Monday, May 20, 2019

There Can Be Only One "Highlander"

Immortal Connor Macleod (Christopher Lambert) seeks divine guidance in order to find his car in "Highlander".

Greetings, movie lovers.

Today's featured flick can be a wee bit confusing at times, so to make sure we're all on the same page, let's get a few things straight, OK?

Our hero, Connor Macleod, is suppose to be a Scotsman, but he speaks in a thick-as-waffle batter French accent.

Our other hero is played by an actual Scotsman who makes little or no attempt to hide his accent. Incidentally, his name is Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez and he dresses as if he just stepped out of a Goya painting--although he insists he's Egyptian.

Our villain, meanwhile, hails from an ancient tribe who lived "on the Russian Steppes" and got their kicks tossing little kids into pits with "hungry dogs to fight over meat." He speaks with an American accent.

"Which way is Burning Man?": Clancy Brown as the Kurgen.

Got that? Good.

Now we are ready to ruminate on "Highlander", an absolutely bonkers "supernatural thriller" from 1986, where Immortals endlessly bump each other off throughout eternity. Only when it's time for "The Gathering" will the mayhem stop because, by that time, there should be only two Immortals left and "There can be only one."

Sounds like a tough gig, if you ask me.

Of course, I realize "Highlander" has achieved the status of a cult film with a large, loyal fan base.

I also realize that "Highlander" has inspired five sequels, two TV series, a cartoon, an animated film, a flash animated series, 10 novels, 19 graphic novels, and (I presume) its own line of signature Haggis recipes, all of which is fine and good.

Just your typical Scottish-accented, Spanish-named Egyptian: Sean Connery in his nuttiest role since "Zardoz".

However, none of that--impressive as it is-- can erase the fact that "Highlander" is a big, thick slab of Blood Pudding* covered in mounds of Connage Dunlop*--and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

After all, when the first scenes of a film feature the slightly cross-eyed Christopher Lambert experiencing flashbacks from brutal Scottish clan wars while surrounded by thousands of screaming pro-wrestling fans at Madison Square Garden, what do you expect? King Lear?

Disgusted by both the fans and the pro-wrestlers, Connor Macleod stalks off to the parking garage. It's there he runs into a fellow Immortal in a smart business suit and aviator sunglasses. Without further ado, the rivals brandish swords the length of garden hoses and merrily begin hacking away at each other. At one point during the fracas, the Immortals set off the sprinkler system, which causes Connor's rival to execute a series of back flips for no apparent reason (or maybe he just wanted to show off?).

Finally, Connor over powers his opponent and slices his noggin off. Within seconds of doing so, lights flash, lighting strikes, glass shatters, car engines over heat and Connor levitates off the ground. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the poor guy was undergoing an exorcism or perhaps a really inept alien abduction. In reality, Connor is just experiencing "The Quickening", which happens every time an Immortal kills another Immortal and absorbs all his powers. The bottom line? It doesn't look fun. 

However, Connor recovers quick-as-a-wink and scampers off to find his car.

"Did someone order a budget Michael Caine?": Connor meets up with fellow Immortal Fasil.

All the commotion from the previous scenes (and the headless corpse left behind) brings a swarm of NYC's most inept cops to investigate. The only professional among these goons is forensics expert Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). She is a smart, capable independent women until the film turns her into a shrieking ninny with a bad perm. Still, it's Brenda who uncovers the dead Immortal's sword ("A Toledo Salamanca!" she pants), as well as metal fragments that date back zillions of years.  None of this impresses Brenda's fellow police officers, who think the whole mess is an antique deal gone wrong--but, hey, what isn't?

It's around this time that "Highlander" flashbacks to the time of "Braveheart", so we can all learn how Connor Macleod became an Immortal. As it's a rather convoluted tale, so please pay attention.

A) Connor Macloud is a Scottish Highlander who is supposedly killed during a clan war. When he comes back to life, his entire village (egged on by his former cuddlemate) decide he's a demon and beat the ever living shit out of him.

