Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows? What I do know is that because you were born different, men will fear you… try to drive you away like the people of your village.Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez
Highlander is a film that I can watch time and time again. Every single time I see it advertised on the telly box I have to tune in. And I have to tune in every single time because I don’t actually own a copy of it. I often see the DVD in the local charity shop, and every time I pass it by to purchase something else. But even if I did own a copy I would still watch it on television. There is just something better about watching a film on telly—wouldn’t you agree?
Everybody should know the story by now, even if they have never seen the film. It has such a cult following, such a place in the zeitgeist, that everyone is at least aware of what it is and what it is about. But for the sake of clarity and completion I will add a brief summary: A group of immortals Gather in New York for a final battle that will see the victor win the Prize. The focus of the film is the life of the five hundred year old Connor MacLeod, the titular Highlander, and his relationships over the course of his many centuries of living. The battle for the Prize sees him reach the conclusion of his longest relationship: the war between him and fellow immortal the Kurgan.
It is a rather silly in premise in truth. But it works. Oh boy, does it work. The acting is wonderfully stilted by some; others leave visible bite marks in the props as they make their way through the scene. The choreography is nonsensical—a fact they seem to have realised during filming and ‘fixed’ by stripping all the fight scenes of light and competent camera placement so you cannot see what is happening anyway. Much is made of Christopher Lambert’s accent. It’s not his native French, it’s not the Scottish that his character should have, it’s not American, a country in which he has been living since shortly after it was colonised, save for that short time where he was running around Nazi-occupied Amsterdam for some reason. It’s not an accent that works in his past scenes in Scotland. But in the present day scenes it does. It makes sense that a five hundred year old man who has lived in many places would have something of a mutt accent: he’s an unplaceable man in an unplaceable time with an unplaceable pattern of speech. It certainly fits the character better than Sean Connery, who uses his native Scottish accent despite playing an Egyptian masquerading as a Spaniard who serves at the court of a Flemish emperor.
The lore is not entirely fleshed out. A pedant might raise the perfectly reasonable questions of ‘What exactly is a Quickening?’, and ‘Why is Holy Ground a thing a group of immortals concern themselves with?’. They might even ask what triggers immortality and what are the rules for ageing. The film lays out that immortality is triggered by the immortal experiencing a violent first death. Yet Connor doesn’t have that experience: he gets seriously wounded yes, but it is made clear in dialogue between other characters that it his not dying from those wounds that causes his banishment from his village. Supposedly damage to the head, neck and brain is fatal for an immortal. But the Kurgan’s first death is a result of him having his head crushed by a boulder. In that case, the Kurgan should not even exist within the film to be an antagonist. MacLeod ‘dies’ at the age of eighteen and stays at that physical age for the next five centuries. His mentor, Sean Connery’s Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez suffered his first death as a child, but is an old man. Not fully detailing the lore to the audience—or indeed the characters—is not itself the issue: what is the issue is that the writers appear not to have fleshed it out for themselves, which leads to all of the above quibbles about a fantasy movie. In the end the questions are just waved away with a line of dialogue from Ramirez. It’s a nice line, poetic in its way, but it’s still a waving of the hand.
And yet, despite all of that, I love it. In those opening moments, when that poorly edited fight scene begins with Fasil switching between backflipping his way across an underground parking lot and running between cars, I knew I was in for something special. I truly cannot decide whether Lambert’s performance is atrocious or sublime. It’s certainly captivating either. Clancy Brown’s Kurgan is one of the finest villains of any medium. He is evil and eccentric and over-the-top and he is loving every minute of it. The film was fortunate enough to come out a year or two before Sean Connery stopped caring about the craft and just turned up to cash the cheque. I must say, I have never been a fan of Connery—and I include his Bond performances in that. His thick Scottish accent regardless of whether he’s playing a British Secret Service agent, a Russian submarine captain or an Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard has always riled me. He is serviceable though: he is the Old Mentor to aid the Hero complete his Journey and he does it well enough to make you care at his inevitable death. As for the rest of the cast, they are there to fill out the time before the climactic battle and the script treats them as such. Roxanne Hart is there to be a love interest and show an interest in metallurgy who performs the role of the love interest while being knowledgeable about metals. The antagonistic cops are just that: antagonistic cops. The crazy old Vietnam veteran is there to provide some comic relief and add to the body count when the Kurgan gets around to skewering him. Ultimately, it is a story of Connor and the Kurgan, something that is proven true by being the only two characters who get some form of development.
As for the soundtrack—well, it’s Queen. Is there much more that needs to be said? There’s not a dry eye in the house when ‘Who Wants to Live Forever?’ plays over the scenes of the ageing Heather and the stagnant Connor. Perhaps if the soundtrack wasn’t what it was these other flaws could not be overlooked? Fortunately, it’s not a hypothesis towards which we have to pay any mind.
So where exactly does Highlander stand? Is it a good bad movie? A bad good movie? Different people will of course say different things. But journalists and film critics deserve scorn in any case so who cares what others thing? Good and bad are subjective to the individual. And as an individual I love the film. Badly written, poorly acted, sloppily edited as it is. It is an interesting premise made in a way that makes it charming despite—because?—of its issues. It’s the reason I watch it every time it is on, and why I will carrying do so. And it’s the reason why I will never spend money to own it.
If I were a hack, I would end this with: ‘When it comes to fantastic cult movies, There Can Be Only One’.
But I’m not a hack so I’m not doing that.