Among other notable attributes, Highlander is a shoal on which several illustrious companies have foundered. Fox botched the U.S. distribution, thereby ensuring they’d be shut out of what turned out to be a profitable franchise, when the film became a hit overseas and a cult classic on cable and home video. And THX put their stamp of approval on the 2000 Director’s Cut DVD, which is, by popular consensus, one of the worst-looking discs in the history of the format; their reputation has never fully recovered. Over the years, Highlander has been issued and reissued on laserdisc and DVD, and no version has ever satisfied, because the film is one of those rough-looking, “grainy” affairs that NTSC video can’t resolve sufficiently. Well, now it’s on Blu-ray, and the damn thing finally looks good.
Film Length: 116 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono
Subtitles: English; Spanish; French
Disc Format: 1 50 GB
Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 7, 1986
Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 2, 2010
I stopped keeping up with the Highlander mythology after the first two films; so the description here is similarly limited. The version of the film on Blu-ray is the same “director’s cut” released overseas; the U.S. theatrical release, which was cut by eight minutes, has been consigned to oblivion.
With the exception of a few brief scenes, Highlander is set in two times and places: 16th century Scotland and 1985 New York City. Present in both is a member of a secret race of immortal beings who was born with the name Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), but lives in the present day under the name Russell Nash. No one knows the origin of these immortals, who are scattered throughout the world, but they are bound together by a destiny that none of them fully understands (at least in this film).
In the past, we see MacLeod go into battle with his Scottish kinsmen, where he suffers what should be a mortal wound at the hands of another immortal, a vicious black knight known as The Kurgan (Clancy Brown, having a great time with the part). When MacLeod miraculously recovers, he’s accused of witchcraft and exiled from his village. On his own, MacLeod meets and falls in love with Heather (Beatie Edney), with whom he’d happily settle down, except for the arrival of Ramírez (Sean Connery), a 2,500-year-old immortal who has come to teach MacLeod about his powers and prepare for Kurgan’s next onslaught.
In 1985, it is the time of the Gathering, a moment when all immortals will feel themselves irresistibly drawn to the same place to compete for “the prize”, which all of them want though none of them knows exactly what it is. Competition among immortals involves swordplay, because an immortal only “dies”, if his head comes away from his body, at which point all the energy leaves him and is absorbed by the immortal who defeated him. The last one standing is the winner. “In the end there can be only one!”
Ramírez warned MacLeod that, should Kurgan win the prize, things would go badly for the human race. (How Ramírez knows this is unclear, since no one knows what the prize is, but never mind.) But even as MacLeod realizes New York City will be the final battleground of all the remaining immortals – hey, don’t blame me; I didn’t write it – he has more immediate problems. Fleeing the scene of a spectacular battle with an old adversary, Fasil (Peter Diamon), in the parking lot below Madison Square Garden, MacLeod is apprehended by the police, who ask uncomfortable questions. Even more troublesome is their forensic consultant, Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), whose special interest in antique weapons leads to a fascination with “Nash” when lab analysis indicates that metal fragments recovered at the Garden are from a sword unlike any she’s ever seen.
Before long, cops are responding to numerous crazy reports of swordplay in Manhattan (and this was the “get me a doughnut” NYPD of the eighties, not the unflappable Law and Order/NYPD Blue cops that cleaned up New York in the nineties). To ensure their final battle won’t be interrupted, Kurgan snatches up Brenda and uses her to lure MacLeod to the rooftop of Brooklyn’s famed Silvercup studios. Even today, the sequence looks pretty good.
Highlander is ridiculous, illogical, grandiose and over the top – which is probably why it still works. It aspires to be nothing more than an entertaining comic book tale, told with energy and enthusiasm, and a broad sense of tongue-in-cheek infuses the entire affair. The director, Russell Mulcahy, had developed his style in music videos before that became synonymous with frenetic editing, and despite frequent claims to the contrary, Mulcahy’s style doesn’t depend on multiple cuts. (That would be Michael Bay.) But Mulcahy does like to get a sense of motion into the frame, and he doesn’t particularly care whether that means moving the camera, the objects in front of it, or (preferably) both. The opening battle under Madison Square Garden is classic Mulcahy, as both the combatants and the camera swoop, race and yes, back-flip to keep the scene energized. Purists will complain that the action makes no sense. Then again, neither does immortality.
It’s impossible to underestimate the contribution of the rock group Queen to Highlander’s success. They were originally asked to write a single song, but were so inspired by the film that they created an entire suite of memorable tunes, which the late Michael Kamen deftly wove into his orchestral soundtrack. The film is now inseparable from Queen’s “Princes of the Universe”, “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “A Kind of Magic”. And since the track was never released on a separate recording (as far as I know), the film is the only place you can hear Freddie Mercury sing his incomparable version of “New York, New York”.
Highlander is an infamously grainy film that looks terrific on this new Blu-ray. Uh-oh. I said the “g” word.
At any time on HTF, there are certain buzz words whose very utterance usually marks the end of rational discourse. Warring camps mount up and unfurl their banners, and charges and countercharges fly, as combatants vie for “the prize” of Most True-Hearted Movie Fan. “Grain” is currently a hot button du jour. Unfortunately, the combatants frequently aren’t even arguing about the same thing, and the arguments go in circles. So before I talk about how the new Blu-ray of Highlander handles the film’s “grain”, let me specify how I’m using the term.
