Friday, March 8, 2013

Film Friday: Highlander (1986)

Highlander failed at the box office, making only $12 million worldwide on a $19 million investment, but it quickly found a cult following. This cult following was strong enough to spawn sequels and a television series. It’s never been clear why some films become cult classics, but I wonder if this film might not hold the answer?

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Highlander stars Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, an immortal born in the 16th century Scottish Highlands. MacLeod is part of a group of immortals who are fighting each other to win some amazing power. To win this power, they need to be the last immortal left alive; immortals can only be killed by being decapitated. Interestingly, whenever one immortal kills another, he gains the knowledge and strength of that immortal.
The story flips back and forth between 1986 and various time periods in history where significant events happened to MacLeod. For example, we see him discover his immortality when he survives a mortal wound and he gets chased out of his village because his people think he’s made a deal with Satan. We see him trained by Sean Connery (Ramirez), who plays an Egyptian immortal masquerading as a Spaniard. We also see MacLeod’s first wife grow old and die. Each flashback gives us insight into his character.

In the 1986 storyline, we see MacLeod become a suspect in the decapitation murders of several people in New York City. What’s happening is that the final few immortals are being drawn together in New York (by something called “the quickening”) to fight to the death. . . “There can be only one!” The main bad guy is the Kurgan (Clancy Brown). The Kurgan is the strongest of the immortals and is evil to the core. He’s tried to kill MacLeod in the past, but never quite managed it. Now, he and MacLeod will fight with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance.
Too Smart For General Audiences?
It’s hard to tell what causes a film to become a cult classic. The general idea is that these are bad films which somehow offer something quirky which resonates with a certain segment of the population. But I wonder if that’s correct. I wonder if the truth isn’t that these films actually offer a combination of originality (perhaps too much originality for the general public) and a movie that is too smart for general audiences?

For most audiences, Highlander probably came across like this: “That’s not how they did Back to the Future.” The film stock is grainy. The sets and costumes are not grand. The lead actor is an unknown French-American actor Christopher Lambert (whose English is not great) even though Sean Connery could have been cast. And the story flips back and forth without explanation for quite some time. . . a plot device guaranteed to confuse the simps.

But if you look deeper, you see something different. First, the grainy quality of the film sets this film apart visually. It gives it a gritty, visceral feeling which makes the film unlike anything else out at the time. This sets the mood and keeps the film from feeling like a low-budget science fiction film – it’s also helped the film avoid feeling dated. Add to this an awesome soundtrack by Queen, high quality effects (sparingly used), and excellently choreographed sword fights, and you get a truly high quality film. . . but you have to be willing to look past the “this isn’t what films should look like” mentality of the general public.

Secondly, the acting is actually quite good. I would venture to say that this is Connery’s best role in a long time at this point in his career, and he fits the lively yet violent Ramirez perfectly. . . he would not have fit MacLeod. Lambert also fits the role perfectly because his accent gives him an outsider quality which is essential to set him apart from the other actors who are playing mortals. It makes him feel different, which is something Connery in the lead would not have done. And Clancy Brown is just all kinds of awesome, as always.
Where this film really pays off, however, is in the writing. The story is ingenious in many ways. It involves immortality, which is always a draw because everyone likes to think about living forever. It doesn’t actually involve time travel, but the film gives the feel of time travel by drifting back and forth between the past and the present and making them feel connected. The film also adds the idea of a contest to the death, which is always popular with audiences. This is a very smart combination of elements to get people to think about a film after they leave the theater. Moreover, the film is intelligent in how it reveals itself. This isn’t a film which rushes to tell the audience what is going on. For the first half hour, the film flips back and forth between 1986 and the past with little explanation. All the audience knows is that this man lives in both periods and there seems to be some society of sword fighters in modern New York City. It isn’t until Connery explains to MacLeod who he is that the audience is told what is happening. And even then, the story is still revealed through clues rather than a single moment of exposition. This is similar to films like those of Nolan or something like The Usual Suspects, something unheard of in 1986. To the contrary, most 1980s films would have a character (like Doc Brown in Back to the Future) explain the story right at the beginning of the film.

