There Can Be Only One

#100 – Highlander – 1986 – dir. Russell Mulcahy

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Usually, you can count on Fantasy Action films to be good popcorn flicks: light viewing with corny acting, bad (in a so bad its good kind of way) writing, and awesome action sequences. These are not the kind of films that stand up to critical analysis for quality. And yet here I am, writing a review placing Highlander, an 80’s Fantasy Action film, in my top 100 films of all time. While re-watching the film for this review, I wanted to be really objective. I loved this movie as a kid and still do today, but the same can be said of National Treasure and it doesn’t even place in the top 400. So what makes Highlander a cut above the usual fantasy action fare?

Highlander was released in 1986 and was directed by Australian director Russell Mulcahy who had made a name for himself directing music videos for The Buggles, Duran Duran, Elton John, and Billy Joel. He had also directed Razorback (1984) and Arena (1985) before he was put at the helm for Highlander. The story follows a man by the name of Russell Nash (Christopher Lambert) who lives in New York in 1986. In the parking garage of Madison Square Garden, Nash engages in an epic sword fight with a man and decapitates him, leading to massive surge of energy that damages every car there. Through flashbacks we learn many things about Nash including an encounter with Sean Connery’s Spanish swordsman in the Scottish highlands. The movie leads toward an epic conclusion, a battle between Lamber’s Nash, and the Kurgan, a villain played excellently by Clancy Brown (who would go on to play the sadistic guard in The Shawshank Redemption a few years later).

When analyzing any movie there are some standard categories used for critical rating and analysis. Acting, editing, direction, writing, music (score and/or songs), cinematography, and visual effects are at the top of the list, but together only make up seven (or eight) categories (which is not terribly conducive to a 100 point grading system, is it?). So aside from those, I add in at least two other categories for rating notable aspects of certain films as well as a subjective category to add to the point total when I feel it fits.

In Highlanders case I added the categories of Mood and Action Sequences to the mix along with the Subjective Category. I’ll start with the acting category simply because it is the one that truly leaves something to be desired. While it is fun seeing Sean Connery (a Scotsman) play a Spaniard and Christopher Lambert (a Frenchman) play a Scotsman, the performances are not the best. While Lambert plays a reluctant hero and fairly unbelievable romantic, Connery is flamboyant and funny in his role as father figure and mentor to Lambert. Their chemistry is the only part of their performances that really holds up to snuff. The star performance of the film has to go to Clancy Brown as the villain. Truly devilish, you can tell he is having fun playing this brutish figure and he steals every scene he is in.

An argument can be made that the screenplay is weak, however the beauty of this film is that that potential weakness is used as a strength thanks to the mood made through the cinematography and editing. The film is dark, and the setting could be mistaken for that of Blade Runner in certain frames. Mulcahy uses beautiful cinematography with brilliant and controlled lighting to give some of the best fight sequences ever put to screen. Even the visual effects added to the awesomely dark and mysterious atmosphere.

An element of this film that can’t go without note is the Soundtrack provided by Queen. Hammer to Fall, Princes of the Universe, and Who Wants to Live Forever, are used to excellent effect through the film and perfectly compliment the score provided by Michael Kamen. While only a small part in the overall tone of the film, it doesn’t go unnoticed and definitely adds to the magic of Highlander.

Together all of these elements create a great cinematic experience and a very watchable film. Its tone of mystery keeps you engaged and the mood on the screen is as visually exciting as many of the sci-fi films lauded as classics.

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