Grain is what makes up the image in a frame. When someone says, “I don’t want any grain in my image”, he might as well be saying, I don’t want any image at all. An analogy is to think of film grain as those tiny specks of paint that an artist like Seurat dabbed with infinite patience into the grand canvas called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. Stand up close to the painting, and all you see is specks of color. Stand back from it, and your eye blends those specks into a picture.
A film frame is similarly composed of photochemical “specks”. In an ideal world, the specks are tiny, and your eye never becomes aware of them. But the world isn’t always ideal. For all sorts of reasons – film stock, lighting conditions, problems at the lab, artistic decisions (questionable or not) – the specks may not blend imperceptibly. As frame succeeds frame, 24 times per second, your eye may become aware of different color specks, each shifting its position in frame after frame. That’s what causes the pulsing, vibrating effect often described as a “grainy” image.
Now, when you take that kind of source material and translate it for a lower resolution (say, DVD), it gets worse. Why? Because the lower resolution can’t represent all of those “specks” accurately, and the differences from frame to frame are magnified; so the shifting and vibrating get worse. On top of that, you get a whole new layer of noise added by video compression. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but this gives you some idea of how one ends up with a DVD like the original 2000 Highlander.
Then what’s the solution? Well, you can use digital technology to strip away (or preferably soften) some particular range of “specks” so that the image looks less messy. These are the digital filtering techniques often lumped together under the blanket term “DNR”. They can be extremely effective in the hands of someone who knows how to use them, but since you’re tinkering with the very substance of the image, these filters have to be applied lightly and with precision, or you’ll lose part of the image. This is how some films end up with faces that look like wax dummies, because literally part of the face has been removed.
To avoid that outcome, it’s better to do the following:
For a good example of how it can be done right, well, look at the new Highlander Blu-ray.
In scene after scene, Lionsgate’s new Blu-ray provides an image that is both detailed and “rough” without the pulsing distractions of prior versions of this tricky material. The battle with Fasil under Madison Square Garden is an apt example, in large part because it occurs early in the film and has routinely inspired viewers of previous versions to switch them off. The image isn’t clean and smooth, nor should it be, since the battle occurs in a dirty, dark garage, and the combatants become increasingly disheveled as they hammer at each other and the camera keeps swooping around them. But the image remains both sharp and stable throughout, and that’s not something I’ve ever seen before on a home theater screen.
Not every scene is perfect. When MacLeod encounters another immortal named Kastagir (Hugh Quarshie) in Central Park, there’s a long still shot of the two on a bridge against a verdant background, and the image can’t settle down. Either there was too much detail in the image even for Blu-ray, or the source material was flawed (probably the latter). The 16th century scenes in the Scottish Highlands fare much better; these have a vibrancy and detail beyond anything I remember (and because this is the director’s cut, there are more of them).
Black levels are generally solid, which is crucial for many of the night sequences, including the climactic battle, although there is some evidence of what is sometimes called “crushing” in the elaborate car chase involving Kurgan. (This probably has more to do with the conditions under which it was shot than any fault in the transfer.) Colors are varied and appropriate, from the red of the Silvercup sign to the blue of the Scottish sky.
Highlander was remixed for DTS-ES 6.1 discrete and DD Surround EX for Anchor Bay’s 2002 “Immortal Edition”, but I never understood why. Even as remixed, the soundtrack isn’t much more than an effective stereo surround mix. As presented here in DTS lossless, it remains an entertaining track, anchored first and foremost by Queen’s songs and Kamen’s score. The dialogue is clear, the fight effects are loud, and the overall impact of the track is in keeping with the remainder of the film.
Let’s start with what’s not here. This is the first Lionsgate title I can remember that’s missing the “bookmark” function, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be standard on any Java-encoded Blu-ray. Lionsgate typically includes a “bookmark” entry on the special features menu, but there’s none here, because there’s no ability to mark your place. Do anything other than hit pause, and you’ll have to start the feature again from the beginning. No Blu-ray should ever be mastered this way.
Commentary with Director Russell Mulcahy. All prior U.S. versions contained a commentary recorded by Mulcahy and producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer. This commentary features Mulcahy alone and was recorded more recently, reportedly for a Studio Canal disc. (Mulcahy notes at one point that he’d just finished directing Resident Evil: Extinction, which was a 2007 release.)
Mulcahy focuses on the technical aspects of filming, identifying locations, remembering technical challenges, pointing out reshoots and pick-ups and noting the differences between contemporary effects techniques and those that prevailed in the mid-eighties. As the film progresses, pauses between observations become longer.
Deleted Scenes (HD) (6:14). An introductory note reads as follows:
The five alternate scenes involve: (1) the initial wrestling match; (2) farewell to Rachel; (3) the Silvercup roof battle; (4) the final confrontation with Kurgan; and (5) return to the Highlands. The video quality is on a par with the main feature.
Trailers. No trailer for Highlander is included. At startup the disc plays trailers for Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray, The Expendables, an “anthology” trailer for films by the cast of The Expendables and Kick-Ass. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also separately available from the features menu.
A legitimate complaint about this Blu-ray edition of Highlander is that there’s a wealth of additional special material out there that wasn’t included. Whether there are rights issues or whether Lionsgate is planning a “super-duper” new version down the line, there’s no disputing the giant leap forward in video quality represented by this Blu-ray, and it’s available at a bargain price. I had pretty much given up watching Highlander on disc, because every time it disappointed in one way or another – but this time it was fun again.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub