Highlander (1986)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #43

There can be only one.

Country: UK
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes | 111 minutes (US theatrical cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th March 1986 (USA)
UK Release: 29th August 1986
First Seen: TV, 6th October 2000 (probably)

Stars
Christopher Lambert (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Mortal Kombat)
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Roxanne Hart (The Verdict, Pulse)
Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie)

Director
Russell Mulcahy (The Shadow, Resident Evil: Extinction)

Screenwriters
Peter Bellwood (St. Helens, Highlander II: The Quickening)
Larry Ferguson (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Hunt for Red October)
Gregory Widen (Backdraft, The Prophecy)

Story by
Gregory Widen (see above)

The Story
Connor MacLeod is an immortal, a race of men living in secret among the rest of us, who must one day come together for the Gathering, after which there can be only one immortal left standing. That time comes in New York, 1985, as hulking savage the Kurgan hunts down the remaining immortals so that he can be the only one, and use the power that imbues to dominate the world. MacLeod is the only man in his way. Who will win? After all, there can be only— yeah, okay, you get it.

Our Hero
There can be only one Connor MacLeod, the 16th Century Scotsman with a suspiciously European accent who can live forever (who wants to live forever, anyway?)… unless someone lops his head off. That tends to do for most people, to be fair.

Our Villain
The strong and silent type, the Kurgan is certainly a physically imposing menace. Also immortal except for the decapitation thing. Wants MacLeod’s head, literally.

Best Supporting Character
Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez — the perpetually Scottish-accented Sean Connery as an Egyptian from Spain. It’s that kind of movie.

Memorable Quote
Connor MacLeod: “I’ve been alive for four and a half centuries, and I cannot die.”
Brenda: “Well, everyone has got their problems.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There can be only one!” — everyone

Memorable Scene
(Spoilers!) As Connor talks with his assistant Rachel, an old woman, the film flashes back to World War 2: fleeing from Nazi soldiers, Connor runs into a barn, where he discovers a little girl hiding — Rachel. When a German officer turns up, Connor takes a bullet for her… then gets up and kills the officer, of course. This scene wasn’t even in the truncated US theatrical cut (it’s the largest single deletion, as detailed here), but has always stuck in my mind. It’s one of the best executions of the concept of the immortal: his only friend, an old woman, is someone he rescued as a little girl. (Short-lived half-decent US procedural crime series Forever explored this same concept more thoroughly over its single season a couple of years ago.)

Memorable Song
Who Wants to Live Forever is one of Queen’s best songs — and it was written by Brian May on the cab ride home after watching some rough footage from the movie! The band had only intended to record one song for the film, but after enjoying that footage they were inspired to compose more. The exact number of tracks they produced varies depending which source you listen to — they’re all on the A Kind of Magic album, but not all the tracks on that album were for Highlander. The exception is their recording of New York, New York for the film, which has never been released.

Technical Wizardry
Before CGI, filmmakers had to find other ways to do things like make swords spark when they clash. Animation was one method, of course. Not in Highlander, though. No, they attached a wire to each sword that then went down the arms of the actors to a car battery. One wire was connected to the positive terminal, the other to the negative terminal, so that when the blades touched there was an arc of electricity. Sounds super safe. Imagine the insurance costs of possibly electrocuting two lead actors…

Letting the Side Down
You might say the accents, but I think they’re part of the charm.

Making of
The opening scene was scripted to take place during a hockey match, emphasising the violence of the sport in contrast to the flashbacks of Connor warring in Scotland. The NHL weren’t impressed and refused permission. It was replaced with a wrestling match, which is presumably less violent than hockey.

