Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Kind of Magic #2 - Highlander (1986)

Sometimes revisiting something you loved when you were younger can be a double-edged sword, and eagerness to recapture a past thrill can leave us shaking our head when we discover that the object of our affection isn't actually very good through modern eyes. I'm happy to say that revisiting Highlander--specifically the 1986 feature film, has been a very rewarding experience. It's even better than I remembered.

The first installment of this column explained that there was a kind of magic about the franchise of Highlander, and by borrowing a line from the first movie, I was acknowledging that there's something about it that seems to defy conventional criticism. The tone of that first column was almost apologetic. I've since watched Highlander the film yet again, this time via the new 30th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray, and I don't think I've ever had this much appreciation for the movie that started it all. It really is special. Ascertaining why, though, is a challenge.
There's just not a lot about Highlander that is conventional. The DNA of the movie, from the director to the cast to the special effects, are just a little bit skewed. None of it should work as well as it does. Director Russell Mulcahy had come from music videos and had only mounted one serious movie attempt before this. Even Gregory Widen, the man who pretty much invented these characters and this premise, hadn't written anything before this and his co-writers Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson had very limited screenwriting experience themselves.

In fact, the majority of the cast were relative newcomers to this sort of movie-making, having come from television or smaller drama films. The character of Connor McLeod is played by Christopher Lambert and is not an obvious choice for a role this physically demanding. His character has been alive for four hundred years, lived through the deaths of numerous friends and loved ones, and has become a man out of time. The only way he has survived is by honing his battle skills and becoming a warrior, so it's a little strange that they hire a French actor to play a Scotsman, and that he looks like your average Joe. He's wearing a dumpy trench coat for most of his modern scenes, and sneakers that had to have been out of style even in 1986.
Honestly, Christopher Lambert has always confounded me. It's not that I don't like him; I actually like him quite a bit in certain roles, but he's just so...odd. There's a sense of detachment at almost all times, but maybe that's what makes it work. While I wouldn't describe him as charismatic, there's a real sense of danger about him. He comes across as kind of a dark dude with the type of brooding magnetism that lures certain women to the bad boy because they think they can "fix" him, so maybe that's the appeal here. He seems kind of like a wounded animal (something that the movie actually suggests in a scene at a zoo) that can be dangerous when backed into a corner. Nowadays they'd probably cast someone like Chris Pratt as Connor, but I think Lambert's off-center presence actually works in this movie's favor. By being unassuming, he could be anyone. He could be right next to us on the subway, or in the theater. Put Connor McLeod in a New York City crowd shot and you'd have a hard time finding him. I suppose that's the point.

The supporting cast is also made up of people who you wouldn't expect in their roles. As Connor McLeod's mentor, the Spaniard Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, we have Sean Connery. A Scotsman playing a Spaniard? I don't know. Yet Connery brings his charm to the role of Ramirez, essentially playing a variation of the character he would portray in 1987's The Untouchables. A scene in which he asks Connor "What are you prepared to do?" wouldn't be out of place at all in this movie. Clancy Brown is all kinds o incredible as The Kurgan, a barbaric beast from the steppes of Russia. Brown's resume was still really small at the time of Highlander, but he more than rises to the occasion, creating a villain that is incredibly memorable and chewing scenery like a veteran.
I'm of two minds about the women in this movie. Roxanne Hart is Brenda, the female lead, and for most of the movie she comes across as really intelligent and isn't an object for the men, but is instead a fully-formed character. But then she spends most of the third act as a damsel in distress with most of her lines in the final twenty minutes of the movie being screams, not words. She also doesn't seem to have much chemistry with Christopher Lambert, but they don't have a lot of scenes where they can develop it. Their relationship is only a small part of the movie, and is probably there to give us an "in" to this world. The only other significant female presence in the film is Beatie Edney, who plays Connor's Scottish love interest Heather in flashbacks. I actually think Edney is kind of amazing. We don't get to spend a lot of time with her--just a few minutes, really--but she seems as innocent and as pure as the driven snow, and she seems to have real chemistry with Christopher Lambert (the flashback scenes are the only ones where Lambert doesn't look like a serial killer) and I wish there had been more of their interaction because she's great. The movie makes it very clear how important Heather is to Connor, and how much she matters to this story overall. It would have been nice to see some female immortals thrown into the mix, even just as a passing reference, because that would introduce a power dynamic that is really intriguing. Thankfully, this is something that Highlander: The Series would eventually rectify.

