Thursday, December 27, 2012

HIGHLANDER


Russell Mulcahey, 1986
Starring: Sean Connery, Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown

I am perhaps not the best person to write objectively about Highlander, as it is one of my favorite films. I also grew up with a major love of the series. What began as one magic film has since developed into novels, comics, four more live action sequels and one animated film, two television series and an animated series, a card game and two video games. If you haven’t lived under a rock for the last 30 years, it is impossible not to at least have heard of Highlander and know that it means immortal swordsmen set about beheading each other left and right because there can be only one. 

Flashing back and forth between the 16th century Scottish Highlands and New York City in the present (the ‘80s), we follow the story of Connon MacLeod. In a parking garage, he sword fights with a man and then beheads him and receives the Quickening - a tremendous burst of energy - which attracts the attention of the police. He is arrested, but they don't have enough evidence to keep him. One of their consultants, Brenda, recognizes the rarity and value of his broadsword. 

We move back to the Highlands, where he is killed in battle by a fearsome warrior known as the Kurgan, who has travelled there specifically to cut off his head. The Kurgan is prevented from doing this, but Connor dies and reawakens to life as an Immortal. He is shunned by his village, who think witchcraft is responsible. He marries a woman named Heather and meets a third Immortal, Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, who explains Immortal life to him and trains him to defeat the Kurgan in battle. 

Ramirez explains that the last Immortal to remain alive will win the Prize, and if the Kurgan wins this, it will spell doom for humanity. While Connor is away the Kurgan kills Ramirez and rapes Heather. Ultimately Connor and Heather live a long life together and she dies of old age. Back in New York, Connor must face his growing attraction to Brenda and find the Kurgan before the Kurgan finds and beheads him.

For some bizarre reason the film wasn’t well received, but has since become a cult classic. Deservedly so. Though it doesn’t follow the normal trajectory of a sword and sorcery film, it is certainly one of the best ever made and also ranks highly among the heavy output of ‘80s action flicks. It’s hard not to like Highlander. The setting is both medieval and noirish, there are plenty of great fight and training sequences, and Christopher Lambert’s brooding performance is perfectly balanced by Sean Connery’s roguish Spaniard and Clancy’s fantastic Kurgan, who absolutely steals the show. I wish the ending of the film had been ignored (as the sequels all do anyway) and the Kurgan had been given his own spin off series. 

Now would be a great time to mention that we have a Frenchman (Lambert) with a somewhat heavy accent playing a Scotsman pretending to have an American accent. And then we have a real Scotsman (Connery) with a thick Scottish accent playing a Spaniard who is actually an Egyptian. Anything goes. There are certainly some ridiculous elements, particularly from the subpar Roxanne Hart, but most of the film’s flaws just increase its overall charm. And it opens with a pro-wrestling match. This is pure '80s, all the way, and the fact that it is clearly dated should not be a deterrent.

The magic of this film is that it attempts to explore the question of immortality (and thus mortality). Connor is withdrawn, perhaps miserable and, at times, kind of creepy. But despite the film's B movie flaws, he is a compelling character that pulls us along against all odds. The score, by Michael Kamen and with several tracks by Queen, is one of the finest points of the film. Director Mulcahy is mostly known for his numerous music videos and matches up some of Queen’s hits perfectly with the film. I cannot recommend Highlander strongly enough. The film is out on Blu-ray (the director’s cut) from Lion’s Gate. Special features include deleted scenes and an audio commentary from Mulcahy.

I sadly cannot heap as much praise on any of the sequels. Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), the direct sequel to Highlander, is essentially the beginning of the end. Let me say here and now that all the live action sequels are completely lousy, though somehow The Quickening is even worst than the third film, which I will get to in a moment. Highlander director Russell Mulcahy returns, as do Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery. The Earth's ozone is thinning dangerously, killing millions, including Brenda, Connor's wife from the first film. She makes him promise to solve the failing ozone issues. Because he is a scientist all of a sudden. And so he makes an artificial shield to protect the Earth, which plunges the world into darkness after a few years of stability. The Shield has been taken over by an evil company and, naturally, rebels spring up, hoping to take it back. 

You know what? I can’t even continue with a reasonable plot description. I can say that The Quickening involves an opera, a foreign planet, Ramirez (Connery’s character from the first film), Connor using some sly anti-aging tricks, and all sorts of other nonsense. Please don’t watch this movie unless you are incredibly drunk. Allegedly there is a director’s cut that is “better” than the version I’ve seen, but I don’t even know how that could be possible. 

Highlander III: The Sorcerer aka Highlander: The Final Dimension aka Highlander 3: The Final Conflict is another film that no one needs to see. Ever. Connor is back and journeys to Japan during the 16th century to train with a sorcerer, Nakano. Another Immortal, Kane, massacres the villagers and defeats Nakano. The ensuing Quickening traps him inside Nakano’s cave, though Connor is able to escape. There is a brief interlude to revolutionary France, where Connor is almost killed and is forced to leave behind his lover Sarah. In the present day, after the events of the first film, Connor believes the Game to be over. An archaeologist, Alexandra, who resembles his former lover Sarah, accidentally frees Kane. Alexandra tracks down Connor to help him fight Kane. Their showdown will now be the final end to the Game. This at least tries to return to the mythology of the first film, after the disaster of the second, but does so badly. As I said earlier, it's probably stil better than The Quickening

Highlander: Endgame (2000) is the fourth sequel in this awful franchise. Someone should have paid heed to the film’s motto: “There can only be one.” Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski and starring Adrian Paul and Christopher Lambert, this is meant to continue Highlander: The Series, which is why it stars both Connor (Lambert) and his younger kinsman Duncan (Paul). 


