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Classic Movies: Highlander (1986)

441nk75  Sean Connery and the Scottish highlands, immortality and an almost invincible, scenery-chewing bad guy, boobies and broad swords: on paper, Highlander is a fantastic movie.  In execution, however, Highlander is little more than bad writing, bad direction, mediocre acting, and a buttload of contrivance, all squashed together into an uneasy whole.  Symbolic of Highlander's confusion:  a Frenchman plays a modern-day New Yorker by way of 16th century Scotland; a Scot plays an ancient Egyptian by way of medieval Spain, an American plays a Russian mercenary in Scotland.

Oh, where to begin.  Perhaps with the soundtrack, featuring some of Queen's less hard-hitting hits?  How about the gender politics?  You see, apparently only men can become immortal swordsmen; women exist to cower, scream during combats, and have their virtue threatened.  Also, to take their kit off during the obligatory sex scenes.  The contrivances that run amok through the film seem to center largely around the female characters, as embodied by the present-day love interest, a forensic investigator who happens to be an expert in ancient metallurgy.  She literally wrote the book on the subject!  Maybe we should consider the direction, instead?  Director Russell Mulcahy apparently wanted to ape the pacing and cutting techniques of music videos; instead, exposition is ponderously dull and action sequences cut so quickly between actors that it's hard to tell what's going on.  The story's mythology makes absolutely no sense:  a bunch of random guys at random times are born immortal and must hunt down and behead each other until only one survives.  The survivor gets a "prize," an undefined power. (Apparently it's the ability to bring about world peace - oh the irony!) 


And then there's the movie's protagonist, Christopher Lambert's Connor MacLeod.  Lambert spends the movie glowering confusedly and sulking.   He's also, unfortunately, doomed to spend the majority of the movie dressed in a tightly-cinched trench coat and gleaming white trainers, and the rest of it in ratty extensions and a tartan.  Oh, except for the wholly unexplained scene set in pre-revolutionary France where he drunkenly duels an effete Frenchman.  There, of course, he's wearing a powdered wig.  Even now, when the worst 80s fashions are considered retro and cool, Lambert's costumes undercut what little heroic authority he can muster.  The worst crime Lambert commits against the movie, however, is his accent.  In an attempt to disguise his strong French tongue, Lambert mumbles though his American-English and powers his way through his Scots-English, committing crimes against ear drums everywhere along the way.  His Scottish accent is made even worse by the fact that most of his dialogue in Scots-English is with Sean Connery, an actual Scotsman who makes no effort whatsoever to Review_connor_3 disguise his own accent (despite his character's Mediterranean antecedents.)

Don't despair; there are a few bright spots.  The brightest of these is, of course, Sean Connery, despite being saddled with a poofy red costume covered in peacock feathers (really!).  Connery is clearly enjoying the hell out of himself playing the immortal, ancient-Egyptian-by-way-of-Spain sword-master Ramirez, who crops up long enough to teach our dear hero about his immortality, instruct him in the fine art of swordplay, and die horribly.  All this, of course, gives our hero a new sword and a good reason to nurse a vendetta against the bad guy, a screaming Russian giant called the Kurgen.  The problem with the Connery scenes is that Connery is the superior actor and swordsman, and our broody hero suffers terribly in comparison.   There's a great deal of crossing of blades and scrapping about in unlikely but cinematically gorgeous locales, and running around on beaches and in misty mountains, all part of the expected training montage - but it's the most fun part of the movie, and the only bit where Lambert manages to crack a smile.  

Connery's final fight with the Screaming Russian Giant, however, may be the most ridiculous part Highlander-ramirezpromo of a wholly silly movie.  Connery and the Screaming Russian Giant scamper about and hack at each other in a ruinous stone keep-thingie while an electrical storm rages and Lambert's lady-friend cowers and screams.  Lambert is, for whatever reason, mysteriously absent.  As the actors fight the set explodes around them, stone walls bulging and bursting at the slightest touch like a piñata in a room full of six-year-olds.  While lightening crackles around them, the Screaming Russian Giant skewers Connery, chews up what little scenery is left whole, then beheads him and runs off to rape the lady-friend.  Of course.  It's all very, very 80s.

(My description simply doesn't do this scene justice.  You'll just have to watch it for yourself.)

Which brings me to the movie's other bright spot:  the Screaming Russian Giant.  Played by 80s go-to bad guy actor Clancy Brown, whose Richard Kiel-esque physique and gravely basso profundo make him a no-brainer  for an action movie villain, the Screaming Russian Giant provides a much needed counterpoint to Lambert's dour hero.  Lambert spends the majority of the movie skulking around New York with his hands jammed into the pockets of his ridiculous trenchcoat; the Screaming Russian Giant, meanwhile, scampers around terrorizing people and beheading other immortals (generally a scene or two after they're introduced as friends of Lambert's).  Lambert sulks and feels sorry for himself; the Screaming Russian Giant gets shit done.  If, of course, you consider killing off rivals and taking Kurgan old ladies hostage on joyrides "shit."

Highlander is a pretty rotten movie, but I get why it's a cult classic.  I think.  Promisingly, a remake written by the Iron Man script team and  starring Rome's Kevin McKidd (Vorenus) is scheduled for release some time this year.  We remain, to borrow a phrase, cautiously optimistic.