Next time…
There should be only one! No one pays much attention to anything Highlander-related beyond the first film anymore, it feels like, but there’s a whopping great franchise lurking underneath that surface. It begins with much-maligned sequel Highlander II: The Quickening, also directed by Mulcahy and starring Lambert and Connery, which is set in the future and explains away the immortals as being aliens, or something. In spite of the minor improvement in the form of a “Renegade Version” director’s cut, the rest of the franchise ignores it. Spin-off TV series Highlander: The Series began in 1992, following the adventures of Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), another immortal from the same clan. It ran for six seasons, begetting a spin-off of its own, Highlander: The Raven, which only lasted one. An animated series set in a post-apocalyptic future began in 1994, titled Highlander: The Animated Series (imaginative with their names, weren’t they?), which followed “the last of the MacLeods”, Quentin. It lasted for 40 episodes across two seasons. Also in 1994, second sequel Highlander III: The Sorcerer (aka Highlander: The Final Dimension) returned to the story of Connor MacLeod, ignoring both The Quickening and the TV series. Apparently it’s just a rehash of the first movie. After the TV series ended, fourth film Highlander: Endgame attempted to merge the two branches of the franchise, with a movie that followed Duncan MacLeod and led him to encounter Connor. It’s been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. For some reason they made an anime movie in 2007, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, which pits Colin MacLeod (yes, another one) against an immortal Roman general in a post-apocalyptic future. What is it with animation and post-apocalyptic futures? The whole shebang ultimately ground to a halt with Highlander: The Source, a post-Endgame continuation that was supposed to be the first of a trilogy but didn’t go down very well (plus ça change). It’s also been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. There are also novels, a Flash-animated webseries, a handful of comic books released in the mid-’00s, and a couple of series of audio dramas from Big Finish that continue the TV series. A remake/reboot has been in development since 2008.

What the Critics Said
“Film starts out with a fantastic sword-fighting scene in the garage of Madison Square Garden and then jumps to a medieval battle between the clans set in 16th-century Scotland. Adding to the confusion in time, director Russell Mulcahy can’t seem to decide from one scene to the next whether he’s making a sci-fi, thriller, horror, music video or romance – end result is a mishmash.” — Variety (they say that as if it’s a bad thing!)

Score: 68%

What the Public Say
“I hear this won the Oscar for Best Movie Ever Made.” — Jope @ Blu-ray.com

Verdict

Highlander is a cult favourite — many reviews will tell you as much. I guess I’m in that cult, then, because I bloody love it. Of course it’s preposterous, of course the screenplay and performances are ridiculous, and of course it’s directed as much like an ’80s music video as it is a film… but it’s also a fantastic fantasy concept, so rich for further exploration that they keep trying to do just that (even though they keep messing it up). Also, it’s about men who have sword fights — excitingly choreographed sword fights — so, yeah, it’s right up my alley in that, too. Highlander may not be a “great film” in the artistic history-of-the-medium sense, but my goodness is it a great film.

A 30th anniversary restoration of Highlander is released on DVD and Blu-ray next month.

#44 will be… the best Fantastic Four movie.

Nirvana (1997)

2011 #75
Gabriele Salvatores | 89 mins | TV | R

NirvanaThe Radio Times film section may be steadily going down the drain, but when anyone describes something as “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” it’s worth paying attention. “Yet few people outside Italy have seen it,” they add. Indeed, despite screening at Cannes (albeit out of competition), this Italian movie has never been classified by the BBFC, so I presume it’s never been released here (though this was its third showing on the BBC). It’s been released in America though… by Miramax. They did their usual foreign film job, chopping out 17 minutes, changing the music and adding an English dub. This is the version shown by the BBC (at the time of posting, also available on iPlayer) and reviewed here.

Most sci-fi we see is of the American variety — partly due to the fact most of any cinema and the vast majority of imported TV we get is from there, partly due to that being where the money is for special effects and what have you — and that tends to mean tonnes of CGI, a fast pace and action sequences up to the eyeballs. Nirvana is more stereotypically European, however: it’s clearly a Deep and Meaningful film, though unlike many examples of Thoughtful cinema it at least has a slightly thriller-ish plot and a hefty dose of cyberpunk styling for us plebs to pick up on.

Sometime in the future (I read 2005 in one review, but best to ignore that now), Christopher Lambert is a computer game designer working on a new title for Christmas. Somehow a virus invades his system, in the process making his lead character, Solo, fully sentient. Unable to escape the game, Solo wishes to be deleted, but Lambert can’t because the final software is owned by some giant corporation and will be released in just three days… so he has just three days to get into their computer system and delete the file, before Solo is condemned to never-ending life stuck in the game.

