In one of his many sports-themed movies Will Ferrell stated “Highlander” won the Academy Award for best movie ever made. That is an overstatement to say the least, but Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 fantasy film definitely deserves some sort of award for being one of the goofiest cult movies ever made. It also had enough mythology to spawn four sequels that ranged from horrible to mediocre and six TV seasons so there clearly was something there. The movie that started all this now seems somewhat dated, but it is undeniably entertaining in an old-fashioned way.
They made some really odd casting decisions with this one. French actor Christopher Lambert stars as the titular Highlander, which as the word indicates his character is actually quite Scottish. As one character says, he has a strange accent. Even weirder Sean Connery, the one undeniably Scottish actor in all of cinema, plays an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like character called Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez. As with every other character Connery has ever played, he does not bother to hide his Scottish accent despite the very Spanish name and the fact Ramirez claims to actually be from Egypt. Seriously, Egypt.
Lambert’s character, Connor MacLeod, is living in 1980s New York City where he works as an antiques’ dealer. Appropriately enough he is an antique himself since he was born centuries ago in Scotland. In flashback scenes that come off as a low-budget production of “Braveheart” MacLeod is shown doing battle with his clansmen and mortally wounded in battle, only to come back to life days later. Instead of confusing him with the Son of God, his clansmen think this is the work of the devil and banish him. It could have been worse, someone suggested to burn him alive him at the stake.
Enter Connery’s Ramirez who seeks out MacLeod to tell him he comes from a long line of immortal men. Who are the immortals and why can they only be killed by decapitation? That’s never really explained. What matters is the movie’s tagline, “There can only be one,” meaning eventually all immortals will kill each other in epic swordfights causing something called “the quickening” where the fight’s winner gets all the power of the loser. The last man standing gets the ultimate prize, which is also a bit unclear.
Regardless, in 1986 New York MacLeod is about to face said last man standing. Victor Kruger (Clancy Brown) or as he is simply known The Kurgan, is a ghastly immortal warrior first seen in battle in the Scottish highlands wearing a skull for a helmet. For some reason in the present he prefers to dress as a Motley Crue reject in full black leather attire and likes to quote De Leppard’s “Rock of Ages.” MacLeod on the other hand walks around with a trench coat, white sneakers, jeans, and quotes the Queen song “It’s a Kind of Magic.” Sure, why not?
Queen is actually constantly playing throughout the movie, since the great Freddy Mercury band wrote songs specifically for the “Highlander,” most notably the very energetic “Princes of the Universe.” At one point a Vietnam War veteran/street vigilante is driving around town in a big red car while “Hammer to Fall” is loudly playing on his radio. Given how over-the-top everything the whole movie it’s a wonder none of the characters start belting out songs as though this was a rock musical.
Despite how ridiculous this all seems, there is no denying how fun it all is. The many sword fights are each spectacular, Brown is unapologetically overacting as the villain, and Lambert is appealing as a very world-weary hero despite his uneven accent.
Given the legacy of the Highlander franchise throughout the 1990s, there is of course talk of a remake to restart the whole thing. Not a bad idea, but when it comes to matching the original in terms of craziness and entertainment, I think it is pretty clear there can only be one.
(“Highlander” is available on special edition DVD and Blu-Ray and is available on Netflix.)