Thursday, March 10, 2011
The video stores of the late 1980s through the mid-1990s are now a lost species; an artifact of a time when VHS was the king of all media (apologies to H. Stern).
In those days, if VHS was the king of all media, then HIGHLANDER was the god.
The boxes on the shelves of the local video stores in my hometown were dusty and sun-faded, and they all seemed to have the same mix of B-movies and heavy-cable-rotation genre flicks. Of these, there was a small and revolving list of standards that my friends and I would routinely rent. This list included:
STAR WARS (This was at the low tide of interest between the heyday of 1977-1984, and the horrible over-saturation of garbage of 1997-present)
THE PUNISHER (Dolph Lundgren version. Underrated.)
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
FIRE AND ICE
… and any other number of grainy masterpieces, hidden behind cardboard sleeves featuring men with swords, women with swords, or robots with swords. They were either covered with intriguing and surreal imagery (as in the case of BRAZIL, where a man smiles beatifically as seraphim, sunshine, and a neon logo explodes from his head), or completely and laughably low-rent (as in the case of THE PUNISHER, in which the cover was little more than a publicity still of Dolph Lundgren in front of a prom-photo backdrop).
The high-water mark of this sordid selection was undoubtedly HIGHLANDER. It was simultaneously horrible and amazing, a concept that was initially hard for my mid-pubescent brain to process. I knew that Christopher Lambert, mumbling unenthusiastically through a horrible Scottish accent, was delivering one of the least interesting performances in action movie history. No small feat. I knew that the direction was ridiculous, and made for several indecipherable stretches, muddying an already silly storyline. The internal logic made no sense, the supporting cast (aside from two notable and obvious exceptions) was forgettable, and it is ponderous, with long police procedural scenes that are painful to sit through.
On the other hand, it's a movie where sweaty men decapitate each other with swords. It has one of the best soundtracks in the history of film, courtesy of QUEEN, and most importantly, Sean Connery is in it. This is a movie with a mythology that is thoroughly convoluted, yet it delivers a straightforward concept that, while it makes no sense, is primal and simple; THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
With a central premise that essentially boils down to “men with swords must kill each other throughout history”, all the other details are inconsequential. Barbarians have survived to our era, where they secretly murder each other after long, intense swordfights. They are driven by ancient edicts, and can only be killed by having their heads chopped off. The main character has a samurai sword. Why?
Because it looks cool. Which is all that matters.
There are several things about HIGHLANDER which will always entertain me. First and foremost is Sean Connery. He is having as much fun in this movie as I have ever seen an actor have. It's almost as if he's on the verge of cracking up every time he delivers a line. He is smiling wide and every move is a bombastic flourish, but why wouldn't it be? The man is dressed in a cape and floppy hat, like some hyper-masculine Lord Fauntleroy. Sir Sean (Scottish accent in full throes) is playing an Egyptian, living as a Spaniard, who spent decades in Japan. None of this makes sense! Not even in the bizarre cosmology of the HIGHLANDER universe is this believable. Yet none of that matters. The only important thing, is that when Connery flashes his middle-aged grin through a soft-focus camera haze, we all get nerd-boners.
Clancy brown also brings the good stuff, chewing through every scene with a relish reserved for only the most hammiest of hams. His giddy-ass performance ranks with Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine in the STAR WARS prequels, or Anthony Hopkins in NIXON. These are villains who salivate with creepy glee as they deliver ridiculous lines, and the screen lights up whenever they start cackling. Clancy Brown's Kurgan is from the same world as Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, where saying terrible things while smiling horrifically is as natural as breathing. The Kurgan is evil because he is Russian, and that is the long and short of his backstory (this was the 1980s, after all). Over the course of the film, he rapes the hero's wife, sexually harasses nuns, kills Sean Connery, and dresses like a skinhead. Subtlety of characterization was not a concern here.
I am also perpetually entertained by the portrayal of the actual "highlanders", the group from whom the lead character comes from, and who lend their name to the title of the film. They are portrayed as plaid-smothered barbarians, covered in animal furs and generally looking like extras from LORD OF THE RINGS. The tartans worn would have required dye and weaving techniques that were not readily available until 100 years later, and the general historical accuracy on display is about on par with 300, or PLANET OF THE APES. Of course, this is beside the point. The closer the costumes are to CONAN the better, for my money. Watching a bunch of undernourished farmers (covered in buboes and wearing hastily woven wool skirts) trying to kill each other with dull weapons they could barely lift; this is not particularly enticing as a cinematic experience. A semi-fictional fantasy with overly-costumed actors swinging choreographed axe-chops is plenty fine by me.
The music, by QUEEN, is so iconic and wonderful that it barely needs be mentioned. It is so obviously brilliant that I suspect all the sequels and TV spin-offs were just extended and expensive excuses to use those songs again and again. To put gravy all over it, having QUEEN do the music led to a video where Christopher Lambert rocks out onstage with Freddy Mercury. Amazing.
All told, HIGHLANDER is ridiculous, horrible, amazing, laughable, and totally entertaining. It takes me back to the days when renting awful movies with your friends on a Saturday afternoon was as good as life got. I recognize that it is a genuinely bad film, but I love it dearly. HIGHLANDER is awesome.
(It is also free on Hulu.)