Guilty pleasures: Highlander

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Highlander, one of Cannon films more genuinely entertaining films of the 1980’s, takes the Joseph Campbell hero myth and spins it in a dazzling, centuries spanning, rock video styled fantasy. A fantasy that culminates in a fin de siecle clash of Titans in a decadent, decayed, eighties New York. More bang for your buck than the average action flick.

The film is what Hollywood types call ” high concept”. As explained in Sean Connery’s opening narration, (recorded down the telephone in his luxury tiled Marbella bathroom, hence the echo), a small number of immortals live among us. Drawn across the centuries to combat each other, they cannot die unless decapitated. Dueling with swords, upon victory they “power up” in video game parlance. Ultimately, as numbers dwindle, there will be a final reckoning.

Like Star Wars, Highlander references elements of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell talks of “the call to adventure” and “refusal of the call”. Our hero, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), after failing to die from a mortal wound inflicted by evil immortal The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) in an internecine Scottish Clan battle in 1536, is banished from his home. Settling into anonymity with Heather (Beatie Edney), he plys a trade as blacksmith.When flamboyant immortal Ramirez (Connery) seeks him out to enlighten him and prepare him for the hero’s journey, he refuses to accept his path, preferring to stay with Heather. Only after she dies of old age in his ever youthful arms does he take up his burden and seek his destiny. Like Luke Skywalker, he adopts a new weapon, the Wakizashi Japanese blade wielded by Ramirez.

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The hero myth’s ”supernatural aid” here is “the Quickening” – akin to The Force of Star Wars, it is an immortals awareness of the world around him, via heightened senses. Also in common with Star Wars, the mentor figure Ramirez must die, like Ben Kenobi, so that the hero can move on alone to achieve victory. “The Gathering” leads to “The prize”, as the final combatants converge on 1985 New York. MacLeod must defeat The Kurgan to achieve his own goal and secure mankind’s salvation. The Campbell myth elevates Highlander to the story of a classic champion, focused on the larger picture beyond petty selfishness of mortals around him.

What is brilliant about the film is the non-linear nature of the storytelling, flitting in and out of the ages through visually imaginative transitions. Director Russell Mulcahy was foremost among the MTV generation of directors (he directed The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star, and many Duran Duran promos) and uses many stylish touches to make the film appear bigger and bolder. Coupled with an exciting and moving score from Michael Kamen and specially composed songs from Queen (Who Wants To Live Forever? is a highlight) Highlander really stands out from the average mid-80′s action fare. it is a shame his directing career didn’t go on to better things after this.

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The film opens to a pounding Queen track. The latest toy, the spider-cam, zooms into, over and around a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden, eventually closing in high up on a still, pre-occupied MacLeod/ Nash. As he registers the bread and circuses distraction, the first transition transports us back via memory to his warrior past. After a victorious sword fight in the garage below with immortal Feisel, (who spends more time running away and doing back flips when he has MacLeod at his mercy!) the camera rises up through the concrete and earth back again to MacLeod’s Highland past. Captured trying to escape the scene, a police cruiser’s red light transforms to a blood red sunset above the Clan Macleod home, where he lies wounded after his first encounter with The Kurgan.

During a hostile interrogation, hair-trigger cop Garfield says: “You talk funny Nash. Where you from?” “Lots of different places,” MacLeod replies. It’s a pity the French actor’s early Scottish accent isn’t better though! After the forlorn, baffled MacLeod has been banished we see his battered face brilliantly dissolve to a giant contemporary poster of The Mona Lisa on a NY wall. MacLeod is a man for all seasons, hiding among us. He adopt the persona of Russell Nash, an antiques dealer, and arouses the curiosity and suspicion of forensics investigator (and handy sword specialist) Brenda (Roxanne Hart). Stirring long dormant feelings, he romances her. A gift of vintage brandy evokes memories he was party to: “1784. Mozart wrote his great Mass, the Montgolfier brothers went up in their first balloon, and Great Britain recognised the independence of the United States.”

Mulcahy also tips a wink to the comical duel scene in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. As MacLeod recalls a raucus party in 1783, we witness our still drunk hero next morning on foggy Boston Common, being repeatedly run through with a rapier by his increasingly exasperated opponent, before he apologises for his indiscretion.

Connery is only in the film for 14 minutes, but he makes an indelible mark in one of his most entertaining roles, embuing his 2437 year old Spanish named Egyptian with a sense of a life lived long and well. There is no logical reason why Ramirez would seek out MacLeod, or have knowledge of the path their lives must take. Unless as one of the first immortals he has foreknowledge. No one expects the Spanish exposition!

The training sequence has wit and style, and makes full use of the spectacular scenery around them, culminating in a great helicopter shot of the two warriors side by side atop a tiny cliff top. When MacLeod is away Ramirez entertains Heather before they are rudely interrupted by The Kurgan. As lightening cracks the sky they battle, demolishing the tower they fight in until preposterously only the spiral staircase they stand on remains, and Ramirez loses his head.

Back in 1985, New york was very different to the gentrified city of today. Crime was rampant, and Mulcahy reveals the nasty underbelly, garbage ridden, scarred with graffiti and belching steam, a suitably hellish setting for an end of days conflict. A great rogues gallery of incidental characters populate the city. As headless corpses pile up, a newspaper vendor gleefully taunts cops: “What does “baffled” mean?” The punk styled sleezy hotel clerk rashly teases The Kurgan: “Hey Rockefeller. Candy says you were kinda kinky.” A paranoid Vietnam vet gun nut, who sees The Kurgan walk away from the full clip he unloads into him, is dismissed by police as a wacko.

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As The Kurgan, Clancy Brown threatens to steal the show. Like The Terminator, he is a massive harbinger of doom. In a nice shot, we see his silhouette stalking Brenda and MacLeod. MacLeod, like Kyle Reese, is a trench-coated protector. The Kurgan is no drone though, he revels in the ugliness around him, a warrior so ancient and depraved he seems to have forgotten his true name (the Kurgans were an old war like tribe). He is dressed like a punk horseman of the apocalypse, his slashed neck fastened by oversized pins. Maybe he’s not a complete philistine though. Quoting Neil Young? “It’s better to burn out, than fade away!”

Their final clash is spectacular, amidst the giant SilverCup sign breaking apart around them, before crashing into a darkened warehouse below, backlit by a entire wall of glass. This warehouse segment was probably a point of reference for the blue tinged segment of the Crazy 88 fight in Kill Bill.

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The prize, as described by MacLeod, is a bit of an anti-climax, although at least the hero is finally at peace with himself. As a stand alone adventure, it is, to excuse the phrase, head and shoulders above many of its 1980′s rivals. Unfortunately, it spawned a rash of shoddy sequels and a T.V series that trample on the carefully established mythology. To my mind though, “there can be only one”.

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in our predecessor site Culturedeluxe, and Screenjabber

Originally posted 2013-02-25 10:27:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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