The film is well written too. There is a real economy of words, which makes the story tighter. Think of the line, “There can be only one!” This line encapsulates the entire contest between the immortals and it short circuits the need for pages of discussion to explain what is going on. It gives the audience a perfect understanding with a minimum of words and those words are like a catchphrase which the audience can adopt. Another example is MacLeod describing Ramirez as “you Spanish peacock.” Lesser writers would have used lines of dialog to try to create the same image of someone beholden to pomp. Even the bit characters work this way, like the hot dog vendor who asks the cops, while reading the paper, “What does ‘baffled’ mean? [laughs] What does ‘incompetent’ mean?” This is brilliant writing. Without this character even being part of the on-going discussion between the cops, and without any more than these two lines, this character explains to the audience that state of the police investigation. Again, entire scenes of discussion get condensed into two seemingly throwaway lines.
But therein lies the catch.

When I first published my books, I discovered a bit of a mystery. The overwhelming e-mails and reviews I got for the books were extremely positive. But mixed in were a series of people who really hated the books. And the criticisms they all gave made no sense to me. Specifically, they complained that the books “said nothing” about the characters’ motivations. Well, this is completely wrong. So I investigated. It turns out that a big chunk of the general public has been programmed to expect exposition. To them, unless the narrator says, “Bill was unhappy,” then they have no way to know if Bill is unhappy even if the character is described as frowning and even if another character says in the dialog, “Why are you unhappy?” Since discovering this, I’ve seen a similar issue in films, such as with Speed Racer. A big chunk of the audience simply is not able to understand context or to translate dialog into “the missing” exposition. Thus, the fact that Speed is haunted by the death of his brother is not something these people understand, because no character actually tells them, “Speed is haunted by the death of his brother,” even though it’s obvious throughout the film.

I think the same thing happened here. This film runs for about thirty minutes before you are told MacLeod is immortal, forty minutes before you are told who the Kurgan is (even though you’ve been watching his story), about an hour before the connection between New York City and the events in Scotland is made clear, and 98 minutes before you are told what the power is they are seeking. Even then, few of these things are spelled out in long single bursts of exposition. Thus, to understand this film, you need to actually think about everything you see and understand it from the dialog and the behavior of the characters. That doesn’t work with general audiences.

I am now wondering if this isn’t the difference between cult classics and other films. Perhaps, the reason cult classics are ignored by audiences in the first place, and then are strongly loved by the people who “get them,” is this issue. Perhaps, these are films general audiences simple can’t understand because they lack the generic exposition those audiences require? So a cult classic isn’t a bad film that finds a quirky audience, it’s actually a good film which the general public simply couldn’t understand.



K said...

I can't speak for the general public of course, but for me a cult film is one whose premise resonates with my peculiar interests, tastes or viewpoints but not so much with the one sigma story consumer.

Which is why I'll never see "Highlander". Ancient immortal Scots warriors battling it out in NYC for the ultimate power just doesn't roast my beef as a story premise. Yeah, no accounting for taste.

To me, it's an author's responsibility in executing her craft to communicate clearly to the reader - be that by expository text, dialog or illustrations. The problem with dialog is that the point may not be made clear enough. I believe it's been pointed out that for critical story points, you need at least 3 mentions of those points somewhere to make sure the entire audience gets the message.

AndrewPrice said...

K, This article was already too long to go into depth on that point, but I've found this is a genuine problem. I've seen stories which are entirely about particular issues but without the narrator laying it out specifically, a certain segment of the audience just can't pick it up. It's like they've been programmed with a certain expectation and they are incapable of understanding anything that doesn't comply with that expectation.

Speed Racer is the perfect example. You are told throughout the story in many different ways that Speed is haunted by the memory of his brother, but no one ever uses those words in direct exposition. So a lot of the people who reviewed the film (and people who've commented on it) claimed to be confused about what motivated Speed or why his brother was importan because they never drew the connection.

I've see this same thing now over and over and over enough that I'm convinced this is simply a flaw in some people's ability to analyze what they see/read.

As for Highlander not being your thing, there's certainly no crime there.

Koshcat said...

Interesting therory. The first time I saw it, it took me awhile to understand what was going on. Further viewings I picked up more and more and maybe that is why it gets a cult following. There is a lot more depth to the story and characters and for those who continue to invest time in it are rewarded. One of my favorite films.

The sequel ranks up there with Crystal Skull on the stink-o-meter.

