HIGHLANDER – DVD review

Sean Connery does for “Highlander” what he did for “The Avengers”: He makes a few minutes of an otherwise monumentally mediocre movie sparkle. Without him “Highlander” has to be one of the most witless fantasy adventures of all time. Still, it spawned several sequels and engendered a whole TV series! Maybe it was the sheer audacity of the film’s silliness that made it so popular or the brief, swaggering presence of Connery. Whatever, it’s now available in all its glory on a special edition DVD, with enough things beyond the movie to make a person forget for a moment the story line’s lack of logic and coherence.

The story opens at a wrestling match in Madison Square Garden where the hero, Conner MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert), has visions of his Scottish homeland centuries before. We don’t yet know he is an Immortal, chasing around the world for ages with other Immortals, battling each other for the final “prize,” which apparently will save all mankind. Or something.

In the next scene, which sets the tone for the rest of the film, he’s in the Garden’s underground garage when he is beset by a figure in a trench coat, wielding a broadsword. MacLeod whips out his own four-foot blade, something he always seems to carry with him, especially to wrestling matches, and they fight in dizzying quick shots around the parked cars for what seems like forever, without for a moment attracting attention to themselves. MacLeod wins, of course, and cuts off the guy’s head, an incident that will later displease the local police but immediately sets into motion a minor electrical storm that starts the ignitions of every car in the area. And so on.

Shortly afterwards, in another flashback we see him almost killed in an ancient clan war. When he miraculously survives, his loving friends and family think he is possessed of the devil and beat the tar out of him. Thus, he becomes an Immortal, with no more explanation than that.

Connery plays a flamboyant Spanish nobleman, another Immortal, who becomes MacLeod’s mentor. His appearance doesn’t last more than a few minutes but energizes the screen. When he’s out of the story, it’s business as usual and back to hack and slash.

The film’s single biggest failing, in any case, is director Russell Mulcahy’s uncanny ability to make the most potentially thrilling scenes dull and lifeless: Fights, wars, chases, you name it. Even a gratuitous bit near the end where the villain, Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown, drives recklessly through traffic playing chicken with oncoming cars is in no way menacing or exciting, only tedious and long.

The film’s one good line comes in the climactic showdown when the heroine saves MacLeod’s life and MacLeod says to her, “What kept you?” It’s not much, but it made me smile in a film that, Connery apart, takes itself much too seriously.

Video:
It is claimed in the accompanying booklet that “To make this new special release the original theatrical inter-positive was used for the scene by scene color corrected telecine transfer.” Colors are, indeed, excellent, yet it’s the grainiest print I’ve seen from a DVD in quite a while. Surely, it couldn’t have been the original film stock that was at fault for this condition, but the processing. The image does clear up considerably at about forty minutes into the film and remains so for a time, but then it turns all seedy looking again by the end. Nor does the film’s 1.75:1 widescreen aspect ratio come anywhere near the “approximately 2.35:1” ratio advertised on the box. It’s all a bit odd.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound was remixed from the original six-track magnetic stereo masters and AC-3 encoded, but it, too, is oddly out of whack–harsh, shrill, and hollow. The rear channels are well utilized, however, and dimensionality is quite precise. Both the picture and sound were approved by the director, which leaves one wondering. Songs and music are provided by the rock group Queen, most of it highly inappropriate to the story’s content but coming though the surround speakers effectively and adding a further jarring note to the general disorder.

Extras:
As this is a special edition “Director’s Cut,” the disc also includes a running commentary by the director and producers; a lot of behind-the-scenes photos; a slide show highlighting the film’s evolution from casting to release; English and Spanish subtitles; chapter selections; a trailer; THX certification (for what little good it did); and about six minutes of additional footage not seen in theaters that is supposed to make more sense of the plot. I can’t say it helped.

“Highlander 2”:
“Highlander” is all bone and no marrow. It’s about thunder and lightning and things tumbling down on people’s heads. Nonetheless, it was enormously successful at the box office and was followed a few years later by “Highlander 2.” So, for those viewers who can’t get enough of the Immortals, Artisan Entertainment and Republic Pictures have simultaneously released the sequel, another director’s cut, called “Highlander 2, Renegade Version.” It’s in even wider screen than the first film, this time a 2.10:1 aspect ratio; it features a much cleaner, clearer print; and it has smoother sound. In fact, it’s everything the first film should look and sound like but doesn’t. Unfortunately, the sequel’s sci-fi fantasy plot is almost as nutty as the first one, this time with Michael Ironside as the evildoer that MacLeod eventually has to destroy.

If you insist upon owning one of the movies, “Highlander 2” is your best bet from an audiovisual standpoint. Connoisseurs of such stuff will want them both. I could do with neither.

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