Highlander: A Love Story

Anyone who has known me longer than five minutes will know that i have a pure and absolute love for Highlander. I’m not one of those nostalgia fiends who merely declares a like for a film in order to score some cool points (I don’t even think Highlander would score any cool points in any era of time to be honest). My love for this film transcends space and time, dimensions even. So transcendent it is that I once bid on Ebay for a replica of Connor MacLeod’s sword when I had too much time and not enough sense. Alas, I lost the bid so we will never know what a 19 year old university student would have done with a fake Scottish broadsword.

 

My Highlander journey started on a dark and chilly evening in 1995. I, a mere youthful scamp of 7 at the time, took an opportunity to sneak downstairs and turn the television on after my parent’s had retired to their bedroom for the night. Flicking through the glorious four channels (remember when we only had 4!) that were on offer, I came across a strange vision. A vision that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and never let me go.

 

Two men, one old, one young, one clad in trainers and dad jeans, the other in swish glasses and suit, were trying to hoof the shit out of the each other in a soggy underground car park with swords. There was the echo of clanging metal, sparks flying as they clashed their weaponry off various pillars, posts and cars, backflips were performed, and there was I,eyes wide, mouth agape, drinking it all in. For the next 110 minutes I was transfixed by the strange and bizarre spectacle of sword fights, bagpipe based flashbacks, and loud excessive noise, until it ended in a blaze of shattered glass and Christopher Lambert howling like a banshee. I’ll never understand how my parents slept through the entire thing (I had the television on loud enough) but i am so thankful that they did because if they hadn’t then maybe I would have never enjoyed Highlander in the way that i did on that very cold evening in 1995.

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It’s not The Godfather Part II, I’ll give you that. It’s not ahead of its field in special effects, the script is nifty but oddly paced, the direction a little too on the wrong side of fast and furious, and the acting is over the top on many of the actors behalf, though enjoyably so, but for giving you that euphoric feeling of joy, Highlander cannot be challenged.

 

As soon as the credits begin, and Brian May strikes that heavy opening chord of Princes of The Universe, you find yourself balling your fist tightly, and then Roger Taylor’s drums kick in and everything is alright with the world. Admittedly, the credits are a ridiculously underwhelming show of red writing over a black screen, but that music, oh that sweet music, gets you so bloody pumped up that it’s hard to stifle an aggressive declaration of ‘YEAH!’ as it rolls out between your clenched teeth.

 

Queen had done soundtracks before, Flash Gordon most notably, but the music they provided for Highlander is without a doubt one of the greatest gifts to humanity itself. Their 1986 release A Kind of Magic is essentially the Highlander soundtrack, unofficially i might add, and shows Queen returning to their heavier roots (Princes of the Universe and Gimme The Prize are almost heavy metal-esque) while also batting out some bona fide hits in One Vision and A Kind of Magic. It’s not an understatement to say that A Kind of Magic is one of my favourite albums, it’s link with Highlander is probably part of that love, and I listen to it on frequent rotation which then makes me want to watch the film which then makes me want to listen to the album which makes me want to watch the film…… repeat ad infinitum.

 

If you can’t get your tiny mind mind past the fact we have a Swiss-French-American playing a Scotsman and a Scotsman playing a Spanish-Egyptian then Highlander is definitely not for you. If you enjoy spotting random British actors in early roles (Terry from Emmerdale and Celia Imrie being two familiar faces that pop up with Scottish accents) or if you want to see what Mr Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants was doing a decade before he decided to make Krabby Patties then you might actually want to give it a whirl. Lambert is perfectly not perfect as MacLeod, his attempt at a Scottish accent being more wonky than one of my old bras, yet I genuinely can’t think of anyone else playing Connor. He plays some of the more comedic scenes (the drunken duel and the underwater sword swishing) with quite a deft touch and as we get further into the flashbacks showing his life pre-New York he manages to bring something more as we start to understand the loneliness and isolation or being an immortal (the bloke is 450 years old .. THINK OF ALL THE DEATH HE HAS SEEN), and we don’t just see Connor as some powerful bloke with a sword, but an actual person struggling with the negatives of the ‘condition’ that he is. Yes, he is an immortal, but look at the human and emotional cost of that.

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Connery plays Connery in hosiery like no one else could. He also gets a fantastically cheesy fantasy film opening monologue which he reads with gleeful gusto like he knows what he is reading is hokum but he’s getting paid a big fat £2 million or so to do it. He and Lambert strike a decent chemistry as his character Ramirez gallops in on his steed and offers to train Connor in order to defeat the nasty piece of work that is the Kurgan. There were only two characters that gave me nightmares as a child, one of them was Ursula from The Little Mermaid and the other was Kurgan. With his pale skin, hollow blue eyes, jet black hair, scars across his neck and face and low, rumbling voice like a cryptkeeper gargling gravel, Kurgan (Clancy Brown or Mr Krabs or every horrible army general on television) is absolute nightmare fuel. He beheads without guilt or fear, skewers one man and lifts him off the ground, he stalks through the night intent on tracking down Connor and separating his head from his shoulders, leaving carnage in his wake. He is wonderfully awful, a foe that you genuinely believe can defeat your hero, and that is a rare thing indeed.