Nirvana's SoloThe most obvious point of reference for Nirvana is Blade Runner, which I’d wager was a hefty inspiration. Writer/director Salvatores introduces themes of what it means to be human and a lead character one might like to decide isn’t after all, and sets it in a perma-night, dystopian, multi-cultural future. It doesn’t quite have Ridley Scott’s consistency of vision, though: while he just rendered an Asian-American future L.A., Salvatores takes globalisation to the max, running us through locations named after Marrakech and Bombay City, which may or may not be part of the same sprawling metropolis, and which all exhibit appropriately specific cultural stylings. These aren’t just pretty backgrounds, but in some ways reflect the film’s use of video games — in which you can, of course, constantly re-spawn your character — as a metaphor for reincarnation.

In aid of this, while Lambert is collecting the plot pieces needed to attack that corporation — at the same time as following a subplot about a missing girlfriend — we get to witness Solo’s experiences inside the game, frequently dying and re-living the same story with a group of characters who aren’t aware in the way he is. To be blunt, the in-game stuff is a bit odd. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and builds to a lacklustre climax — indeed, the word climax is a bit strong. But perhaps this is part of the point: as the only character in the game capable of independent thought, Solo is stuck in a loop of story and fellow characters who just re-enact what they were programmed to re-enact. Literally, he can’t go anywhere.

This part of the film calls to mind eXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s film about a virtual reality game that blurs the line between reality and the game. It’s rather a surface similarity though — Lambert barely spends any time in his game, I think there's something in my eyeinteracting with Solo merely though a series of screens on his journeys (and, one presumes, a series of microphones too). Cronenberg’s film was made a couple of years after this, so commending it for not doing the same thing would obviously be a bit rich. It is to be commended for not descending into a needlessly twist-strewn third act though, which I had thought was coming — there’s plenty of bits along the way that could be used to build a ‘surprise’ or two. There’s some ambiguity in the ending, but not too blatantly (unlike later versions of Blade Runner, for instance), and Emmanuelle Seigner’s ex-girlfriend character is never quite used in the way I expected.

For all its intellectualising, Nirvana can still be a fun film, and not just because Lambert’s accent is always set to provoke a giggle. That sounds horribly xenophobic written down, but it’s all Highlander’s fault: there’s no reason he shouldn’t sound European here (and he has dubbed himself), but the memory of that accent supposedly being Scottish does linger. (And, just so we’re clear, I love Highlander.) But no, there are proper dashes of humour, scattered here and there to provide some subtle texture. And there are action sequences too, and dated ’90s music (presumably thanks to Miramax), and even some boobies. To be honest, though, if you just want humour, action, dated music and boobies, there are dozens of films that will serve you better. At least they stop it becoming too dry, and give you a chance to let what’s going on sink in, helping prevent total confusion every time the film threatens to become incomprehensible (maybe it’s just me, but it took a little while to work out what Lambert was actually getting up to in the main plot).

I’d quite like to see the original version. Who knows what changes Miramax have wrought with their fiddling (that woman on the poster certainly isn’t in this version, at least), Smells like teen somethingand I imagine subtitles could be easier to follow than this dubbed version, in which everyone’s covered by either the original actors straining with English (based on the accents) or the typically bad voice actors employed for such dubs. The Italian DVD is reportedly English-friendly and very good quality, so perhaps I’ll get hold of that (expect another review if/when I do… well, eventually).

Apparently Nirvana “has achieved something of a cult status, especially in Europe”, and I think I can see why: there’s a few themes that might be worth a ponder, and enough splashes of style and action to keep one’s attention… most of the time. It might not be as stylistically delineated as either of the films it brought to mind, but then Blade Runner is perhaps the pinnacle of screen SF and eXistenZ… well, now I really want to see that again. I don’t know if this is “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” — especially not in this Americanised version — but it certainly has a few things going for it.

4 out of 5

Nirvana is available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer until 3AM on Saturday 3rd September (i.e. Friday night).

Southland Tales (2006)

2008 #63
Richard Kelly | 139 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Southland Tales

– confusing mess? or profound experience?