Great stories, movies or books, have that depth. Take Shakespeare, those stories have many sub stories and the characters are very complex. Each time I read or see a great story I feel like I go a little deeper and get a little more.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think it's really interesting -- it's something that didn't occur to me until I tried to explain to myself why I like this film. And while I don't know yet if this would explain all cult classics, I definitely see how it would explain a lot of them -- it would also explain why attempts to create cult classics always fail -- because they try to make "stupid" and quirky when what they really need to make "uber-smart" and quirky.

On your point about depth, I agree entirely. I think these cult films are loved (sometimes obsessively) rather than just liked because they do offer anyone who "gets them" an amazing amount of depth, which that person can explore and feel like they are getting some sort of insight from. It's like finding a personalize puzzle or a moment of "truth" inside a film and I think that generates real loyalty and a desire to dig deeper and deeper, i.e. it makes people invest in the film.

Yep, the sequel was STUNNINGLY bad!

shawn said...

When it comes to good Highlander movies- There can only be ONE! And that is the first one. I recently watched this again, and even though it is a bit dated, it is still a very enjoyable film.

About why it did poorly at the box office- I'm wondering if it was poorly promoted? This came out in my prime "going to the movies every weekend" teen years and I don't remember seeing any advertising for it. I ended up catching this one on HBO and taping it. Unfortunately I caught Highlander 2 at the theater- yeash! What a mess.

Anonymous said...


Love this movie, I'm not sure if it was at the cinema in Australia, but I don't remember it. I saw it on VHS when I was about 13 or 14, too young to hire violent movies but my mum told the video store to hire them to me and they did! I loved martial arts and action movies so it peaked my interest straight away.

I was fascinated from the start, as you said they didn't just tell you what was going on you had to learn it as the movie went on which is great. While you are watching it you are thinking 'where is this story taking me?' which is what hooks you. I loved the action and the story, it was tremendously re-watchable and as mentioned the soundtrack kicked ass.

As to cult classics, I think you are on the right track. Most people would have looked at the movie as yet another dumb action movie with swords and if that isn't their thing they would have ignored it. Some would have seen it and as the story wasn't told to them as they are used to they would have hated it. Add bad marketing to the equation (I'd never heard of it until I saw it at the video store), it bombed.

But as people like me who like that stuff watched it on VHS and realised it was a great movie, we got out mates to watch it. So people who would have ignored it watched it and they too realised it was a good movie and over the years word spread and it becomes a cult classic. I checked and it was 5 years before the sequel which shows that it was video sales that made the executives realise they could profit from a sequel.


Anonymous said...

When I saw you were reviewing this movie, I decided to watch it - for the first time - last night! Thankfully, it was available to stream online.

I liked it, though I could probably use another viewing since one or two details are still a little fuzzy, and I didn't completely buy the romantic subplot, or why the cops would just let "Nash" go after he erupts in the interrogation room.

It's easy to see why it's a cult classic. I think you're mostly right in that cult films are somewhat more intelligent and/or creative than their non-cult counterparts, though there are plenty of cult films that are stupid but still manage to entertain in spite of their ineptitude.

Another part of the attraction might be the secrecy aspect - in other words, the idea that you and your friends are in a special club that other people know nothing about.

In a way, this movie almost reminded me of something like Near Dark - a dark, gritty tale of beings not like us causing trouble in the present day. Both movies have style to spare and all the money is up on the screen.

It's a shame the director of Highlander - Russell Mulcahy - is stuck in diret-to-video land. He also directed The Shadow. Some directors just seem to get a break while others toil in the margins.

Anonymous said...

Weird - a movie about a Scotsman and the two guys named Scott post at the same time!

A few additional thoughts on the film:

-Man, how long has Clancy Brown been around? He didn't appear on my radar till the 90s with Shawshank and Starship Troopers, but here he is, awesome as usual.

-Has Jon Polito always been bald! :-)

-This movie would probably cost at least $75 million if it were made today and they'd never let them film all the crazy action in NYC - they'd have to go to Toronto, or like The Avengers did, Cleveland, and shoot that for NYC. (To be fair, I read some of the interiors in this film - and the alley fight - were shot in the UK.)

-The songs really complimented the film, especially the brief "New York, New York" piece.

-Believe it or not, a friend of mine said this was his favorite movie... a friend I had in the 5th grade!!! You can see how, by having a mother who was strict with movie ratings, I was at a social disadvantage!

