“There can be only one” is quite possibly the most ironic catch phrase in movie history. Highlander didn’t spawn just one sequel, but four as well two TV series, an animated series and an anime. It is hard to separate the original from the franchise it became, but it must be done.
Highlander is practically the definition of high-concept. Immortals have existed for centuries and can only be killed by beheading. If an immortal is beheaded by another immortal they gain their knowledge and strength. In modern day New York, these immortals are drawn to each other for a final showdown. The remaining immortal will receive the prize: ultimate wisdom and power.
Our hero is Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), who discovered his immortality in 16th century Scotland. Through well integrated flashbacks, we are shown his training by Ramirez (Sean Connery), a fellow immortal, who doesn’t want to see the prize fall into the wrong hands, namely those of the cruel and barbaric Kurgan (Clancy Brown).
There are admittedly campy elements to much of this, but, if you can accept it on its own terms, the film does work. It is really the sequels that have given Highlander a tainted reputation. How do you make a sequel to a self-contained story that ends with all the adversaries eliminated? By rewriting the mythos, naturally. This was most egregiously done in Highlander 2: The Quickening, where the immortals turn out to be aliens.
The franchising of the Highlander name is a shame because the first film has a wicked sense of humour. Lambert’s scenes with Connery are full of wit and charm. There are also two amusing flashbacks with Lambert in 18th century France and fighting in Nazi Germany. This aspect, a warrior through time, should’ve been explored more.
Lambert is an appealing lead and the nondescript accent he developed is effective for a man of many places. Brown’s Kurgan is a memorably twisted villain, among the best of the 1980s. His performance is both disturbing and darkly comic as when he taunts a priest and group of nuns.
Director Russell Mulcahy stages the sword fights dynamically, but more importantly he gives the film an almost wistful tone that is appropriate given the main character is centuries old. This comes across most effectively when Lambert opens a bottle of wine and is able to describe a different time.
Of course there is also the fantastic soundtrack featuring songs from Queen including the thrilling “Princes of the Universe” and the heartbreaking “Who Wants to Live Forever”