example, happens to the police investigation once the fighting’s done? Still, like Lambert’s accent, the film’s wonkiness is part of its charm, and MacLeod’s story comes to a full and satisfying close. Several sequels have struggled to overcome this issue, and it is perhaps best that this film is considered on its own merits; there are enough of those to give Highlander its deserved cult status.