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I think you certainly have hit on a reason why some films become cult classics, but I'm not sure if it can apply to all cult films. For example, Fight Club is considered a cult film, and I am a big fan of it, but I don't think that it is especially nuanced. Rather, I think it just speaks a message that resonates with a certain demographic. (That said, I think that message is still largely misunderstood by said demo.) One of these days, I'm going to do a writeup about how Fight Club and I Love You, Man are the same movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I saw both at the theater and I was not happy about seeing 2. The problem with this one wasn't just promotion. I remember people all around me not liking them film. In hindsight, I would say there were struggling to "get it." At the time, they just didn't seem to think it was a good movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think you've got the process down exactly. A big chunk of the audience assumed it was a sword and martial arts film and thus couldn't be any good (just like a lot of people still dismiss science fiction as "for kids."). Then others saw the film and it didn't make much sense to them because it was not presented in the way they could understand, with a clear linear plot and easy exposition. The marketing probably didn't help.

Then people stumbled upon it and the people who "got it" started telling all their friends what for a great movie and it was (and explaining it to them) and soon the thing finds an audience big enough to justify a sequel and then the television series (which apparently drew a very large female audience because of Adrian Paul).

Suddenly, a bomb becomes a hit.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that The Usual Suspects which is now considered a huge hit and one of the best movies of all time followed this same path. It only made about $20 million in theaters... less than Highlander when you factor in inflation.

As for you description of the movie, I agree completely. It pulls you in because you're watching for clues to figure out what is going on. At the same time, you get these great sword fights with the surprising electrical storm endings. The soundtrack is awesome. The dialog is really punchy and "film noir cool". And the whole feel of the film is like an experience rather than just a film.

This is a fantastic film.

rlaWTX said...

I vaguely remember seeing the movie at some point. I also remember watching the TV show. Cuter lead in the TV show. Used up my knowledge...

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Watch it again, it will grow on you. The film actually doesn't hide anything... the info is there, it's just not thrown at you.

I think you're right that there is a "club" sense to cult classics, but I think that's after the fact. I think what pulls people in first is that the film appeals to them... they "get it" and they want their friends to get it too. So they spread the word. And in that regard, I think it's this idea of depth that matters. With a few exception (there are always exceptions), cult classics tend to offer some message that you don't find in regular films or some way of telling the story that isn't easy for regular audience to absorb... nonlinear storylines, lots of ambiguity, dramatic twists at the end that really change things. Even something like Rocky Horror, you have to realize that the songs tell the story... they aren't just musical breaks. This pulls in people who find regular, generic films boring.

Now, that said, some films do become cult classics simply because they are so bad they are worth poking fun at. But I would argue those are few and far between. And the problem Hollywood has in creating cult classics (despite many attempts) is that they always just try to create really abysmally stupid films rather than quirky smart films.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The soundtrack is perfect for once. Not only are the songs great, but they fit thematically. "Who Wants To Live Forever" for the romance. "New York, New York" to start the big NYC segment in full and stop the flashbacks. "Hammer to Fall" and "Princes of the Universe" as virtual theme music for the leads. This music is tailored like an opera.

If they did this today, the effects scenes would dominate, the sword fights would be wire fights and would lose their realism, and the actors would be children and musclemen... and none of them would be as intimidating as Clancy Brown.

Clancy Brown is one those unsung greats in Hollywood. The guy has been in everything and he's always been perfect for every role. He's had some of my favorite roles. And ironically, I never even put together that it was always him until Carnivale.

The thing about the romance is that it's fake at first. They're both just curious about each other. It builds slowly and it's not the real focus of the film, so you don't see it grow.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: I agree with one of your points. I believe the increasingly visual world in which we live in coupled with, the decline of a traditional core education has led us this point.

Go back about 20 years ago, when Ah-nohld took a big chance with "The Last Action Hero" which I find to be a fine and original film My God, its ending is right out of "The Seventh Seal" for crying out loud. Talk about trying to spice up the hackneyed, trite action film? I expected too much from its audidence and it failed.

The late grat Chicago columnist Mike Royko penned a scathing piece about the movie and its intended audience in a piece that, written today would have Jesse, Al and the PC police all over him.

He just has a dialogue between two "urban (ahem) moviegoers" who can't get the film.

"What da F**k is this?"

"Who da guy in black?"

How did da dude just come out of the movie n's**t?

Sad to say its gotten. Fewer and fewer tv and movie audiences can recgognize motiviation, subtlety, characterization unless it is beaten into them by clunky exposition. Oh look, its Doc Brown in the corner to explain it to hus.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Crud. Blogger ate my comment.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think that this model explains most cult films, but not all -- there are always exceptions.

