Who Wants to Watch HIGHLANDER Forever

Remembering Sean Connery with one of his most unusual yet iconic roles

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

By the time he was finally finished with James Bond (there were a couple false starts, but he got there eventually) Sir Sean Connery was nothing if not living cinematic history, and filmmakers used him as such.

The second half of Connery’s film career, beginning in the ’80s and stretching into the early aughts when he finally turned his back on the business, often saw directors trading off of the innate gravitas and sense of import that Connery imbued into even the smallest of roles.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October, all the way through The Rock and his cameo in Prince of Thieves, each of these films used Connery’s living legend status to anoint new movie stars and tie new characters to that most iconic of superspies.

Highlander certainly milks Sir Sean for all the mythos he can muster. Although Connery’s only in the film for a short while (he reportedly shot his entire role in one week) he looms large over the entire film, and it falls to him to explain the rules of the eternal ‘game’ being played by a race of immortals including himself (an Egyptian/Spanish/Japanese man) and the titular Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman).

And if it sounds weird to cast a Scotsman to play an Egyptian Spaniard and a Frenchman to play a Scot, well…that’s Highlander for you.

With its soundtrack loaded with arena-shakers penned and performed by Queen, its deadpan commitment to its lunatic story and setting, operatic more-is-more visual aesthetic courtesy of director Russell Mulcahy, and the go-for-broke energy from performers like Connery and Clancy Brown as the film’s villain, The Kurgan, Highlander almost immediately became a cult sensation even after it largely flopped on initial release.

The Highlander series has continued on in bizarre sequels, a long-running TV series, plus cartoons and comics. A remake has been kicked around for years now, with John Wick’s Chad Stahelski supposedly taking the reins just as soon as he’s finished his business with Mr. Wick.

With the recent passing of Sir Connery, Highlander felt like a fun choice. Connery’s legacy has grown more complicated given reports about his opinions about and treatment of women, but even still there is no denying the looming shadow Connery left across cinema in projects both sublime and silly.

Or, in the case of Highlander, sometimes both sublime and silly.

Next Week’s Pick:

Fans can debate endlessly over which of the first two Terminator films is the greater sci-fi masterpiece (it’s T2, obviously), but after that the series struggled to find a firm footing, diluted by a number of false starts and a TV series, muddying the time-hopping continuity and propping up a half dozen different actors as protagonist John Connor.

The latest entry Terminator: Dark Fate from Deadpool’s Tim Miller saw the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and original architect James Cameron involved with the story, and was widely lauded as the best followup to the originals… but it met a dark fate out of the gate, failing to connect in theaters, perhaps spurned by an audience that had grown cold. Join us as we assess this newest entry in a series that we still love, available streaming on Amazon Prime. — Austin

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

There’s “committing to the bit,” and then there’s Highlander.

This is meant with affection, because Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 fantasy cult classic gets impressive mileage out of landing in one specific lane (high concept genre reason for a shitload of sword fights across the centuries) and pressing the pedal to the floor and keeping it there. And if that’s a strained and awkward metaphor, well it’s almost like I did that on purpose to illustrate Highlander also being a bit of a mess. The same elements that make it a crackerjack “first R-rated film” also mean that it’s taking its handful of genuinely interesting ideas about exploring the tragedies of immortality and playing them to the back of a theater packed with 16-year-olds.

But what makes that still basically work is the earnestness of it all. The film is big, broad, unironic power ballad fantasy and asks the entire cast to essentially play guitar solos the entire time, but they’re all delightfully up for it? Lambert’s accent may be ridiculous (like, legendarily bad), but he’s odd enough for the “what’s this guy’s deal” material to play and his chemistry with Connery is so immediate that their dynamic feels like the spine of three film in spite of being entirely confined to flashbacks during Act 2.

Highlander is definitely an artifact of its time, but it’s breezy pulp adventure tone, killer supporting players (Clancy Brown really does just have the BEST time), and genuinely righteous soundtrack / score still make it worth a look after all these years. (@BLCAgnew)

Austin Wilden:

My appreciation for this one has grown in a way I wasn’t expecting before this rewatch.

