If you are a science fiction fan of a certain age, the 1986 film Highlander was probably important to you. Although suffering from a flawed advertising campaign in the United States, the film quickly became a cult hit in Europe. The VHS revolution of the mid-’80s caused it to attain similar popularity among adolescents in North America. The 1991 release of the sequel was met with a united front of critical contempt, but still managed to stir interest in the original.
It’s a fey film to say the least. Its peculiarities don’t really add up to a good film and, if the release of the 25th anniversary Blu-ray of Highlander and Highlander 2 are your first introduction, you are unlikely to become a fan.
Highlander and its much-hated sequel did, however, have some interesting ideas. At its heart is the story of immortal beings who battle through time (with swords!!!) for some unidentified prize (that turn outs, in the first film, to be telepathy…wha???). It found a following (and even a TV series) because of its intriguing, if confusing, interweaving of chronologies and its placement of sword and sorcery themes in the modern world.
A new two film set gives Highlander 1 and 2 the Blu-ray treatment, partially because it’s the 25th anniversary of the original and partially because a reboot is (of course) in the works. Unfortunately, this release is as disappointing as the franchise’s previous incarnations Notably, the 1994 Highlander III is ignored in this set. Helmed by a different director, its generally seen as better than number 2 but mostly a 34 million dollar jumble of incoherence.
The original Highlander, it must be admitted, is just crazy enough to be interesting. It mostly eschewed exposition, accounting for the first half hour being utterly incomprehensible to first time viewers. The film places all its bets on the principles slashing at each other with swords, being very loud and costuming Sean Connery in the outfit of a 16th century Spanish court dandy. Christopher Lambert’s inability to deliver a single line as if he knows what he is saying doesn’t do much to hurt this campfest (his character’s tendency to run around in a trench coat and white tennis shoes seems charming, at this distance).
Highlander 2, on the other hand, has all the charm of a root canal. Luckily, the new Blu-ray release gives us not the utterly contemptible theatrical release of Highlander 2 but rather the 1995 Directors Cut later released as a cleaned up special edition with new effects in 2004. This is a very different film in many ways from the version so despised by critics. The storyline is more comprehensible, and the attempt to turn the immortals into aliens from the planet Zeist (or something like that) is gone. Special effects and city/air/landscapes formerly dependent on indifferent matte paintings are now dependent on indifferent CGI effects.
Honestly, these changes simply move the film from the short list of “worst films of all time” to the much larger list of “bad movies”. None of these changes can help with the uncertain plotting and bad acting. Connery is picking up a paycheck, Virginia Madsen is good but wasted by the director and Christopher Lambert, well, he’s worse than in the original. In what is supposed to be a deeply emotional deathbed scene where he says goodbye to the love of his immortal life, Lambert looks like a guy whose just found out his cab fare is higher than he expected. And isn’t that upset about it.
Pop culture mavens still can get some enjoyment out of releases like these if the special features pay tribute to the phenomenon of the film. No such luck here. Highlander does not come with the expected tribute featurette to give you some perspective on the film’s history, in the ’80s or subsequently. The only special features included are a director’s commentary and some deleted scenes.
Highlander 2 does come with several featurettes that feel like they are apologetics for a film pretty much everyone agrees is horrible. One of these details the adventures of filming on location in Argentina that included the worst plane ride, ever. This featurette tends to suggest that the difficulties the production team and actors faced account for the failed effort. At a certain point, almost everyone involved in the featurette talks about how often they visit Argentina until this becomes the focus of the production.
The second featurette is called “Redemption” and, as the title suggests, attempts to tell the story of how the “true vision” of the director appears in the new version. Clearly what Mulcahy had in mind was a much better film. But, as noted above, the sequel is not all that great.
The best of the featurettes explore the music of Highlander 2 and the cinematography. Both films featured a hard-driving Queen soundtrack and a head-spinning (honestly, sometimes nauseating) visual style that owes something to the director’s previous work on music videos. Two short features explain the thinking behind both in ways that will interest techie cinephiles.
As alluded to above, the Hollywood nostalgia machine started cranking up several years ago to produce a remake of the original Highlander. Although this might seem ill considered, there is enough of an interesting mythology hiding in the cheesiness of the original films to build an original story out of it. But whatever the fate of the franchise, this recent release is for fans of the original only. This is a cult unlikely to pick up any new adherents.