That said, I disagree about Fight Club. Fight Club is a very nuanced film. It does not share information with the audience quickly or fully. You need to climb into people's heads yourself to understand their motivations. The film has several messages that will resonate with people who share those beliefs but which will seem unreal to others -- liberal women in particular are unlikely to believe that anyone actually thinks like these characters. You need to understand certain psychological conditions to understand this movie. And then you get the twist at the end which forces you to completely reinterpret everything you've seen including all of the characters' motivations on the fly. That's a movie that is not very accessible to general audiences. So I would suggest that Fight Club fits this definition perfectly.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, LOL! Well, thanks for sharing what you have! :)

On your point, I've always understood that the TV series had a huge female following -- the film does not. I guess Adrian Paul was popular with women.

tryanmax said...

Okay, well, not to toot my own horn, but I guess I thought all of that was pretty plain. I guess not.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I think the evidence is to the contrary. The evidence is actually that the public is getting smarter all the time. They've even noted that IQs are way, way higher than they ever were in the past, across the board. Also, despite what conservatives want to believe, education is getting better all the time and is much better today than it was in the past.

In terms of films, Hollywood is making dumber films because they are selling to foreign audiences and to young teens (the target market for Hollywood is young teens) so they are trying to strip out the parts that require high level thinking. But that's open the door to television, which is doing really highly intelligent and highly nuanced shows now and are scoring massive audiences.

Also, truth be told, little from prior eras is all that bright or nuanced either. Doc Brown was fairly typical of 1980s movies and he had a counterpart in prior generations too. We just tend to remember the exceptions.

Tennessee Jed said...

to me, a cult classic should apply to a film which does not do well with a wide or large audience. However, for the audience it does capture, the "members" of the cult are extremely enthusiastic. They will talk about the film, write fanzines, etc. You could make a case the original Star Trek met that criteria, and it used that to catapult itself to larger audiences.

The use of the term "cult" implies that the subject be quirky. Now, there may be some cult classics that fit your rationale, but I don't necessarily believe there is a cause and effect. I did enjoy this movie. I got my first taste of Chris Lambert in Tarzan, the Legend of Graystokes. I think this had a bunch of sequels, and you know me, I missed all of them. Although not a huge fan of 80's music, I can't really say anything bad about Queen

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax... Uh, no. I still remember leaving the theater for Fight Club and wondering if I saw the same movie as the other people who were complaining bitterly as we left about how the total movie was nonsense, they couldn't understand any aspect of it, "no one could really believe that shit", the twist made no sense and "made the movie stupid." Etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think cult films are considered "quirky" because they do things that are not consistent with the expectations of general audiences -- either in their stories or in their storytelling methods.

That's a good question of Star Trek was a cult hit. I don't think a lot of people consider it a cult hit because it was broadly popular -- it just wasn't popular with the network.

In terms of a cause and effect, the more I think about it, I'm having a hard time naming cult classics that don't fit this definition. I know there are a couple which were just horrible films and have been celebrated for being pathetic, but everything else I can think of does seem to fit this definition.

djskit said...

This is one of my all time favorites and strangely, one of my wife's all time favorites.

This movie also has the 80's technique of blue background light for night scenes - which I think was very effective and when I see it in a 80's movie, my heart warms.

There is only 5% of the general population who would be considered "analytical" as a primary personality trait. Thus, movies that require you to "think" and "figure things out" will have a narrow appeal - thus why such films often become cult films.


"Hi, I'm Candy"
"Of course you are."

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, That is one of my favorite lines. LOL!

That's a good point that such a small part of the population is analytical. I don't remember the Briggs Meyer number off the top of my head, but analytical and intuitive people were fairly small in numbers.

BIG MO said...

Andrew – Very good analysis. Had to think about this, but I agree with the others that you’re on to something here. If I can add this: Highlander came out in 1986, a time when the general public seemed to think of sci-fi as Star Wars/Star Trek, SW/ST wannabes, cuddly ETs or glowing aliens, Michael J. Fox, or stuff barely rising to B-grade status. Highlander was original. It didn’t fit the general public perception of sci-fi, especially because it engaged your mind. More to the point, at that time it didn’t fit my mid-80s perception because there were no starships, Han Solo, Sith Lords or Vulcans.