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Mythology wise, Highlander is the strongest film of the lot. Before they started mucking about with the extra-terrestrial angle in the subsequent and increasingly shitty sequels, the mythology was of a far purer nature. Immortals had been fighting for centuries, whittling the numbers down until there were only a handful left who were then drawn to one particular place (which so happened to be New York City) and this was called The Gathering. When an immortal kills another immortal they absorb their energies and this is called The Quickening. Immortals can only be killed by decapitation. Immortals can sense each other’s presence hence the seemingly random opening sword fight in the underground car park. Some nit-picky questions such as ‘why? are amusingly side stepped. Ramirez dismisses the entire ‘why’ question in three lines ending with ‘Who knows?’ You either embrace this mythology or you can spend your sad time trying to pull it apart. Believe me, it’s far better when you just embrace it.

 

I’ve watched Highlander three times already this year and the returns it produces are not diminishing. It remains, for me, a true high water mark of the swords and sorcery fantasy genre that gets sullied by so much lazy rubbish (by some of its own sequels nonetheless). It’s fun, unashamedly daft in parts but with real heart and soul and i reckon i could get at least another 5 or 6 watches out of it by the time the year is out.

P.S…. if you’ve never seen it, what are you doing with your life….

Five Films That Should Have Ruined A Franchise But Didn’t

5. Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift

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It’s hard to believe we are now on the cusp of being eight films into this behemoth of a franchise and, with films nine and ten reportedly already being outlined, it shows absolutely no signs of stopping. But it all could have been so different after the release of an utter skidmark of a third film. Somehow they managed to suck all of the stupid joy of meatheads barreling along in souped up cars and shoehorn some pathetic piss-baby story about a young man finding love and acceptance through streetcar racing. Some of the race scenes are undoubtedly thrilling, but the pace is jarring, the acting is so wooden you could probably chisel a good chest of drawers out of it, and by bringing back none of the actors from the previous films (expect Vin Diesel, who pops up in a rubbish cameo) it makes this film feel completely out of sync with the rest of the series. The team behind F&F have upped their game since, shrewdly nudging the films to be more action/heist based propositions and dropping in some heavyweight names (Kurt Russell, Jason Statham), meaning that the latest instalment has punched through that blessed $1 billion dollar mark.

 
4. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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Oh Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, Hugh. Everyone loves Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine. Everyone. Even people who hate superhero/comic book films think he is a good Wolverine, and if they don’t then they are beyond help, but dearest Hugh tested all our goodwill with this horrendous instalment in the X-Men franchise. All the hallmarks of a dud were there from the start, an incomplete script at the start of filming (which only works for Ridley Scott and, for him, only about 35% of the time), bad scheduling and general production troubles; then butting of heads between director and the production company, piracy of a non-theatrical release version. All in all, it was an utter state.  Fox, however, did learn their lesson from this steaming mess, shelving plans for any further ‘Origin’ stories (Magneto was mooted but then cancelled) and started a sneaky rejigging of the franchise by using First Class and Days of Future Past to make Origins an unessential and grubby footmark. Wolverine finally did eventually get a half decent stand alone film, but Origins stands alone as a brilliant example of how not to do a comic book film.

 

3. Saw III

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*raises hand* I admit now that I am a big fan of the first Saw film and the second film was an entertaining, gory attempt to further the myth of Jigsaw. Saw III is where I draw the line; where I felt the novelty wear off and I was dulled to the tricksy traps and gratuitous gore. The introduction of Amanda (Shawnee Smith) showed us the thought process of the film’s producers. By introducing a disciple-esque character with an unwavering dedication to Jigsaw’s vision and someone who was quite happy to continue it on the producers set up the Jigsaw universe to survive without Jigsaw himself. It was all very cynical and all very rubbish, to be honest. Saw III itself was a muddled half job, exceedingly dull and convoluted beyond belief, and the franchise never recovered. Yeah, it made a huge chunk of cash over the course of its 7 (and possibly 8) films, but it never reached those dizzy heights of actually being good ever again.

 
2. Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4)

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More like Live Farce and Die Hard, amirite? Die Hard 4 (I can’t be arsed with its longer moniker) was something that should have been just talked about and not acted upon. It has left a smelly little stain on a once great trilogy and spawned another furiously bad fifth film which was somehow worse. And now someone has decided it would a great move to make a prequel to the entire franchise. What irks me the most about Die Hard 4 is that it diluted all the great elements of the previous three films (the snark, the writing, John McClane’s humanity) and created something so infuriatingly generic in its execution. Die Hard 4 has nothing to set it apart from any other crappy post 2000 action film, the writing is flat, the action sequences themselves are riddled and soiled by shitty CGI, and Willis looks bored (and that’s in the decent scenes). Die Hard with Vengeance is the last Die Hard film for me, and will stay that way for a long time yet.

1. Highlander 2: The Quickening

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Highlander is my catnip. Highlander 2: The Quickening is my Kryptonite. I become so weak with despair whenever it is mentioned that I crumple to floor before crawling away to the nearest darkened room to collect my thoughts. Every terrible thing you have heard about The Quickening is true. It is an utter shambles. It dismantles the good stuff from the first film and grinds it into a dust. The Quickening goes as far as to re-write and ruin the origins of the Immortals, turning it into nonsense that even James Joyce would be proud of. Sean Connery inexplicably reappears (for the money probably) even though that should be theoretically impossible. But this film basically says fuck to everything. The creators clearly felt guilty about releasing this lung spore of the devil onto the general public that they made a third film, and a fourth, and a fifth, and then a naff tv series. There’s also been a couple of animated series, a Japanese anime film (!), and various games and merchandise thrown in there for good measure. Do yourself a favour. Start with the first. End with the first.

 

There can be only one.