Connor tries to save his mother from a rabid priest, Jacob, but he is too late and Jacob kills Connor’s mother after charging her with witchcraft. Though Connor kills him, Jacob rises again as an Immortal and swears vengeance against Connor, which apparently takes hundreds of years. Jacob gains a massive amount of strength by breaking the rules of the Game and kills anyone Connor cares about. Connor’s kinsmen Duncan gets involves and teams up with Connor to defeat the now insane Jacob once and for all. To say this film is bad would be too charitable. There’s a lot of sword fighting, but that’s the only positive thing I can say about it. I don't know why they kept making these, particularly when all of the sequels received such negative acclaim. 

The fifth film, Highlander: The Source (2007), is probably the worst of the sequels and fortunately is the last. It might be tied with the second, though that has a certain "so bad it's good" quality. Directed by Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man) and starring Adrian Paul, this is a spin-off of the television series. It was supposed to be the start a SciFi Channel film trilogy (now offensively named SyFy), but bombed so badly that we were spared the final two films. Some Immortals are trying to find the source of their power, which irritates the protective “Guardians of the Source.” Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) and Methos (Peter Wingfield) must find Duncan so that they can all find the Source and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Seriously, the less said about this, the better. It's not bad in an Ed Wood kind of way, more in boring, pointless sort of way. 

Fortunately the sequels have been erased from my mind by Highlander the Series (1992 - 1998), one of my first loves growing up. Though Connor briefly appears, the series follows Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), who lives in Vancouver with his girlfriend Tessa, an artist, where they run an antique shop together. An Immortal, Quince, has been hunting Duncan, but is also being pursued by Connor. They have a show down in which Duncan decapitates Quince and gains the Quickening. A young punk and drifter, Richie, witnesses this. Sensing that he is a future Immortal, Duncan takes him in and gives him a job. Throughout the season they encounter other immortals, some bad, some good, including the former warrior, now monk Darius, who has sworn a vow of non-violence. He was Duncan’s teacher and remains his friend, but is being stalked by another Immortal. Season one introduces some of the reoccurring characters, like the beautiful but selfish thief Amanda, as well as the secret society of mortal Watchers that chronicle the history of the Immortals. 

Season two continues to develop the story of the Watchers and introduces the main Watcher, Duncan’s soon to be friend Joe Dawson. Duncan begins training Richie at a dojo and proposes to Tessa. Unfortunately this is interrupted by a group of renegade Watchers who hunt down and kill Immortals. Season three is a little more episodic. Duncan becomes better friends with Joe and finds a new girlfriend. Richie, predictably, gets into trouble. Season four focuses more on Duncan’s relationships with Amanda and my favorite reoccurring character, Methos, the oldest living immortal. The episodic season five moves further away from the Watchers (other than Joe) and is not as good as the previous seasons, though we learn a lot more about Methos. The less said about season six, the better. 

I don’t know if I can recommend it, but I really love this show. It was a staple of my youth and I spent a lot of hours watching it with my grandmother. I didn’t have the most highly developed critical faculties at the time. Regardless, it has received mostly positive reviews. Adrian Paul isn’t that great of an actor, but he brings a certain warmth and charisma to Duncan and has enough range to do exactly what the script demands of him. The strength of the show is that it continues to explore the difficulty of being immortal - of aging and not aging, the trouble of having power and remaining uncorrupted, losing loved ones, etc. Plus there’s a lot of sword fighting. It is by far a better sequel than any of the additional films. 

Seasons two through four are my favorite, though five also has plenty of strong moments. The sixth season is outright bad, partly because the series just went on for too long and Adrian Paul was desperate to finish the show. If you are expecting an extended version of Highlander, you will be disappointed. This has more swashbuckling, adventure and romance. It is also solidly planted in the '90s. It will please fans of historical fiction; because Duncan is 400 years old, many of the episodes cover his past adventures, as well as older characters like Methos and Darius. 

Highlander: The Series was so beloved that it didn’t just stop at the show. There were a lot of spin off novels, audio books and an animated web series focusing on Methos. There was also a further spin-off, Highlander: The Raven (1998 - 1999), which continued after the departure of Duncan MacLeod and followed his friend, sometimes lover and fellow Immortal, Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen). 


During Highlander: The Series, Amanda is introduced as a mostly amoral thief. In The Raven, she has a change of heart after a human police officer dies defending her. The dead officer’s partner is a soon-to-be Immortal and teams up with Amanda to solve some mysteries. This only ran one season and got mixed reviews. I personally disliked it, but the last two seasons of Highlander pretty much drove things into the ground for me and Amanda was one of my least favorite characters. 

The third television series, Highlander: The Animated Series (1994 - 1996), ran for two seasons and loosely followed Connor MacLeod. I’ve never seen this adaptation, probably because it was originally aired in Canada. Connor and the other remaining mortals stop fighting one another after a nuclear catastrophe on Earth. Of course, there is one immortal who refuses to follow this plan and still tries to win the Prize. Connor dies fighting him, but one of his kinsman, Quentin, takes up the charge. Ramirez also appears in the series to train Quentin. 

Because there weren’t already enough Highlander films, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance (2007) was released. I haven’t seen this yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll), this anime-Highlander hybrid at least makes a more reasonable return to form that all of the live-action sequels. Colin MacLeod, a Roman Empire-era Immortal, is on a quest for revenge against another Immortal, the solider Marcus Octavius, who killed Colin’s family while trying to create a utopian society. In my opinion, revenge plots never get old, plus the Roman setting (with Stonehenge and druids) is a refreshing take. They also move to post-apocalyptic New York, another one of my favorite settings. 

Because the Highlander series does seem to be immortal, a remake of the original was planned in 2008 and continues to trudge along. I hope to gods this never gets made and, to make matters worse, Ryan Reynolds is currently signed on to play Connor. Watch this instead:


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