And by the way: Clancy Brown is phenomenal: loved his voice work for the various DC Animated Universe shows in the ‘90s and ‘00s.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, I really do think I'm on to something here. What's interesting is that if I'd just asked myself what makes a cult film, this is not the answer I would have given originally. But having now spent time thinking about this film, I'm thinking this may be the answer (at least in most cases).

I agree too that Highlander didn't fit the conception at all of science fiction from the time period. At that point, science fiction was "clean" (clean sets that look like stages, melodramatic fights, no blood), ray guns and spaceships and flying cars, and lots of "science." This film is none of that. This is a natural force that never gets explained. It's gritty. It's bloody (for the 1980s at least). It doesn't have a "cute" protagonist and it's absolutely not aimed at kids. All of this would become quite normal for science fiction over the next couple decades, but at this point, it was highly unusual. Fascinating.

Brown is fantastic. He's got a great voice and a great physical presence. He's also an excellent actor all around.

Retro Hound said...

One of the most interesting posts I've seen on here!

And not because of Highlander. I saw Highlander once and that was plenty for me, but I have several friends who are big fans. However I do tend to have an affinity for many cult classics.

AndrewPrice said...

Retro Hound, Thanks. I think we're really on to something here. This idea would explain a lot! It would also explain why Hollywood can't create cult classic intentionally. To borrow a Raiders of the Lost Ark quote, "They're digging in the wrong place."

EricP said...

Always been a favorite, AP, saw it twice in theatres, but never thought about the grainy aspect of the film stock till your mention of it. Must be because it's not as bad as music video fave "Gone, Daddy, Gone," but I digress.

Still hard to believe Russell Mulcahy, he of the ultra-slick Duran Duran videos, was behind this movie. Like ScottDS mentioned above, he deserved a better career.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, This has long been a favorite of mine too. "Gone, Daddy Gone," LOL! Good song. :)

I noticed the grainy quality in the theaters, but it never struck a chord with me until I got the DVD. That's when I realized how much it made this film stand out compared to so much else from the era, where it seemed that everyone was striving for clarity of image. In that regard, this film was 10-15 years ahead of the curve as I noticed a lot of grainy films being made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but in 1986, this was unique.

You never know what else happened to Mulcahy. It could be that he was just forgotten. It could be this film killed his career. Who knows? I wonder about that a lot sometimes how people seems to slip through the cracks when others don't.

wahsatchmo said...

Prostitute: "Hi, I'm Candy."

Kurgan: "Of course you are."

Good gravy, I loved this movie. My buddy bought this on VHS in high school, and we watched the crap out of it.

Andrew, no question on the smart writing and dialogue. I'd forgotten about the hot dog vendor commenting on the newspaper article; that was just perfection.

The joking between MacLeod clansmen about peeing their kilts as Conner wades into his first battle sets a wonderful tone of camaraderie, only to have it dashed a few minutes later as the clan, and his love, expel him on suspicion of being a demon.

I think that Lambert's accent worked against him in this movie, and also Connery's Scottish accent worked against him as "the Spaniard." But there was plenty of chemistry between them, and Lambert can use his facial expressions alone to establish his presence on screen.

I loved the action scenes in Highlander. They have a flavor of the 80's that isn't done anymore, somewhat borrowing from a Michael Mann style with interesting framing and such a blue tint to the whole affair, but with better intensity.

I like your exposition theory, and I think you're on target. It's interesting how so many foreign audiences absolutely require fairly extensive exposition in movies as part of their cultural experience. I recall an article by a lecturer working abroad who described how a joke would fall flat before an Asian audience if you did not spell out the obvious conclusion from the punchline.

I think that the hope of selling to international audiences has affected western movie making to the point where extra exposition has seeped into our movies, and we've come to expect it.

One correction: Highlander 2 was never made. It does not exist. I will not be swayed from this fervent belief.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, et al -

This is off-topic but I just saw a trailer for an upcoming documentary on Hollywood filmmaker/raconteur/gun enthusiast John Milius.

It seems like it's right up all of our alleys! Even if you don't know the name, chances are you know his movies.

wahsatchmo said...

By the way, kudos to djskit for recalling the "Candy" line. This movie is full of quotables.

AndrewPrice said...

wahstachmo, I have never looked into the differences between American and other audiences, but based on what I do know about other countries, it wouldn't surprise to learn that other cultures do need a lot more exposition. There are places (particularly in Asia) where thinking for yourself is frowned upon and filling in the blanks yourself would tend to go against the grain there.

