Cinophile: HIGHLANDER

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Highlander is getting on in life and edges a year away from hitting 30. So every year there are more people who have not fired this one up. That may seem unthinkable to those familiar with the exploits of Colin MacLeod. But I’ve met people who have never seen Gremlins or Jurassic Park. Highlander doesn’t stand a chance. Not unless we get the word out a little.

The good news is that you can freely show this to anyone today. Some dated special effects aside, Highlander is as crisp and fun as it was back in 1986. Even after you throw off nostalgia and look at it critically, the tale of immortals out to chop each others’ heads off stands strong.

Now, it really shouldn’t. This movie actually explains pretty damn little. The very existence of the immortals is shrugged off by one of the characters, who says: “Why does the sun come up?” And yet you don’t sit there gagging for more facts. No, what you want is more action. The movie starts off with a modern-day fight between two of these immortals: MacLeod, the titular Highlander, and some pudgy acrobatic guy with an expensive sword.

Eventually someone gets decapitated and we are thrown into a flashback that starts the tale of Colin’s discovery and development as one of the immortals.

Conveniently he is mentored by Ramirez, a millennia-old Egyptian-Spanish fighter who never bothers to hide his Scottish accent. In contrast, Christopher Lambert’s Scottish Highlander has at best a fleeting grasp on the required brogue. None of that matters: Now there are two immortals! Connery delivers as only he can, though one sometimes get the sense he wasn’t all too keen to star in what must have sounded like a really dumb movie.

That’s ironic, because Highlander would have failed without the veteran actor to prop things up.

Well, him and Clancy Brown, who portrayed the Kurgan. Established with little more than a few throwaway sentences about what a nasty piece of work he is, the film’s towering antagonist had to be sold some other way. To say an actor chewed the scenery is completely overused. But Brown is still picking this film from between his teeth. The Kurgan makes Highlander work, but never steals attention away from the main story.

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There is no doubt MacLeod needs to beat this guy, especially considering his attitude towards nuns, gun freaks and stealing cars with old ladies in them.

Highlander is really utter, ridiculous cheese. It says very little, leaving the mythology to be developed by future sub-par sequels and a TV spin-off. There would be more plot holes if the actual plot wasn’t so thin to begin with. Even its philosophical musings about the hardships of being an immortal is on its sleeve just long enough to roll onto the next plot point.

Lesser films would have failed with such a weak setup. But not Highlander. The film explodes onscreen with awesomeness and then rarely lets up. The early scenes of MacLeod’s training are the movie’s slowest moments and even those are fun thanks to Connery’s on-screen charisma. Once The Kurgan and classic moments – like MacLeod in the most frustrating pistol duel ever – show up, Highlander cemented itself into movie history.

It’s probably the most famous movie ever made about immortals, though we shouldn’t underestimate how nearly it failed. The film almost bombed in the U.S., only to be rescued by solid international sales and a cult following on VHS. Highlander nearly lost its head, but fortunately it didn’t. Because there can be only one.

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The original name for Highlander was Shadow Clan, written by Gregory Widen when he was still a film student. He got the idea during a tour of Scotland. But the movie changed a few things, including that immortals could have children. There was also no event after an immortal was killed and the reason for their existence – fighting for some sort of prize – was an invention of the film.
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The movie famously has a soundtrack crafted by Queen and most of the songs in it were originally written for the movie. That includes It’s A Kind Of Magic and Who Wants To Live Forever. The band originally only planned to write one song for the movie, but after seeing an early cut of the film offered to create the entire soundtrack.
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Sean Connery could only spend a week on filming and even made a bet with director Russell Mulcahy that they wouldn’t be done in time – but lost. Clancy Brown nearly didn’t take the role of The Kurgan because his allergy to makeup may have been a problem with the character’s prosthetics. Mark Singer, Mickey Rourke and even Hulk Hogan were all apparently in the running for the role of Connor McLeod.
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The final fight scene took place in an abandoned factory, but it was initially meant to take place at the top of the Statue of Liberty. This later changed to an amusement park but scheduling and budget eventually saw it moved to the roof of Silvercup Studios. The opening scene took place at a wrestling match because the National Hockey League turned down having an NHL game filmed, as it would have highlighted the violent side of the sport.

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: February 23, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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