The original Highlander marks one of the greatest cinematic achievements of Urban Fantasy as a genre ever. Managing to capture both halves of the genre’s name through its style and storytelling. The biggest thing serving that feel is Gerry Fisher’s cinematography, managing to cohere the past and the present parallel arcs into a consistent whole through the visual language. It communicates a certain level of grime to the world no matter what time period, so everything always feels lived in. But when it’s time for the sword fights between immortals to kick in, so does the sense of the fantastical. Sweeping camera moves, explosions, and lightning making sure no one watching misses that something monumental is happening whenever blades cross. The go for broke commitment to that sense of style, further bolstered by the music of Queen, elevates this beyond just being an interesting premise.

It had been a while since my first and only time previously watching Highlander and time must have dulled my sense of how much energy it has, especially in its best moments. The occasional slips in makeup, visual effect, or Lambert’s accent count for little against stuff like Ramirez teaching Connor, the final sword fight, Clancy Brown having the time of his life as the Kurgan, and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” (@WC_WIT)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

Highlander could only be scored by music from Queen. It’s wild to think that Mulcahy approached any other band before settling on Freddie and the lads, because the deadpan ludicrous bombast of Highlander could only be paired with Queen’s trademark soaring vocals and shredding guitars.

It’s art that is equal parts deeply felt and insultingly stupid, but with a ferocious sincerity that dares you to try and find the line between the two.

Highlander has one crippling structural flaw and it’s in the casting of Connery. Because he’s Sean Goddamn Connery, the film surges to new heights the moment he explodes into the frame. But the demands of the time-jumping story, and the story itself, means that he is quickly shuffled off and the movie can’t help but feel airless and shapeless once Connery exits and the movie becomes about Lambert and Brown circling each other.

Also what the hell did the immortals do for hundreds of years? Why did they all just suddenly decide to convene in NYC and start having it out in alleyways and parking garages?

Highlander’s never really interested in digging deeply into its meathead mythology. Instead Mulcahy keeps doubling down on bombast and berserk imagery. It ends up being a big ol’ mess, but Highlander at least has a pulse, which distinguishes it from so many other fantasy snoozefests from this decade.

Highlander remains a fun time, though I’ll wager that a good remake could really make this material soar. Though how the hell would they ever top the Kurgan? (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Justin Harlan:

“You have the manners of a goat and you smell like a dung heap.”
Sean Connery was a genius on screen, always captivating, no matter how big or small his role. We’ll miss him, but thankfully we have a slew of great performances to remember him by.
As for the rest of this film, it’s great. Lambert is great. Brown is great. Everything is pitch perfect from the 80s music (Queen rules) and look to the badass swordfights and bizarre, unnecessary sex scene. Not to mention that it’s clearly the origin story of Lambert’s other iconic role as Raiden, the god of lightning.
But without Sean Connery as the Yoda to Lambert’s Luke, this movie would have been so much less satisfying. We’ll miss you, Mr. Connery. Thank you for the cinematic memories. (@thepaintedman)

Austin Vashaw:

Firstly, bless you Justin for calling Mortal Kombat iconic.

Sean Connery will always be best remembered for his portrayal of Bond, but he took on some weird and unique roles. He’s in fine, if odd, form here as Christopher Lambert’s immortal mentor who also serves as the narrator and heart of the story, even if his screen time is surprisingly short.

Despite being a fan of Russell Mulcahy, this is a first time watch for me. I put off watching Highlander because it always struck me as kind of dopey. I’d blame it on the poor reception of the sequels, but in truth it’s because the nerdiest guy in my high school wore a Highlander t-shirt… daily? It felt like daily.

I was so very, very wrong. And while all the high fantasy and swordplay of the film is indeed very cool, it’s the more poignant material that truly won me over, as the film ponders the heart-rending tragedy of immortal love.

This film also confirms for me that Russell Mulcahy is a great director despite his mostly B-list filmography. Razorback, The Shadow, and the second-best Resident Evil movie all serve as proof — give him good pulpy material and enough of a budget to execute his vision, and he can make something incredible. He should be making Marvel movies or a hit HBO series instead of wasted on DTV cheapies.(@VforVashaw)

Sir Thomas Sean Connery, 1930–2020

Next week’s pick:
Terminator 6: Carl

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