I won’t go into my full “how I discovered Donnie Darko” spiel [save that for whenever I finally watch the Director’s Cut!], but ever since I saw Richard Kelly’s first writing/directing effort way back on its original UK release I’ve been waiting eagerly for his second film. It’s a testament to the negativity of the reviews it received — and, perhaps, the influence of reviews in general — that I skipped Southland Tales at the cinema, left it five months after release before getting it on DVD… and even then it was only a rental.

At some point, Kelly split his story into six parts and, in a Star Wars-like move, the film was to be Parts 4-6, while the first three would be told in accompanying graphic novels. “The film will work fine without reading them,” he said (I paraphrase here), “but reading them will lead to a deeper experience.” Southland Tales: The Movie begins with a long recap of events from these books, going so far as to include images from their art. “Oops”?

You have to wonder, if you switched “Directed by Richard Kelly” for, say, “Directed by David Lynch”, would the critics’ reviews have suddenly jumped up a star or two? [some of it is certainly very Lynchian in feel — not a normal film with bemusing aspects, like Donnie Darko, but an all-out muddled weird-fest]

  • David Lynch fans may find this more entertaining than most. Or they may hate it for trying to be Lynchian but failing, or perhaps like it as an example of why Lynch is so good and others fail when they attempt similar feats. I don’t know how they’d use it like that, but I expect they would know.
  • the clear IV, V and VI presented at the start of each chapter — as well as showing I, II and III blatantly on screen during the recap, and having the narration have to recap bits of them — seems to hammer home that this is really for people who are prepared to invest in the whole thing, not people who just watch the film

** raises the question, should you ever have to go further (e.g. reading companion books, comics, websites, etc) to understand a film? Yes and no. If it’s consciously part of a wider ‘experience’, labelled and marketed as such, then why not? But if it’s sold as a film in its own right — or, at least, potentially in its own right (as this was) — then it should really work that way too.

  • narration: tries to explain everything, though does very little to help (difference between Kelly and someone like Lynch, who just leaves it all up to the viewer?) — at times almost uncomfortably over-explaining — you wish it could’ve been done properly, rather than with narration
  • Kelly spent months re-editing, following the critical panning it got at Cannes, trimming the length and restructuring it. And it seems to show, as it feels like a failed attempt to construct something legible out of a mess of half-thought-through scenes and subplots
  • one feels a good director’s commentary and/or the original cut might shed more light on things — this is the sort of film that could benefit from a decent DVD edition, that it probably won’t get due to its lack of popularity… unless it gains surprise critical acceptance years down the line, which isn’t unheard of… though I wouldn’t bank on it here. Perhaps, one day, when we’re all watching Data Crystals, Kelly will have gained enough reputation that a 20th anniversary release will finally explain the damned thing
  • seems to become clearer toward end — there are some answers, at least — but ultimately a lot is left out
  • too many of the ‘underlying ideas’ in the climax feel like a Donnie Darko rehash; odd musical numbers and long takes add to this feeling — almost like Kelly’s taken what he did in Darko and tried to expand it into some ensemble epic kinda thing

i thought, with respect to the film’s crazy half-constructed mess of half-ideas, i’d copy&paste my notes rather than a normal review. so at least that’s one answer at the end for you.

when it was originally conceived, it was set a couple of years in the future; now, it’s just set ‘now’; and soon, of course, it will be set in a fictional past — the copyright year on the film is 2005; it’s credited as 2006 on IMDb (which is when it turned up at Cannes); it was finally released in 2007; and it’s set in 2008

I really wanted to like Southland Tales, in spite of the critical mauling it received, and because I loved Donnie Darko and actually enjoyed Domino too (which Kelly wrote). Maybe — maybe — with time to invest in reading the prequel graphic novels, and exploring whatever official sites or crazy fan theories may be out there on the web, I could get more from this film. Personally, I don’t have that kind of time to invest right now, but I might give it a shot sometime. Until then, it will just remain a largely disappointing mess.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405336/faq

this is the way the review ends, not with a bang but with a whimper

2 out of 5

Southland Tales featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.