I think the hot dog vender scene is the perfect example both of how well this movie really is written and the point I'm making about a lack of exposition. In most films, someone would explain (maybe a radio voice or an angry police commander), "We are stumped. We have been looking into X and we have no clues. We are nowhere near finding out what is going on. We do have a suspect in Y, but we can't link it to him because...." Here you have this guy use two words to replace that entire scene -- "incompetent" and "baffled." And those two words not only explain what is going on, they characterize it too. Now you know that the police are seen as a laughing stock with no chance of actually solving this. That's impressive writing... but again, I'll bet a LOT of people won't understand that. They won't be able to connect what he says with the missing scene.

The thing that I think works about Lambert's accent is that it sets him apart from everyone else. It's a small point, but I think it makes it easier to "feel" that he's different somehow. If he had a Connery-Scottish accent, then he would have just seemed like a Scotsman.

I totally agree about the action. The action here is still very real. These feel like two people fighting for real. They don't feel like two dancers who have been given choreography to create a really flashy dance with swords, like so much of modern swordplay.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Milius is a noted Hollywood conservative. His credits include conservative films like Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Red Dawn and Conan. He also did Apocalypse Now.

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, True. And having a lot of quotable lines tends to indicate strong writing.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I know who he is, and you know who is... not everyone else knows who he is, and this documentary looks very interesting, especially given his right-leaning views. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I know you know who he is and I know you know I know who he is... but did you know that I knew you knew that I knew who he is? Ow, my head.


Actually, I was just adding detail for anyone who didn't know who he is.

Critch said...

I remember seeing it at the Park Theatre in Memphis when it came out. I loved it. I went back the next night and saw it again...I've always liked these type of quirky movies and this one was great. For another offbeat movie at the same time as this was Millineum with Kris Kristofferson...

Dave Olson said...

Where oh where to begin?

Clancy Brown is a good place to start. I first discovered him in the now-almost-forgotten Sean Penn vehicle "Bad Boys". Every time I see that title in the Dish listings, I check the info and I'm always disappointed; it's the one with Will Smith. The one I'm thinking of is a reform school movie circa 1982, with Brown (unsurprisingly) as a bad guy. He doesn't get reformed, but he gets his just desserts.

"Cult" movies. Who can say what will be a hit and what will endure? "Wizard of Oz" and "It's a Wonderful Life" were box office fizzles and are now way up there on the AFI list. "The Princess Bride", "The Big Lebowski", and "The Shawshank Redemption" were similar duds and are now cult classics, mainly due to cable. But box office success is no guarantee of longevity. "Independence Day" was a monster hit in 1996... seen it lately? Do you really want to?

"Highlander". I started with the TV show and discovered the movie later. Oh, I knew the premise of the movie well enough from my subscription to "Starlog" back in the day. So it didn't bother or confuse me when the setting switched from modern NYC to pre-industrial Scotland, even though the series did a fair amount of retconning.

Jason said...

I’m someone else who started with the TV show first and then migrated to the movies, but if I had seen the Highlander movie first, I’d have enjoyed it. And yes, I echo the sentiment “There can be only one.” That includes all four of the sequels (yep, there was a fifth movie called Highlander: The Source and that one is awful even compared to the others)

It seems to me that cult classics, most of the ones I think of, have premises that aren’t so readily boiled down as many popular films are, or they are presented one way and audiences are disappointed when they turn out differently. Big Trouble in Little China would be an example of the latter-the studio wanted to market it as another Indiana Jones-type adventure when it was really a semi-satirical ghost story/martial arts fantasy where the protagonist (Jack Burton) was actually kind of a clown and a goof. Only when it got on VHS did audiences really appreciate it for what it was. And then there’s Dark City, a terrific looking film and a great mystery that combines film noir and science fiction, but the studio didn’t seem to know how to sell that. The similarly-themed The Matrix managed to find breakout success, but that flick had the easily-understood action movie component to help it along.

BTW, they’re talking about, you guessed it, remaking Highlander.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, I'm the same. I love the quirky films and can watch them over and over. I have seen Millennium, but I don't remember it.

EricP said...

So I re-watched this 'un last night, but with director and producers commentary on, and what comes up almost immediately, as they discuss flashbacks during the wrestling match, scenes cut from the US version? Lamenting that US film-goers were confused by the flashbacks. Andrew Price, you a damn genius ... but we already knew that.

