When I was in the eighth grade, I was introduced to a television show called Highlander: The Series. It starred Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod, and I suppose that you can guess what part of Scotland he is from based on the title. He is immortal, one of a few walking the planet, and the only way he can die is by having his head removed from his body. The usual method of dispatching the brain helmet is by means of a sword, and thus all the immortals travel with a blade in case they encounter another of their kind who has evil intentions. For a nerd like myself, combining history and duels pitting people with edged weapons was pretty neat. This was all before I had heard of any of the movies. Before there was a broadcast Duncan MacLeod, there was a cinematic Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), also of the Clan MacLeod. The films, as you shall see in this discussion of the first Highlander (1986), are another case of something you thought was great as a child, but when you see as a thinking adult it leaves much to be desired. Or does it? Call me M. Night Shyamalan because this review just might have a twist!
Now, if you are expecting Highlander to jump straightaway into crossed blades, then you might be slightly disappointed. Apparently, Connor had dozed off at a wrestling match, but the presence of another immortal sets his Spidey-senses a-tingling. I do not know of a better way to describe how immortals react when they come into range of one another. Thus, he heads down to the parking garage of the venue (Madison Square Garden, as it turns out), and there has his deadly struggle with one Iman Fasil (Peter Diamond). Unfortunately, when Connor triumphs, we are not treated to the classic line of the franchise, “There can be only one!” It is uttered usually before the final blow, but not this time. With his opponent defeated, Connor experiences the electricity show that invariably follows when an immortal loses their head. Maybe this is what summons the police? I say this because they had previously dueled without another soul bothering them. Yet, after stashing his trademark, white dragon handled katana, Connor emerges from the building to find several squad cars waiting for him. While in custody, we learn that Connor is going by Russell Nash, which I guess is a way of not alerting people to the fact that he could live forever. Given the lack of evidence for the apparent murder, Connor is released. One person seeking to keep the case open, though, is forensics expert and sword enthusiast Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). She is most interested in Iman’s weapon, which was recovered at the scene, and why such an old and exquisitely preserved piece would be an accessory to such a crime. She can also tell that there is another sword involved based on her own investigations, and she believes she might have its owner when Connor shows up to retrieve his katana. Eventually, he follows her to find out what she knows, but when that goes nowhere, she invites him to her home where she plans to trick him into confessing his secrets. This does not work either. It takes her digging through old records and figuring out that the person originally named Russell Nash is dead, for her to finally confront him with enough truth for him to admit the whole story. This is enough for them to fall in love.
That is not the end of my plot synopsis of Highlander. Neither am I telling it in the same order as the film. You see, the darn thing jumps around with flashbacks in order to clue you in as to what the heck is happening. The longest part of this is set in sixteenth century Scotland where we see young Connor, thinking he is mortal like anyone else, going out to fight in his first battle in the highlands. Among the opposing clans is a skull helmet wearing giant named Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who somehow knows that Connor is immortal while the Scotsman remains unaware. This is to change when they meet each other on the battlefield. Kurgan runs Connor through, and is about to slice through the neck when Connor’s kinsmen intervene, driving Kurgan away. They are certain Connor is going to die from his wounds. But when he makes a complete and speedy recovery, he is labeled a devil and banished from the clan. He attempts to move on with his life, even taking on a mortal wife named Heather (Beatie Edney). Life seems settled until one day there arrives a Spaniard named Ramirez (Sean Connery). He, too, can never die, and he has come to Connor in order to train the newly minted immortal in what it means to live forever. Ramirez teaches Connor to be a better swordsman, that the only weakness they possess is losing the head, and how if he truly loves Heather he should leave her or face the agony of watching her slowly perish. Their budding friendship is cut short when Kurgan arrives looking for Connor. Connor is away doing Scottish things, I guess, leaving Kurgan to square off with Ramirez. Their fight collapses a castle, and leaves Ramirez headless. Yet, Kurgan does not stick around for Connor to return, and Heather is relatively unharmed. . . . And the matter is seemingly dropped for the next four hundred plus years. Now, because the script says so, whoever is left of the immortals are gathering in New York City in order for there finally to be only one. Kurgan, being the mustache twirling, psychopathic villain that he is, takes Brenda hostage. This brings Connor to challenge him, the last two immortals. When Connor wins, it supposedly grants him god-like powers, which he uses to take Brenda to Scotland. The end.
Highlander is a movie that is so bad it is good. I do not mean it is good in a way that will make you want to see it more than once because of the warm and fuzzy feelings it evokes. Rather, you will not believe some of the laughably bad moviemaking in it. There are so many examples to choose from, but let us go with a very minor character I did not mention in the above description. With immortals congregating in the Big Apple (it is hard making that word plural as you see only four during the whole film), Connor meets with an old friend in the truest sense of the word, Sunda Kastagir (Hugh Quarshie). Their tête-à-tête has no set-up, and the subsequent flashback it leads to where Connor starts reminiscing about a time they got drunk together in Boston in 1783, does not even feature Sunda in it. Instead, we see Connor getting stabbed repeatedly during a duel and getting back to his feet each time. The entire sequence seems pointless as we already know Connor is immortal, we never see Connor and Sunda together again, and Sunda dies immediately thereafter at Kurgan’s hands. It is like the people behind this film came up with the idea, but had no idea how to make it feature length. They wanted to have people sword fighting, but apparently thought an hour and a half of that would not be proper, somehow. And yet, the relationship between Brenda and Connor starts like someone flipping a switch. They spend most of the first half of the movie suspicious of one another, and then the next moment they are having sex. Not only did they not understand how to tell the story, but there are some common cinematic mistakes you can easily spot. For instance, when Connor is experiencing the histrionics after defeating Kruger, you can clearly see the cables suspending him from the ceiling. Taken together, it makes for a cinematic experience so awful as to be incredible.
One rule of Connor’s existence that I have not covered in this Highlander treatise is how there seems to be an unspoken rule about fighting on holy ground. So, in the midst of this lunacy, at least there is something sacred. Then again, they did decide to give a mohawk to the only Catholic monk you see with the MacLeod Clan. I would comment on how little sense that makes, but it seems a moot point at this juncture. I do like the fact that Connor honors Heather’s last wishes by lighting a candle in a church and saying a prayer for her. Catholics light candles in order to symbolize prayer. They stand as a light that goes on shining in God’s presence for longer than we can usually manage. Of course, Kurgan shows up and ruins it all with his ridiculous antics and extremely fake looking make-up. What else would you expect from this movie?
If you enjoy watching a film that is so terrible it will make you laugh, then Highlander is the one for you. And to think they made five of these movies! When the person who suggested Highlander did not specify which one, I decided to watch all of them just to see if they are as good as I remembered. I was treated to an entirely different and unexpected form of entertainment. If this does not sound like your idea of a good time, which would be totally understandable, then avoid. In addition to the general awfulness, there are moments of unnecessary nudity and some borderline gruesome violence. Anyway, I leave it up to you!