Some movies just should not have been made. Their premise is just too wonky, or the talent hired for it is woefully out of place, or there are technical limitations that can’t be overcome, or whatever. We have all seen movies that looked great on paper but fell apart during production, leaving bewildered audiences wondering how it ever got funded and produced. It’s the kind of thing that makes you ask if Hollywood studio executives really know anything about storytelling or if they just kind of spin a big wheel with project names on it, get drunk and throw darts at it, and whatever lands gets the green light. It might explain certain reboots and sequels. Despite this, though, there are movies that fall into this category that succeed despite their dodgy origins. They are funnier, scarier or more thrilling than they have any right to be. They become guilty pleasures and cult classics, the kind of movies critics love to hate, and which regular people just plain love. In many ways, the badwrongfun movie is my favorite class of cinema. And chief among such movies is an all-time favorite of mine and yours: Highlander.
The premise of Highlander is that a race of immortals lives among us for millennia, locked in an eternal conflict where they home in on each other and do battle until one of them is decapitated. The decapitator then absorbs the life energy of the fallen immortal, and starts again, kind of like a global game of “assassination,” until there is only one of them left. That last immortal standing gains the Prize, an incredible power to know what everybody else in the world is thinking. Yeah, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. But what it does do is provide a fine excuse to have people running around in 1980s New York having secret swordfights with each other in parking garages and on rooftops and in warehouses. You want to know what’s cooler than some guy in a trenchcoat with a goddamned katana that sends showers of sparks everywhere when it hits a support column or a parked car? That’s right. Nothing.
Connor MacLeod is a Scottish highlander, and one of these immortals, and he has been living in New York since the American Revolution. The great conflict is coming to a close, and soon, he must fight his arch-nemesis, a barbarous immortal known as the Kurgan who is so badass that if he so much as looked at any given heavy metal band, they would collectively transform into flower petals and scatter on the wind. The police are taking notice that headless bodies are turning up in the metro area, and they suspect MacLeod is to blame. A lovely forensics expert named Brenda gets on the case and soon she and MacLeod are romantically involved, giving MacLeod more than enough incentive to end this crazy thing once and for all. Along the way, we see MacLeod’s long and tumultuous history in a series of flashbacks, from his initial encounter with the Kurgan way back in medieval Scotland, to his exile from his home village, to his new life with his young bride Heather, and to his mentorship under an effete nobleman named Juan Sanchez Villalobos Ramirez, played most improbably by Sean Connery during that time of his career when he actually had to look for work. Ramirez is also an immortal, and he teaches MacLeod proper swordsmanship and that if the Kurgan wins the Prize, humanity is doomed.
But what about Heather? Ramirez tells MacLeod he must leave her; for she will grow old and die one day, and he will not. If he loves her, he will let her go. MacLeod can’t bring himself to do that, however, and even after tragedy befalls Ramirez, Heather and MacLeod that would send any lesser person running away, MacLeod still stays by Heather’s side, until the end.
The movie is scored by Queen, which adds a crazy rock opera aspect to the moment of truth, which happens during an interlude when we see Ramirez’s prophecy come true. Connor stays faithful to his beloved, even though they can never have a family, and we watch as she grows older during their decades together. In the background, we hear Freddie Mercury belt out Who wants to live forever / When love must die? and the end result is melodramatic awesomeness. There are those who will watch this scene and roll their eyes. If you’re one of them, I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do for you. Better luck in the next life, I guess. But for those of us who can love this scene, it’s a bittersweet moment of warmth in a story that is an otherwise balls-out spectacle of superhuman swordfighters taking each other’s heads in that version of New York just before the city cleaned itself up, from a time when you could have seen some guys killing each other with swords in an alley, and you’d just kind of shrug and think, yeah, that figures.
This guilty pleasure has been loved for so long, folks easily overlook how bonkers it really is. Clancy Brown nearly killed Sean Connery by accident during their first fight scene. The Scottish locals who shot the battle scenes were drunk all the time. The lead actor is virtually blind and had to shoot his swordfights without skewering himself. The director had only ever done music videos before, which might not seem like a big deal, but in the 80s, it mattered. And much of the movie was shot on a guerilla basis with no time or budget for reshoots. And yet, somehow, Highlander works. By the powers, it works. Movies like this make me love movies more in general. Nobody will ever study Highlander in film theory. But who watches Citizen Kane a thousand times over beer and pizza? I’ll take the beer and pizza flick any time. For me, that’s the real Prize.