The crop of fantasy films made in the 1980s are a mixed bunch. On one end, there are the legitimate epics like Conan the Barbarian which still hold up well today, and on the other there are crimes against art and reason like Hawk the Slayer, which nonetheless end up being priceless entertainment because of how astonishingly bad they are. Highlander falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: there are plenty of good aspects to it, and even if the whole is less than the sum of its parts, it’s still worth a watch. It operates on much the same level as Flash Gordon, despite the fact that it isn’t intentionally cheesy.
In a lot of ways, Highlander is exactly what you’d want from a sword-and-sorcery flick. It has entertaining ideas and a big scope, even if the budget is never quite up to the task. The premise is that there are Immortals among us, who can only die from being beheaded, and they are destined to fight until only one is left, whereupon he will claim the Prize. The hero is Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a 16th Century highlander, who believes himself to be an ordinary man until he is fatally wounded by the villainous Kurgan (Clancy Brown), but refuses to die. He meets another Immortal called Ramirez (Sean Connery), and is taught the ways of their kind and the rules of their Game. 400 years later, in New York, the few remaining Immortals convene for the Gathering, to fight to the last: there can be only one.
A lot of what makes Highlander work is that the film never wastes time explaining it. How do the Immortals know what their task is? Why do the rules of the Game prevent them from fighting on holy ground? How do they know that the last one will claim the Prize? In avoiding explanations, the film never gets bogged down by minutiae, and the mystery over who the Immortals are lends a greater sense of the fantastic and the epic to the film. All the same, it’s a very daft film, and probably ought not to work as well as it does. The cinematography is very nice, with the Scottish highlands lending themselves well to the task, but the special effects are a very mixed bag, with wires being clearly visible in many of the fight sequences. This is a particular shame because the fights in Highlander are actually very impressive, with the duel between the Kurgan and Ramirez featuring possibly the best decapitation ever committed to film. And it would be remiss of me to not mention the thundering soundtrack by Queen, which is just as good as their soundtrack for Flash Gordon and without which the film would not be nearly as enjoyable.
Ropey effects aside, Highlander‘s biggest problem is its lead. Christopher Lambert looks the part, but it was on the basis of his looks that he was hired: when he arrived on set, having not met any of the crew before, director Russell Mulcahy discovered that he couldn’t speak English, and so he had to learn during filming. This is the source of the bizarre train wreck of what I can only assume is supposed to be a Scottish accent, made even more jarring by having the very Scottish Sean Connery as his mentor. He is also partially blind, which means that his sword-fighting is sadly never as good as it could have been. It’s a real shame, because Connery and Clancy Brown, despite the latter’s voracious devouring of scenery, are very good in their roles, and Lambert seems very subdued and uninteresting compared to them.
All these flaws aside, I do recommend Highlander.