Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Republic Pictures, THX, widescreen 1.85:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], subtitles: Spanish, single side-single layer, 30 chapters, rated R, 116 min., $9.99, street date 11/11/97.
Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Starring Christopher Lambert, Roxanne Hart, Clancy Brown, Sean Connery, Beatie Edney, Alan North.
Born in the Highlands of Scotland in 1518, Connor Macleod is immortal. When he is wounded in battle but does not die, he is banished from his village. He meets another like himself, Ramirez, who teaches him swordsmanship--the only way to kill another immortal is to take his head--and the ways of the immortals. Modern-day New York is the location of "The Gathering," where Connor and the few remaining immortals must battle to the last for "The Prize."
Sometimes the associations we attach to movies make it more difficult for us to objectively judge those works. For example, I maintained a negative impression of Highlander for years because I knew a dorky guy who thought it was this amazing movie. I connected the film with this nerd and this had it stuck in my head that Highlander was not a good film.
As it turns out, I was wrong, and while I watched Highlander on DVD, I started to remember that I'd actually liked the film when I saw it during its theatrical run. So cruelly had my association with my geeky friend tainted the movie that these negative connotations were all I remembered. (To be frank, I also think some of my dislike of Highlander 2 - which even my dorky friend hated - may have affected my memories of the original.)
Anyway, despite my prejudices, it turns out that Highlander actually provides a rather exciting and visceral film experience. It was directed by music video veteran Russell Mulcahy (known mainly for his groundbreaking work with Duran Duran) and it bears the marks of such an association; Highlander used a style of quick-cutting that was unusual for the time. This was one of Mulcahy's first feature films, and he displays a surprisingly self-assured hand in leading this potentially-confusing story through to its conclusion.
That latter area is one that really could have killed Highlander, since the movie frequently hops from plot to plot and from time period to time period; it would have been easy to lose the viewer amidst all of the gyrations. Happily, that never occurs, and the movie seems suprisingly coherent and tight. I can't say that it never gets muddled, but since it's hard to find any science fiction stories that remain perfectly coherent from start to finish - especially when those tales involve multiple time periods - I won't criticize Highlander for similar flaws.
One area in which Highlander excels involves some of its performances. In their supporting roles, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown are terrific. Connery plays the mentor to protagonist Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) and provides his usual charming and powerful persona. We see less of Connery than I'd like, but he adds a nice spark to the film and makes it much more satisfying.
As MacLeod's nemesis Kurgan, Brown positively shines as a sadistic, demented and amoral villain. He's tremendous fun to watch while Kurgan becomes scarier and scarier as the film continues; most movie baddies remain fairly tame, but Brown is tremendously creepy in the part, and he makes an underwritten role more compelling than it should have been.
As for Lambert himself, he's never been much of an actor, and nothing he does in Highlander alters my opinion of his skills. Still, he looks good in the part, and he acquits himself well enough; another actor could have made MacLeod more stimulating, but Lambert does nothing to embarrass himself or to hurt the film.
Mulcahy maintains a nicely kinetic visual style throughout Highlander; many of its action scenes sizzle with excitement due to his perceptive eye. Highlander isn't one of the best action films I've ever seen, but it's a very stimulating and enjoyable effort and one I shouldn't have neglected for so many years.
Highlander appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. (Note that the back of the DVD's case states that the film was framed at 2.35:1; that's a misprint.) The negative reputation of this DVD preceded my viewing. Put simply, the general consensus - at least among contributors to various DVD forums - seems to be that either Highlander offers the worst picture quality of any DVD yet released, or at least it's close. While the image certainly has many flaws and indeed looks atrocious at times, I didn't find the overall level of quality to even remotely vie for the title of "worst-looking DVD".
Digital artifacts are the main problem for Highlander. These appear with regularity and really cause the image to look tremendously grainy and gritty at times. I'd estimate that they're probably evident about 40 to 50 percent of the time, and that they seemed especially bad during maybe five to ten percent of the film. That's a lot, and I don't want to understate the negative effect the artifacts have upon the viewing experience. However, they don't ruin it; the rest of the picture looks solid enough to make Highlander a tolerable visual event.
Sharpness seems consistently pretty strong, with an image that appears largely crisp and well-defined; the general murkiness created by the artifacts occasionally made the picture seem a bit softer than it should, but those occasions were rare. Jagged edges didn't happen frequently, but moiré effects were a much more considerable problem; a lot of shimmering happens during the film, and the moiré issues really created the second most significant flaw in Highlander after the artifacts. Other print problems don't seem terribly apparent; I noticed some speckling at times, but other than that, the print appeared pretty clean.
