Highlander
directed by Russell Mulcahy
(20th Century Fox, 1986)

Long before the movie sequels, the television series, the television spin-off and a host of merchandising options ... there was only one.

But while later projects have met with varying degrees of success (or failure, let's be honest here), the original Highlander movie still stands tall as an excellent piece of film-making.

The plot was about a bunch of immortals who kept whacking each others' heads off down through the ages of history. (A beheading, we learn, is the only way to kill an immortal. That's an important safety tip, so keep it in mind!) A plot like that could easily lead to schlock of the lowest degree, but director Russell Mulcahy didn't let that happen here.

OK, so they didn't work too hard on accents. As the Scottish Highlander Connor MacLeod, Christopher Lambert still sounds French. Sean Connery's Egyptian-cum-Spaniard Juan Ramirez sounds Scottish, as Connery always does. And the evil Kurgan from the steppes of Russia (Clancy Brown) sounds like a hoarse and angry American.

Well, I'm not going to worry about it. Accents aside, Mulcahy and writer Gregory Widen have put together a first-class story, and they've packaged it well. The transitions through the ages, as we learn pieces of MacLeod's history in the midst of current events in modern New York City, are examples of expert cinematography, panning through the floor of a parking garage onto a Highland battlefield, through the water of an aquarium into a Scottish loch, from 16th-century Connor's weary face to a wall mural of Mona Lisa. What easily could have been a jarring series of changes instead flows smoothly and easily from scene to scene.

It also touches on the tragedy of being immortal. Instead of painting MacLeod as an invincible superman, we see the pain he feels at being banished by his clan for being "different," the loss he suffers when his first mortal wife (Beatie Edney) dies of old age, and the loneliness he endures as the weary years pass him by. We sense that MacLeod derives amusement, but no real pleasure from his long life.

The story follows MacLeod's life from just before he discovers his immortality in the early 1500s to the climactic battles in 1985, when all of the remaining immortals are drawn to the Gathering, the final conflict where only one may survive. But the best scenes along the way are still early in MacLeod's life, when he is befriended by Connery's Ramirez, who takes it upon himself to train MacLeod to fight on the side of the Good Guys against the most evil of the immortals, the Kurgan. That period of training -- which could last weeks, months or years, we're never quite sure -- is filled with action, humor and great character development.

In modern New York, the story is a little grimmer, the film a little darker. The Gathering is, of course, not common knowledge among the mortals, but it still leaves police with an increasing number of headless bodies lying around. Soon, sensational tales of a head-hunting serial killer fill the tabloids, and police are desperate to find their man. And of course MacLeod, incognito as antiques dealer Russell Nash, ends up on the suspect list.

Enter Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a metalurgist who consults with police after a sword is found at the scene of a beheading. And her own quest to discover the truth becomes a personal matter unrelated to justice at all.

In many ways, the real star of Highlander is swordmaster Bob Anderson, who choreographed an impressive array of sword battles. These aren't little swish and poke duels we're talking about, but wild hacks and slashes using a variety of broadswords, heavy rapiers, massive Scottish claymores and a Japanese katana. OK, so maybe stone towers shouldn't collapse when hit with a sword, but for the most part, the fight scenes are a spectacle to see.

By the way, go for the director's cut of Highlander. The additional scenes add new layers to the story, especially the origin of MacLeod's relationship with secretary Rachel Ellenstein (Sheila Gish) ... which is not what you'd expected after seeing the shorter cut of the film.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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