Released in 1986, Highlander is a modern-day action fantasy film about an immortal who comes face to face with some old enemies as the memories of times past catch up to him. The film was not a box-office success but it eventually found its audience and became something of a cult hit spawning several sequels and a television series.
Christopher Lambert stars as Connor MacLeod, who discovered his immortality after dying in battle in the Scottish Highlands back in the 1500's and miraculously coming back to life. We meet MacLeod in present day New York City as he battles his demons both literally and figuratively, flashing back to key moments in his long lifetime. We see him be trained by wise swordsman Ramirez (Sean Connery) and learn the ways of the immortals, then deal emotionally with the death of his girlfriend and tackle various foes over time. His main antagonist, however, is The Kurgan (Clancy Brown), a warrior who once assisted a rival clan and killed his best friend, not to mention him. When The Kurgan shows up in New York City, this means that there can be only one and so he and MacLeod must fight to the death as only through a full beheading can The Quickening (the energy of the immortals) be transferred with the last immortal gaining all knowledge of Man but also mortality.
It's undeniable that Highlander has an excellent concept: taking the vampire genre, mixing it with medieval legends and swashbuckling, setting it in different time periods and locations. The idea of an adventure sweeping generations with it all resting on one battle to the death after another is, on paper, the perfect foundation for a big drama with action elements. Think Alexandre Dumas meets the Arthurian legends and Braveheart. In practice, this is definitely not the easiest story to tell on a $20M budget but it certainly can be done and, in fact, Highlander achieved it surprisingly well. Director Russell Mulcahy wisely sets most of the film in the dark, murky streets of the city flashing back here and there to the Scottish Highlands where, clearly, all the budget went creating a nice contrast between Connor's vivid memories and his current low-key existence in a world that has never been kind to him, and never will. Gerry Fisher and Tony Mitchell bring some slick cinematography to the table while Queen provides the soundtrack.
Part of the film's success post-theatrical run is, no doubt, the fascinating lore that it introduced, and the cool sword fights, but also the cast's energy, specifically in regards to Sean Connery and Clancy Brown whose charisma is through the roof providing a fantastic mentor and villain for Connor, respectively. Unfortunately, the film stumbles with an uneven script that is sometimes inspired but, at other times, somewhat lacking. There's a terrific story there, with great characters, but the film doesn't always live up to that. Highlander is never as exciting, as fun or as good as you want it to be, which can make for a bit of a frustrating experience, especially during what is meant to be the film's big, climactic moments. Christopher Lambert's performance is also very uneven and he, frankly, fails to convince throughout, which is a big problem seeing as he is the lead and therefore we look to him to be the heart and soul of the film. Casting Lambert as a Scotsman and Connery as an Egyptian from Spain was always an odd choice but Connery is so effortlessly good in this movie that he makes it work, it's just a shame that Lambert couldn't quite pull it off.
Highlander had bucketloads of potential and it delivered on it in short bursts and not always, but its concept was so interesting that the franchise persevered nonetheless, even through lesser sequels, to remain a lasting phenomenon with its share of fans to this day. It's not always a masterpiece, but it makes up for its shortcomings in stylish visuals, Queen songs, entertaining sword fights and lots of cheesy charm.
Worth a peek.