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Posts Tagged ‘Russell Mulcahy’

Sometimes persistent franchises sprout from the most unlikely places. Originally released in 1986, Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander was, by modern standards, a significant flop, only recouping about three-quarters of its budget. And yet here we are, over a quarter of a century later, with five movie sequels, nearly a dozen spin-off novels, and three TV series boasting 181 episodes between them, all resulting from this same flop movie. Is this an example of a cult classic that somehow failed to find an audience on its original release? Or just a slightly duff movie that doesn’t know how to take a hint?

Well, um, er. I knew the plot of Highlander long before I first saw it, so perhaps the details of the narrative didn’t surprise me as much as the makers hoped. If so, then Highlander ingenues may wish to avert their eyes as it’s summarisin’ time. New York City in the 1980s, and a man (Christopher Lambert) in the crowd of a wrestling match is troubled by visions of a mediaeval battle. As you would, he pops out to the car park, where a man in sinister mirrorshades accosts him and whips out a sword. Luckily our man has his own weapon and the two of them go at it with gusto until the mirrorshaded gentleman is summarily decapitated. Charming mid-80s special effects ensue.

It is, shall we say, a slightly bonkers start to a film and one which the rest of the plot completely lives up to. For our hero started life as Connor Macleod, warrior of a Scottish clan, born in the 16th century. Seriously wounded in battle with a brutal Russian warrior known as the Kurgan (perennial nearly-man Clancy Brown), Macleod should die – but he doesn’t. Driven out of his clan when his miraculous recovery draws accusations of witchcraft, Macleod is befriended by enigmatic Spaniard (or is he Egyptian?) Ramirez (Sean Connery), who reveals the truth. Both they and the Kurgan are Immortals, warriors destined to battle down the ages until a final reckoning in a distant land. Until that time they will never age or sicken, and the only way they can die is through beheading…

Well, four hundred years later and the final battle is at hand – Macleod, the Kurgan, and a handful of other Immortals are all in town, with the fate of the world ultimately at stake. If only Macleod didn’t have to worry about the NYPD forensic scientist (Roxanne Hart) – who also, as barely credible plot-contrivance would have it, happens to be an expert on mediaeval weapons – dogging his steps.

On a very basic level the plot of Highlander is clearly absurd – at one point Macleod demands to know why some people become Immortal and why they have to live their lives in accordance with some rather arcane guidelines, and Ramirez’s response is essentially ‘They just do!’ (Even so, this is probably better than all the extraordinary cobblers about aliens from the planet Zeist which gets retconned into the story in the first sequel.) It’s clear that writer Gregory Widen came up with the concept for the movie first and then wrote the details in later.

And, to be fair, Highlander does have originality on its side, if not sense. The out-of-sequence storytelling works quite well in keeping the story going and it avoids most of the cliches of the standard sword-and-sorcery film (because that’s essentially what it boils down to being). The concept is a strong one with much potential.

Unfortunately, its realisation here is not exactly ideal. Some of Russell Mulcahy’s visual stylings are interesting and effective, but all too often he gets carried away and the results are frenetically shot and edited sequences that just seem over the top. The New York end of the story comes across as comic strip stuff, with some dodgy dialogue and uninspired performances from the supporting cast.

The Scottish stuff, on the other hand, is more interesting – almost reaching the mythic tone it’s clearly gunning for, properly romantic in the true sense of the word. On the other hand, it’s also wandering very close to Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory much of the time, as a man with a strange French accent wanders the landscape giving a very eccentric performance.

Ah, Christopher Lambert. For all I know he may be one of the greatest living French actors, but in English the only performance of his I’ve ever seen that wasn’t all over the place was in Greystoke (and there they let him keep his own accent). The peculiar noises coming out of Lambert’s mouth in this film do not bear much resemblence to a Scottish accent, but then neither do they much resemble anything else. The problem is only compounded by the presence in many of the same scenes of Sean Connery, a man physically incapable of not doing a Scottish accent, even when playing an Egyptian (or is he Spanish?). Connery gives a typically big (possibly a bit too big) performance, and he’s one of the best things in the film, setting the tone rather well with his opening narration (recorded, apparently, in his own bathroom, hence the echo). As the Kurgan, Clancy Brown is likewise wildly over-the-top, but given the people and performances he’s got to compete with this is a fairly understandable choice.

So it’s all more-than-a-bit-silly, knockabout stuff, but what partially redeems it – and, I genuinely believe, is a major reason for this film enduring – is the soundtrack. The one moment in the film which is genuinely moving is when Macleod’s first wife ages and dies, with him a helpless onlooker – and it derives much of its power from the song playing over it. It is, of course, ‘Who wants to live forever?’ by Queen, just one of many songs which add enormously to the atmosphere of the film. Queen’s contribution to this movie is difficult to overstate – the film’s mixture of romance, glitzy excess, grit, and nonsense seems to have been an uncommonly good match for Queen’s own style. (It probably helps that, in Freddie Mercury, the band had a front-man supremely well-equipped to deliver a line like ‘I have no rival! No man can be my equal!’ with total conviction.)

Watching Highlander you’re never under the illusion that you’re watching a great movie, but it is a consistently fun and entertaining one. The story is interesting and well-told enough to make you overlook the various more-than-usually crap bits, and the lead performances are memorable in their special different ways. Watching it with my father, he was profoundly unimpressed by the conclusion – ‘That’s all? He just gets to grow old and die?!?’ (oops, spoiler there – sorry) – and I can sort of see his point. But the thing about Highlander in general, and this movie in particular, is that it’s much more about the pleasure of the journey than the reward at the destination.

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