R110 Highlander

(1986, SciFi/Fantasy/Action, color)


Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

There can be more than one.

Rating: ***1/2

In a Nutshell:

Immortal swordsmen strive to lop each other’s heads off.


There can be lots of others.Connor MacLeod a.k.a. Nash (Christopher Lambert) sits sullenly in the crowd at a professional wrestling match while flashing back a filth-drenched 16th century Scotland. In the distant past, his young self cracks penis jokes with his cousins while marching off to war. In the twentieth century, his only slightly older self bolts for the parking garage.

In the garage he meets a man with mirrored sunglasses and a Spanish broadsword. Connor pulls a katana from his trench coat, and the pair duels up and down the rows of gigantic automobiles. Connor chops off Sunglasses Man’s head. Mystic lightning oozes from the body, smashes a bunch of headlights and windshields, and enters Connor. Connor hides his katana and runs before the cops can catch him at the scene of the crime. The cops catch him nearby anyway, but without a murder weapon or a reason to suspect him beyond his proximity to a headless body, they have to let him go.

Interspersed flashbacks continue the story of our ancient Scottish protagonist. Connor arrives at the battle where he meets the evil, skull-helmeted Kurgan (Clancy Brown). Kurgan stabs him through the chest. Connor’s many angry cousins chase him off before he can take his victim’s head. The MacLeod clan carries their mortally wounded kinsman back to their castle to prepare him for death, but Connor unexpectedly recovers. Believing him to be possessed by the devil, his clan drives him away. Discouraged, Connor finds a new girlfriend and a new castle.

Just when he’s starting to rediscover how much fun it is to be filthy and Scottish, a strangely dressed man appears. Allegedly named Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (Sean Connery), he’s an immortal just like Connor. Apparently there are a bunch of guys who can’t be killed except by beheading. When one of them beheads the other, he absorbs his defeated foe’s energy. Centuries of dueling will eventually whittle their numbers down until only one remains. That one will receive the prize: i.e., become mortal and omniscient.

Far from wanting to behead his new fellow immortal, Ramirez wants to train him. It’s this Kurgan fellow, you see. In case the skull helmet didn’t tip you off, he’s evil. If he gains the prize, all mankind will suffer. Ramirez figures the more good immortals there are to fight him, the better the chances of taking him down.

His gown is the grandest of all.Let’s head back to the twentieth century for a bit. Sexy forensic criminologist Brenda (Roxanne Hart) assists at the scene of the crime. She finds the discarded Spanish broadsword, as well as bits of Connor’s katana embedded in a concrete pillar. Somewhere around this point, a modern day Kurgan comes to New York and jumps Connor in an alley while the latter attempts to recover his sword. Connor fights him off with a bit of pipe while a snooping Brenda looks on. Turns out she’s an expert metallurgist and a bit of a sword nut in her spare time. Suspecting that the ultra-rare katana belongs to Connor a.k.a. Nash, she abandons her investigation to try and seduce a glimpse of it out of him.

Back to the sixteenth century. Ancient Kurgan shows up at the castle one day while Connor’s out. Ramirez has been regaling Connor’s wife with tales of his sexual exploits (which she finds fascinating for some reason), but tries to send her away when he senses Kurgan’s arrival. They fight while the castle collapses around them for no discernable reason. Kurgan wins and cuts off Ramirez’s head. Later, Connor returns and buries his friend. He stays with his wife until she dies of old age, then takes up Ramirez’s katana to, uh, journey in search of adventure?

In the twentieth century, Brenda discovers that Connor’s Nash identity was stolen from a stillborn infant, as were his seven previous identities over the course of several centuries. She barges into his antique shop to confront him. He confesses his immortality, which he proves by surviving after forcing her to fatally stab him. I guess she’s really into that--the next several minutes consist of gratuitous sex.

After a bit more exposition and angst, Kurgan kidnaps her and calls up Connor to gloat. Did I mention they’re the last two immortals in the world, and the winner will take the prize? No? Consider it mentioned. They fight on the roof of a building, then fall through the skylights and fight some more on the top floor of a warehouse. Brenda distracts Kurgan at a crucial moment, allowing Connor to slice off his head. Connor absorbs his essence, becomes mortal and omniscient, and uses his newfound power to make sweet, sweet love to Brenda in the modern Scottish countryside.


Disturbing tongue not depicted.You might be wondering why all the immortals seem to be stuck in their mid-thirties except for Ramirez, whose body became fixed at nearly twice that age. For that matter, you might be wondering why a Spaniard cannot accurately pronounce his own name. Perhaps you’re curious about the way Connor flashed back to events he did not witness. Maybe you’re wondering why Kurgan thinks it’s sinister to lick people. Or why Connor thinks it’s romantic to go into a raspy nostalgic fugue state for several minutes and then poke his female companion in the face. Or why the end of the final duel had cartoon lightning monsters in it. If you are, might I suggest that you’ve put more thought into Highlander than the filmmakers ever did.

If you’re unsatisfied with Ramirez’s “why does the sun rise” non-explanation and are still wondering about the origin and purpose of decapitation-based immortality, stop. The very next movie in the series thoroughly addresses these issues. In fact, the explanation provided is legendary as the dumbest SciFi pseudo-explanation in the history of cinema, eclipsing even midi-chlorians for stupidity. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. If you really want to kill that many brain cells, you can Google it.

Moving on...

I originally saw Highlander, lo, these many years ago, and prior to watching the Rifftrax I remembered only two things about it: swordfights and Queen. I suspect that’s all anyone ever remembers after a day or two. Queen, at least, has withstood the test of time: Freddie Mercury’s screeching has never been more bombastic, imbuing even the most thoroughly mediocre scenes with a measure of operatic drama.

The swordfighting, not so much. This is some of the worst sword work I have ever seen in a film, and to put that statement in perspective, I’ve seen Deathstalker. How na├»ve/indiscriminate/stupid was I at that age to think this was cool? It would have to have been a lot of all of the above, because I knew better; it was at about that age I got involved in community Shakespeare. I remember the fencing choreographer yelling at us to quit “windshield wiping”, i.e. bonking our foils against each other. This is what children do when they play at sword fighting with sticks. The object of a real sword fight is to hit the other guy with your sword, something the combatants in Highlander are only willing to do at specified intervals. Remember the tower fight with me, if you will, during which Kurgan held his broadsword almost entirely motionless while Ramirez twirled and clanked his katana against it. It was really quite nice of Ramirez to pretend his opponent was parrying.

It seems to me that Mike gets most of the good lines in this one. Regarding the fight choreography: “I see they both trained under the great master Benny Hill.” Regarding filthy, filthy Scotland: “I see the dung harvest was good this year.” Immediately after Connor’s abrupt and apparently sexy stab-myself-and-survive trick: “Is... this... your... card?” Kevin weighs in on Kurgan’s taunting with, “This dialog comes from a random evil guy word generator, doesn’t it?” Bill comments on the odd, floor-level swordfight cinematography with, “Mischievous squirrels stole the camera.” Interspersed are many, many, many riffs on the film’s most famous catchphrase, “There can be only one.” The fun commentary combines with a deliciously bad film for a good overall experience.