Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Heath Holland On...The Highlander Franchise

Here we are, born to be kings. We’re the princes of the universe.

The movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby features a conversation between Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen that goes like this:

Ferrell: I feel like I’m in the Highlander.

Cohen: What is the Highlander?

Ferrell: It’s a movie.

Cohen: Oh, any good?

Ferrell: VERY good. It won the Academy Award.

Cohen: Oh, for what?

Ferrell: Best movie ever made.

He may be right. I love Highlander, and I also agree that it may be the best movie ever made. Better than Twelve Angry Men, Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now. Okay, not really, but I have a DEEP love and enthusiasm for Highlander that surprises even me.

It starts with the premise. Is there a more juvenile, ridiculous premise for a movie than the plot of Highlander? It’s a WEIRD movie, asking you to suspend disbelief and trust it but then leaving you with not nearly enough answers.

Connor MacLeod (played by the very not-Scottish actor Christopher Lambert…Suspension of Disbelief Request #1) is a Scottish Highlander who dies in battle while defending his 16th Century village from the invading Kurgan tribe (led by Clancy Brown) from Eastern Europe. Connor comes back to life after the battle ends, and is surprised by the remarkable un-deadness of his situation (Suspension of Disbelief Request #2).
Enter Sean Connery (who actually IS Scottish but is here playing a Spaniard...SoDR #3) as his mentor and fellow immortal, Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramirez. Ramirez teaches MacLeod the ropes and tells him that he cannot die unless his head is separated from his body. Others like him will be looking for him, and they will engage in mortal combat. When an immortal takes the head of his opponent, he receives all of their power. The last immortal standing will receive “the prize.” There can be only one, so don’t lose your head (Suspension of Disbelief Requests #43-56).

Still with me? That’s pretty high concept, and raises a lot of questions that don’t ever really get adequately answered. Why is Connor MacLeod immortal? Why are there others like him? Who set this whole thing up? What is the prize, really? Attempts would be made later to explain many of these things with near-disastrous results.

All this decapi-drama was the creation of Gregory Widen, who came up with the story during college after visiting Scotland. He was standing in a castle in front of a suit of armor and said “I wonder what it would be like if these guys were alive today.” So he “borrowed” liberally from the Ridley Scott film The Duellists (with two L’s -- we could have had a movie called Highllander) and threw in the element of immortality. If Highlander feels like the stuff of a kid’s imagination, that’s because IT IS.

Russell Mulcahy, the Australian music video director who’s claim to fame was directing the video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (the first video MTV ever showed, immediately followed by a marathon of Jersey Shore), manned the helm as director for Highlander. Those music video skills were on full display, as Highlander is full of foggy alleyways and hanging drapes backlit with bright lights. If you listen during quiet scenes, you can hear Dokken shooting a video in another part of the set.
Rounding out this peculiar film is the epic, better-than-this-movie-probably-deserves score by Michael Kamen (who would, in a few years, blow my mind with his soundtrack for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and a bunch of new music from the rock band Queen. I have no memories of Queen before my first viewing of Highlander (I still have yet to see Flash Gordon). Memories can be deceptive, but my recollection is that Highlander introduced me to Queen. If that’s true, then yay me.

All of this ends up in a package that, for me, still totally works. It’s dated, and there are several cringe-inducing moments, but I can easily overlook them for the gritty reality of immortals fighting to survive, never knowing if someone is waiting behind the next door to claim their head. These guys confront each other in isolated parking garages and dirty alleys where prying eyes can’t see their swordfights. The characters recall events of their long lives with a mixture of nostalgia and melancholy.

Does the film live up to the interesting concept? Does it show the full impact of the tragedy that really is immortality? No, absolutely not. It tries, but the script and the director don’t have the chops to elevate the material from B-level entertainment to A-level cinema. It would be hard to elevate this premise, anyway. It’s silly, and sometimes it ventures into slapstick that really makes me squirm.

But it tries to sell you on the story, and that goes a long way for me. I don’t know if I’d say the movie is earnest, but it definitely believes in itself and doesn’t wink at you too often. Highlander was a failure at the box office, and didn’t earn back its production costs during its initial run. According to the production staff, their distributor, Fox, abandoned the film and gave it no support. However, it was a huge hit on video and cable, and it later found its audience.

It was that cult, underground success that led to the production team returning to try their hand at the sequel, Highlander II. The less said about ANY of the sequels, the better. I’ll just touch on them so we can say we talked about them and we won’t ever need to bring it up again.

Highlander II: The Quickening takes place in the future and illogically refutes much of what we saw in the original. Furthermore, it attempted what it never should have: answers for all the questions raised by the first film. Those are questions I never REALLY wanted answers for, and the planet Zeist is now uttered in the same breath as “midichlorians.” When your premise is as ridiculous as this, DON’T answer those questions. Just resolutely move forward and hope people don’t notice that you aren’t answering them. We don’t REALLY want those answers, anyway, do we?
A lot of movies are bandied about as being “the worst ever,” usually hyperbolically and with an eye that doesn’t seem to see past the trends of last week. But the theatrical version of Highlander II is definitely in the running as one of the most disastrous, nonsensical films ever made. If you look it up on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll find it has "freshness" score of 0.