B) Connor relocates to another town and becomes a blacksmith. He also marries bonny lass Heather (Beatie Edney) and they have sex outside a lot. In fact, it's during one of the couple's sex breaks that they're surprised by Ramirez (Sean Connery). It's he who informs Connor that "they are brothers" i.e. Immortals.

C) Although Ramirez tells Connor, "You have the manners of a goat and you smell like a dung heap!" and thus takes it upon himself to teach Connor how to be a proper Immortal. Ramirez also informs Connor that Immortals can't have children and that he should leave Heather to spare them both heartache. Macleod refuses. In fact, he stays with Heather until she dies of old age (although Connor never ages and stays relatively hunky.)

Connor tries to protect his wife Heather from "Highlander"s terrible reviews.

D) Hot on Connor's trail is a Kurgen (Clancy Brown), an Immortal from that fun loving tribe of Russians who tossed kids into pits with wild dogs. This Kurgen not only wants to kill Macleod for his powers, he also wants to rule the world. If the Kurgen is the victor at "The Gathering"( "There can be only one") humanity is toast.

E) Since he can't die, Connor travels through the ages witnessing all manner of murder and mayhem which, you know, totally bums him out. On the plus side, Macleod adopts a little girl named Rachel (who later becomes his secretary) and amasses a fortune in the antiques business.

F) As you can imagine, being an Immortal plays havoc with Connor's sex life. He mourns Heather greatly and lights a candle on her birthday every year without fail. However, he finds it difficult to commit to new relationships. Rachel (who now looks like Elon Musk's mother) insists her dad is lonely because he "refuses to let anyone love" him. "Love is for poets," Connor shrugs.

G) Nobody knows how or why a certain person is born Immortal, but as I noted earlier, it looks like a tough gig. Not even Ramirez can explain this phenomenon, musing, "Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pinholes in the curtain of night?" Instead, he counsels Connor to "use (his) power well" and "don't lose your head"--a cute reference about the only way an Immortal can die (i.e. getting his head chopped off.)

Now "Highlander" switches back to the present day (well, 1986). Brenda is convinced that Connor knows more about the headless guy than he's letting on. However, what really interests her are those metal fragments. See, in her spare time, Brenda is a metallurgist and she really, really, really wants to check out Connor's sword--no pun intended. So she invites Connor up to her place and breathlessly declares, "I am not looking for a killer! I am looking for a sword! The one used on Fasil! I found pieces of it under the Garden! I only want to see the Samurai!"

"What does the pointy end do?": Brenda turns the tables on an underwhelmed Connor.

When that fails to arouse Connor's interest, Brenda hysterically pants, "I (have) dated the pieces to 600 BC! The metal had been folded 200 times! Now the Japanese didn't start making swords like that until the Middle Ages! So where the hell did it come from?! If I could verify the existence of such a weapon," Brenda gushes, "it would be like discovering a 747 a thousand years before the Wright Brothers ever flew!"

Totally spent, Brenda stands before a stone-faced Connor, who is deeply unmoved by her pleas.

"Don't you think about anything except what you want?" he spits before stalking off.

Of course, Connor can't stay mad at Brenda forever. Oops! Actually, he can, but he just chooses not to. Instead, he shows Brenda his private study crammed with all the memorabilia he's collected  throughout his very, very long life. Then Connor tells her he's immortal and can never die.

"Well," Brenda stammers, "we all have problems."

The softer side of the Kurgen.

To prove he's not joking, Macleod stabs himself in the gut; the forensics expert is convinced. Now that Brenda knows the truth, she and Connor can have a very 1980's art-directed sex scene. Unfortunately, the duo's horizontal mambo evokes all the passion of two people updating their contact information. Besides, any romance between an Immortal and a human is doomed because A) the age difference is just too big, B) that nasty Kurgen fellow is on Macleod's tail and C) the audience is probably getting real impatient for that Gathering thing to commence. Enough with the kissing! Bring on the killing!