So there are definitely reasons (the casting, the lack of experience all around) that Highlander should not necessarily resonate, but it totally does. I give a lot of the credit to Russell Mulcahy and his ability to make things visually interesting. I've watched this movie so many times over the last couple of decades (I discovered it in the early '90s when the show hit TV), and I've never been as aware as I am now of how fantastic Highlander looks. Part of this is owed to the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray which cleans the film up and makes it shine more than it ever has, but the main reason is because Mulcahy knows how to keep viewers engaged. His years of experience in the music video industry served him well in his feature film career. Fun Fact: the first music video Mulcahy directed was also the first music video MTV ever played: "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. That's pedigree, man! He can set up a battle scene like nobody's business, and Highlander is consistently visually stunning. Consider the opening shots of the film where Mulcahy flies us over a packed arena inside Madison Square Garden (actually The Meadowlands in New Jersey subbing in as MSG) for a wrestling match featuring The Fabulous Freebirds. It's a sweeping shot done with a short-lived device called a Skycam which was essentially a camera that rode wires. A few minutes later when Connor is engaged in his first sword fight of the film, Mulcahy makes sure that we feel like this is a real battle to the death, not a jaunty duel out of The Three Musketeers. It's gritty and physical and scary, and Mulcahy shoots it for all it's worth. Also, big shout out to the director of photography Gerry Fisher, who actually shot the thing.
Equally, the music of the film gives it so much character. Everyone talks about the Queen songs and how awesome they are, but we can't underestimate their ability to give the movie that unique, off-center feel that it has. Look at something like Flash Gordon from 1980. That movie had music from Queen too, but it felt fun and a little bit goofy. Queen's music in this movie doesn't feel fun or goofy, it feels dangerous. From the opening salvo of voices in "Princes of the Universe" at the beginning of the film to the warped, slightly-out-of-tune version of "New York, New York" near the end, Queen's music gives the film real teeth and menace. Each member of the band contributed to the songwriting, and that gave the songs individual character. Whereas Freddie Mercury's contributions are in your face and bold, Roger Taylor's "A Kind of Magic" and John Deacon's soulful "One Year of Love" give balance to the film's soundtrack with more reflective intentions. The real showstopper is "Who Wants to Live Forever" by Queen's guitarist Brian May, which is very much a ballad that slowly builds into anguish. I've you've never heard the last half of the song with the heavy guitar at the end, change that now.
It's also important to put Queen in the context of where they were at this point in their career. In a lot of ways, this was the pinnacle of their fame. Having come out of the glam/arena rock days of the seventies, Queen had moved into a more dance-oriented sound that largely fell on def ears in the United States but was still huge in Europe (A Kind of Magic, the album that serves as the unofficial soundtrack to Highlander, hit #1 in the UK). Their show-stopping performance at Live Aid in 1985 was the stuff of Rock and Roll Legend, and the Queen that we hear on the Highlander soundtrack is a confident, strong band with nothing left to prove. But in 1987, Freddie Mercury tested positive for HIV, though this was kept secret. Within five years, Mercury was gone. In a lot of ways, the work represented in Highlander is the band at the top, right before they fell. 