Years later, the director was given several more opportunities to recut the footage into something closer to what he originally had conceived with “The Renegade Version” and, even later, the “Special Edition” with new CGI. Dog crap covered in perfume is still dog crap.

With the failure of Highlander II, attention was turned to getting a television series off the ground. I know this is about movies, but I LOVE the television series. It had a rough couple of seasons when it first got started, but eventually hit a stride that lasted until the sixth and final year. Things that were attempted in the movies but never achieved were given multiple episode story arcs in the series. Turns out being immortal really sucks dead dog dingaling. You get laid a lot, but you have to watch everyone around you grow old and die. Or worse, die young because of random acts that are outside of anyone’s control. If life is hard and painful, immortal life is far more so. This is why Brad Pitt looked so emo in Interview with the Vampire. He was a sad immortal.

The series also expanded the mythology and many questions that fans had were addressed. How old was the oldest immortal? And if these guys absorb all the energy and power of their defeated opponents, could a good guy become evil when he decapitated a bad guy? And while this all played out among mortals, were any of those mortals paying attention? The series had years to delve into these topics. These episodes elevated the concept of the first Highlander movie into a smarter and deeper, dare I say dramatic, realm. The elaborations made by the television show retcon the first film into something even bigger.
1995 saw Connor MacLeod pick up his sword yet again in Highlander III: The Final Dimension, released outside America as Highlander: The Sorcerer. Mario Van Peebles was that sorcerer, and this second sequel had a lot more to offer than Highlander II. That doesn’t mean it was good. Heavens no! It’s the stuff of late night cable, but so was the first film. Pretending that the preceding movie had never happened, Highlander III really wants to be the first Highlander, but with even less originality and talent. Van Peebles does his best to channel Clancy Brown, but that’s a problem because it’s a completely different character. Wait…no it isn’t, it’s practically the same character. He should have delivered his lines in Esperanto. THAT, we’d remember. The movie bombed big time.

Highlander III is a serviceable sequel (really, it’s fine!), but there’s nothing revolutionary going on. So it’s interesting to me that my favorite Highlander memory comes from watching this movie. I had seen the movie theatrically, and it was given a PG-13 to appeal to a wider audience. When it came out on video in 1995, my cousin Jason and I cruised by Blockbuster (RIP) one Sunday night AFTER CHURCH and rented the movie. What we didn’t realize was that the home video version was the “International Cut” which was rated R and had tons of violence and nudity. Shortly after we started the video, his mom came in and asked what we were watching. AT THAT PRECISE MOMENT, Mario Van Peebles graphically beheads someone and licks the blood off of his sword. His mom was mortified, but his response? “Heath said it was okay.” Luckily, we got to finish the movie and experience the R-rated goodness without further hindrance. The angels cried that night.
When it became apparent that Christopher Lambert was getting wrinkly and couldn’t play an immortal character much longer without some serious continuity changes, the sword passed from Connor MacLeod to his clansman and star of the television series, Duncan MacLeod. He was younger, sexier. Women masturbated to the show. Okay, I did too. He’s just so good looking! Always with the stubble on his face, and his dark, olive skin…he’s a gentle lover.

The last two movies, Highlander: Endgame and Highlander: The Source, focus on Duncan rather than Connor. It should be mentioned that Highlander: The Source is also a candidate for worst movie ever. It actually killed the franchise, which even Highlander II didn’t do.

That’s where things lay are the moment. There’s been talk of a remake for years now, but I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Most recently Justin Lin, the wise shepherd of the Fast and Furious franchise, was attached as a director, but he dropped out. For a while Ryan Reynolds was going to play Connor MacLeod because Ryan Reynolds is universally regarded as a haunted, immortal soul. Neither of these decisions or names gives me any confidence that a remake of this quirky little movie from the 1980s is a GOOD idea.

Maybe that’s all for the best. The modest, $19 million movie that spawned four sequels, an animated series, an anime film, two television dramas, audio dramas, an Atari game, comic books, novels and action figures may have given up all it ever had to offer. The last ten years have proven that the story of the clan MacLeod is a well that can be only be visited so many times before it runs dry. There’s been nothing but diminishing returns.
But that’s a sad place to end, so let’s go back to the happy. If you’ve never seen it before or if it’s been a long time, the original, silly little film from 1986 still has a lot to offer. The last few years have seen a return to the aesthetic of the ‘80s, and everything old is new again. Highlander used to feel terribly dated to me, but it gets fresher as I get further from it. Yes, the effects and the cheap film stock draw attention to themselves, but the music still kicks you in the teeth and the swordfights MOVE, man. More than anything, the bummer of immortality still rings true after all these years.