Colors looked generally rich and bold, with no evidence of bleeding or noise; they were probably the best part of the transfer as they offered some nicely-saturated hues. Black levels were also pretty good, though the artifacts occasionally gave them a foggier look than they deserved, and shadow detail seemed similarly decent but sometimes flawed. Put simply, a lot of Highlander looks absolutely terrible, but a lot of it also appears very good, and I found the overall image to be watchable since the bad parts don't overwhelm the rest.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack offers a much less complicated pleasure, though it has issues as well. The best aspect of the mix is the wonderfully broad and enveloping soundfield. I admit I didn't expect much from this track since the movie in question came out in 1986; generally 5.1 mixes for such old films tend to be "glorified Pro Logic" affairs.
Happily, that's not the case for Highlander; when they remixed this sucker, they made sure each speaker got a lot of work. The forward soundstage dominates to a minor degree, but all five channels actively blast audio. Music and effects both come at you from all sides, and the sounds seemed well-localized and precisely placed in the auditory image. While the soundfield doesn't compare with more modern movies, it comes a lot closer than I'd expect.
Audio quality generally seems acceptable, though it displays some flaws. Dialogue seems very inconsistent. At times speech is clear and warm, but on many other occasions dialogue sounds muted or muddy or even muffled; the volume level of the speech can vary a great deal. Effects tend to be bold and realistic, with periodically solid bass, but sometimes they sounded a bit crackly as well; effects don't seem terribly distorted, but some edginess appears. Music varies depending on the source. Michael Kamen's score tends to sound very lush and broad, with some good low end, but the songs from Queen suffer from an overly "processed" quality; these tunes often display an excessive echo effect that makes them seem thin and shrill. Nonetheless, the 5.1 mix of Highlander does well for itself due to a fine soundfield and quality that has problems but seems acceptable for an older movie.
While Highlander touts itself as a "Deluxe Collector's Edition", don't expect too many supplements, because they aren't here. Nonetheless, we get a few nice components, such as an audio commentary from director Russell Mulcahy and producers Peter Davis and William Panzer. I found this to be an unusually interesting and entertaining track. The participants are much more frank and critical of the project than we normally hear; they aren't at all afraid to knock parts of the film and really can offer some good insights. Mulcahy dominates and has an unfortunate tendency to speak over the others, but all three contribute compelling tidbits. Chalk this one up as a very solid and honest commentary that's definitely worth a listen.
The DVD ports over a stillframe section from the original deluxe laserdisc. Unfortunately, someone went a little nuts when they mastered it. Nothing appears during the segment's first five seconds, but then through the next 20 seconds the material flies at you like crazy; images whirl past at an amazing 30 frames per second! From the 25-second mark until the program's end at about five minutes, the pace slows to a more reasonable one frame per second, which means we get a total of about 875 frames of information here.
The big question is this: what the hell happened? I'd guess someone simply botched the transfer of the materials. That 30 frames per second equals the same rate you'd find on a CAV laserdisc - which is where the information originally appeared - so I figure they ported some of it over carelessly. That doesn't explain why things move at a more acceptable rate for the final 275 or so images, but at least it makes some sense.
At any rate, the material presented offers a lot of good information. We find a variety of magazine and newspaper articles - including a bunch of negative reviews - plus memos from the filmmakers, script excerpts, and boohoogles of photos. The information merits a look, although the presentation makes it very difficult to navigate.
Finally, the film's theatrical trailer rounds out the package. The DVD's booklet also includes a "Summary of the remastering process" and some brief liner notes from director Mulcahy.
Despite its much-attacked picture, Highlander is a DVD I heartily recommend. Yes, the image has quite a few flaws, but overall it's not as horrible and unwatchable as its critics would indicate. On the positive side, sound quality seems largely strong, and the audio commentary was simply terrific. Let's not forget that the movie itself offers a lot of good action and thrills as well. No, you won't use Highlander to show your friends how great DVDs look, but don't let the disc's poor reputation turn you away from it; with a list price of only $9.99 - for a set that used to cost almost $70 on laserdisc - this DVD is a steal.
Current as of 6/3/2000
Yahoo! Highlander--A directory that has links to the official site and numerous fan sites.
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