Something I'd forgotten, though, is how important Michael Kamen's symphonic score is to the film. I know I've been guilty of heaping all the praise on Queen, but Michael Kamen turns in a really powerful and moving score with some beautiful and triumphant moments. There's a scene in the film where Ramirez is teaching McLeod how to tap into nature, and the two are running on the beach, Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed style sans the short-shorts hugging. Kamen's theme is all kinds of wonderful, and the scene would be so much less without it. Kamen was always a composer that I really loved (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is one of my favorite films) but who never seemed to get as much credit or mainstream recognition as I thought he deserved. Even after he was gone, very few people seemed to wave his banner like they did his contemporaries. Watching Highlander again reminds me that his contributions were huge. 
Another key to this movie's success is that it isn't JUST about the action of immortals having sword fights and chopping off each others' heads. The film takes time to slow down and focus on the human aspect of this struggle. There's a scene that I really love that was cut from the US theatrical version (it's been restored in every home video version for the last twenty years, though) where we see Connor McLeod saving a little girl named Rachel from a Nazi during World War II. The scene really shines and gives Christopher Lambert the opportunity to actually be charming and sweet, and when we see a much older Rachel later in the movie, it really means something. Here is someone that Connor loves (and that loves him as well) that must eventually say goodbye. Highlander is smart enough to linger on the touching moments that give this story heart and soul. Without these repeated glimpses into the pain of immortality and the nature of family, this would simply be another Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time or Masters of the Universe. It would have fun action, cool cinematography, and we'd forget about it as soon as it was over. 

Some people call this movie out for a few things. One of them is Christopher Lambert's acting ability and range, but I think we've covered that one. The other major one is that it's "rapey," referring to how The Kurgan seems dead-set on getting to McLeod through his female companions. I get this criticism, but I think it fits within story. The Kurgan (and many other villains from this universe of films and the TV show) is barbaric and savage. Consider the Vikings, who really did rape and pillage and burn settlements to the ground, including (especially) holy places like churches. Conquering armies did all sorts of atrocious things for most of our history, and Kurgan's behavior of "taking" McLeod's "women" in Highlander is absolutely the sort of thing that a conquering barbarian would do. The movie tells us that his people would toss children into a pit of starved dogs for entertainment. All of this is despicable and upsetting because it's supposed to be despicable and upsetting. Rape is a violent, deplorable, horrifying act (kind of like cutting someone's head off), and rather than shy away from that horror, I think the movie does well to acknowledge it. It makes Kurgan all the more awful. We're supposed to be repulsed by him. What's lost on some detractors is that this tragedy informs the characters themselves and actually makes them richer through the implications, because the rape is not the end for Kurgan nor for his victim. Life goes on, and that's an interesting storytelling challenge that this film actually accepts.
Highlander might not be a perfect movie (whatever that is), but it really does work well. It reportedly had a budget of 16 million dollars, which is too high for a low-budget film and too low for a big-budget film, making it one of those mid-budget features that simply don't get made anymore. My entire childhood and teenage years were built on movies like Highlander, when studios and independent finance companies would take risks on movies like this because they didn't stand to lose a ton of money. I miss them so much. Keep in mind, too, that Sean Connery got paid a million for his seven days of filming, meaning that most of what was left over after that ended up on screen. While there are some obvious limitations (check out the extremely visible wire work at the end of the movie), it's kind of amazing how well the movie turned out. While it wasn't a huge success in theaters (at least not in 'Murrica), it didn't take long to become a real video hit.

Beware people who damn this movie with faint praise and label it a "camp classic" or a "cheesy good time." Let's be perfectly clear: The Legend of Boggy Creek is a camp classic. Kindergarten Cop is a cheesy good time. Highlander is a real gem of a genre movie, but it's also a really good movie period. It has lots of action, a world that is begging to be explored further, and a real sense of heart that elevates this beyond midnight movie status. In a world where the term epic is used to describe everything from a hike to a sandwich, this is actually an epic movie. Good is good, regardless of the subject matter, the budget, or in what decade it was made. Watching Highlander again has been a real pleasure and an affirmation of what drew me to this world all those years ago.
It would be pretty hard for the filmmakers to mess up the all these cool concepts and spoil this good will I'm feeling! Next time, we'll look at the 1991 sequel, Highlander II: The Quickening. Should be fun.

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