Back in 1986, three months after Highlander debuted theatrically, Queen released an album of material written for Highlander called “It’s a Kind of Magic,” named after a line that Connor MacLeod delivers in the film as an explanation for his immortality. When I started writing this column I didn’t realize just HOW deep my affection for the Highlander series ran; I thought I’d write about it because I like it and because it’s quirky. But this has been a lot more than that for me. I can’t explain why I love it so much. Maybe Connor MacLeod and Queen were right. It IS a kind of magic.


  1. Wait, wait, wait....are we pretending that that there was more than one Highlander movie?

    And let's talk Clancy Brown. Here's a guy who could have played standard heavies in his career, but always brings something interesting. Starship Troopers, this, Shawshank Redemption, the current Sleepy Hollow...

  2. Clancy Brown is a 7-foot pile of fun in Highlander, and led to Richard Moll's embarrassing attempt to ape that performance in the first ep of the TV series.

    My first exposure to Highlander was a girlfriend insisting I take her to see Endgame, which was decent enough to make me seek out the first 3 movies and TV series. I still find Endgame pretty entertaining, though I'm a sucker for Bruce Payne.

    I tried to watch The Source once and got a little more than a half hour in before I bailed. I very rarely give up on a movie, especially one connected to a franchise I enjoy, but WOW was that deep-fried garbage. Heath, were you able to get all the way through Source? Is it worth a second attempt?

    1. I like Highlander: Endgame well enough for what it is. I saw that in the theater too, and I remember wishing that it could have been more like the TV show. I always liked Connor MacLeod in his movies, but he didn't really belong in Endgame. Nor did what happened...

      I'm really glad you like the show. Did you ever make it to the fifth season, where they delved into Methos' past as one of the Four Horsemen?

      I watched The Source when it came on television and I think I DID make it through, but I have NO MEMORY of the movie. Writing this column really made me want to revisit all the films on blu-ray and see how they hold up without commercials, in their original, international versions, and with the best picture (widescreen) as possible. Highlander I and II are available in the US for a pittance, but Highlander 3 and Highlander 5 (The Source) had to come from the German Amazon and Highlander 4 had to come from Hong Kong. There's are versions of all of them on blu-ray in England, but those are region locked. So to get them in a region free version, I had to scour the world.

      Point being, I think the version I have of The Source has more content than even the US DVD (which had more content than the televised version). I'm going to give it a fair shot. I know it's bad, and I remember it pissing on some things that I loved, but a long time has passed and it might not feel as offensive as it once did.

    2. It probably helped that I saw Endgame before I ever saw the series. I imagine I'd have been disappointed if I had expectations from the series.

      I did see the entire series (as well as all of The Raven, unfortunately) and I loved delving into Methos and the Watchers and all that stuff. They built up a really fun mythology.

      I truly admire your dedication. I have neither the patience nor the disposable income to scour the globe for blu-rays of movies that are kinda fun at best, but I love that passion, that feeling that you want to own them in the best possible presentation. I think that's a big part of what pulls us to franchises like this, that desire to explore and pick apart the various entries, even when more of them are terrible than not. It's odd, there are so few genuinely great sequels (for every Ghost Protes there's a dozen The Quickenings) yet we remain optimists and completists even when our optimism has proven misguided.

      What I'm saying is we need therapy, and lots of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go listen to A Kind of Magic and read a Highlander novel.

  3. Weirdly, I became acquainted with the Highlander saga by watching the t.v. show(which I loved) before seeing any of the movies. I saw the first Highlander and III. I think that seeing the series first spoiled my enjoyment of the movies because the series added depth and had more enjoyable (anti-)heroes and villains. Honestly, I could never buy Christopher Lambert as an action star. I've never seen II because life's too short.

    Speaking of the t.v. show, I only made to when SPOILERS FOR A T.V. SHOW THAT ENDED 15 YEARS AGO Duncan accidently kills Ritchie. I ended up missing the last season. Is it worth watching? I think the whole series is on Netflix Instant.

    1. I completely agree that the series has more depth and better villains. It would be so much easier if we could view them as separate things, but the producers keep reminding us that it's all the same thing, even though it's not. Also, I agree with you about Christopher Lambert. I don't buy for a second that he's trained for centuries and is a fine-tuned killing machine who can't be beat.

      The last season of Highlander is really spotty. It doesn't have the feeling that the first five seasons had. It's dark, but not in a fun way. Also, it's a half season and most of it was spent on introducing characters for a potential spinoffs. Because they couldn't just let it go away for a while.


  4. There's also the anime feature, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. It introduces Colin MacLeod (of the clan MacLeod), and it mostly takes place in a dystopian future, something Highlander writers keep circling back to for some reason. It's good-but-not-great, with tons of sex n' violence and a cool fight at the end.

    The anime is not related to Highlander: The Animated Series, which does NOT deserve a mention.

    1. The anime is very good. I wish it hadn't been a MacLeod, though. How many immortal MacLeods are there running across the universe, but all from the same Scottish clan? A bunch too many. Even the kid in the 90s cartoon series was a MacLeod. And Ramirez was in that too, even though he's died twice!