So, at last, the Highlander and the Kurgen meet atop the Silver Cup studios building for their long awaited show down. Brenda is there, too, tied to the enormous Silver Cup neon sign and shrieking like a dental drill (don't bother asking how she got there; it's a long story.). Brandishing their swords, Connor and the Kurgen duke it out with everything they've got. They take swipes at each other. They scream at each other. They dodge electrical sparks. When the Kurgen knocks over a water tower, the rivals are drenched. Yet still they hack away. Finally, when it looks as if the Kurgen may be over powering Connor, our hero knocks his block off in one clean slice.

But wait! You ain't seen nothin' yet! After decapitating the Kurgen, Connor experiences the mother of all Quickenings. Once again he's levitated off the ground, whirling and twisting like a kite in a wind storm. He's also screeching at the top of his lungs, "I am the only one! I know everything!" Finally, he falls to the floor, sweaty and exhausted, to receive Brenda's tepid embrace.

Next our smitten kittens are picnicking on the Scottish Highlands. Connor is no longer immortal; he can marry Brenda and have kids. Since he now possesses all the knowledge and insights of all the Immortals, Connor decides to devote himself to world peace. It's on this happy note that Connor and Brenda tuck into a lunch of neeps and tatties, bacon butties and shortbread washed down with IRN BRU (Scotland's Other "national drink" besides whiskey).

Although "Highlander" was not a hit when it was originally released in 1986, it went to become an unexpected cult phenomenon, inspiring five sequels and assorted "Highlander" merchandise. The late blooming success of the flick must have been especially pleasing to screenwriter Greg Widen. You see, our Junk Jewel began its life as Widen's homework assignment at film school. His teacher was impressed enough to encourage Widen to submit his script "on spec" to the film studios. The rest is history.

Connor Macleod experiences what he--and the audience--hopes is his last quickening.

Of course, a script can go through numerous revisions before it hits the silver screen; "Highlander" was no different. Widen's version was much darker, empathizing what a drag immortality is and how Connor (and the Kurgen) basically lose everything they hold dear.

Viewers who flock to movies like "Highlander" are not expecting nuanced performances from the cast or thoughtful, intelligent dialogue--which is good, because the movie doesn't provide any. Except for Sean Connery (whose charisma is ageless), the rest of the actors are cardboard cut-outs with all the personality of a paper cup. Christopher Lambert, as our Highlander hero, not only struggles with his "Scottish" accent, he doesn't appear clever enough to handle fractions, let alone an endless parade sword-wielding Immortals. As the Kurgen, Clancy Brown swaggers around like the leader of a punk band crossed with radio "shock jock" Howard Stern. He's energetic, but too clownish to be menacing. As for Roxanne Hart's Brenda: she's only smart and capable for about 15 minutes and then she becomes your typical shrieking ninny because, well, what's a movie like this without a shrieking ninny? It's practically illegal not to have one.

Although "Highlander" is indeed a laughably bad movie, its sequel "Highlander ll: The Quickening" is even worse. I'm having a hard time tracking down; want to sign my petition to get it screened on Netflix?

Before we wind things up, I have a few more tidbits to round out this reflection.

1) You can find a much gentler take on the perils of immortality in the young adult novel Tuck Everlasting.

Never coming to a theater, TV screen, cable channel or online streaming service near you: "Highlander ll: The Quickening."

2) That Immortals and Kurgens are only safe on "holy" or "sacred" ground is also true in the uproarious 1977 thriller "The Car". James Brolin stars as the sheriff of a small California town terrorized by a demonically possessed car, better known as "Satan's Saturn." The only place people can find relief is in church parking lots or cemeteries. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when sheriff Brolin runs into his house screaming, "Honey! Grab the kids! The Car is in the garage!"

3) Clancy Brown would go on the provide the voice of Mr. Krabs on the cartoon series "Sponge Bob Square Pants." He also turned up on the third season of "The Crown" playing LBJ--and doing a darn good job of it, too.

The Kurgen and Mr. Krabs are the same person.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, there can be only one--AND SAVE THE MOVIES!