I also highly recommend the 10th Anniversary Director's Cut, unless you already have the European version of the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, I think Box Office failure is requirement to be considered a cult classic. It is interesting though how many box office failures have not only become cult classics, but have even found wider audiences over time.

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, LOL! Thanks! :D

It really doesn't surprise me that a lot of people were confused by the flashbacks because there is no explanation with them and, like I said, I've discovered that a huge chunk of the audience requires that everything be spelled out for them.

I have seen the European version, but not the Director's Cut. I'll have to go buy that one! There's a good deal of extra material in the European version.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I wish they would stop trying to remake everything. Ug!

I think you are right that cult classics are never boiled down as easily as other films. I think that's because these films don't follow the normal rules of storytelling and so then tend to end up with more "stuff" in them. But that seems to be what attracts the different (and more loyal) audience.

And you're right about the marketing. We've noticed in many instances how a lot of these films are marketed wrong and that gives people the wrong expectations.

Dave Olson said...

Remakes are the lazy way of doing things. No one in Hollywood can make an original movie, so all you get are remakes, sequels, and pitch meetings that go something like "It's like Die Hard on a plane/ on a bus/ in a skyscraper." Gee, it's almost as if the writers, directors, producers, and actors in the entertainment business are all of a hyper-conformist mindset that doesn't allow for deviation. But that can't be true can it? The media would tell us if that were the case.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, LOL! Excellent point. What's interesting is that I'll bet they mistake their hyper-conformity for sophistication.

Anonymous said...

Dave and Andrew -

I'd say it's the execs and the stockholders who are of that mindset - I gaurantee that if every filmmaker had their way, we'd see at least a somewhat greater variety of projects.

Just remember, Christopher Nolan wanted to make Inception - it was the studio that was hesitant to greenlight it, even after the success of Nolan's Batman films.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think you are cherry picking examples. Nolan is a great example, but he's unique. The vast majority of directors these days (and even in the past) seem to be little more than work-for-hire types who just want to make money. Maybe they have artistic pretense somewhere inside them, but they don't let it out.

Moreover, the stereotype that Hollywood itself promotes about people pitching scripts as "Star Wars meets Lassie" isn't something only a couple studio heads are guilty of. This is an industry wide mentality.

Anonymous said...

No, you're right and it is. And while most directors are work for hire, one gets the impression that, at least now and then, they would prefer to do something a tad different. On the other hand, there will always be hacks. :-)

If there's a mindset at work, it's based on nothing more than fear... unfortunately.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I would say that part of it is fear, but more than like the main component is arrogance. I would suggest that it likely started as fear ("how do we do this right") and then turned into smugness as these people sought to convince themselves that their fear really translated into special knowledge about "how the inside really works."

El Gordo said...

I loved Highlander when it came out. Still like it a lot, for all the reason given here. However, even back then, it was not hard to understand why it didn´t do too well.

Superman was raised to represent truth, justice and the American way. Gandalf, Batman, James Bond or Harry Callahan fight for order against chaos, each in his way. They are protectors and the stakes are well defined.

What does the Highlander do, exactly? He tries to come out on top. "There can be only one". Would he fight evil if he didn´t have to? He is not the active champion of the downtrodden or a crimefighter. He is not our protector, he is not really part of our world.

By simply surviving he will gain some vaguely described power to do good (and what little we are told about it is right at the end of the movie). The purpose of his powers is as unclear as the origin.

So what´s at stake, emotionally? Sure, McLeod is a good guy, the Kurgan is a bad guy. Nothing in the movie indicates that we would be worse off if all the immortals killed each other. For all I know a hellfire missile could have dealt with any of them.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, They do suggest a couple times that if the Kurgan wins, things would go very poorly for the mortals.

But leaving that aside, not all films need some public benefit. Lots of movies simply involve one character fighting another or struggling to win something they want.

El Gordo said...

"But leaving that aside, not all films need some public benefit."

No, but that is what the movie is about. Why else are the immortals are killing each other? Because there is some prize at the end. That is what moves the story. But we never find out what it is until the last minute of the movie and even then it is still unclear - some influence over the fate of mankind.

The movie doesn´t show us why this brooding loner should be given that power, except the other guy is worse. Almost sounds like the Romney strategy :-)

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, LOL! Nice analogy! :)

You're right and it would have helped if they had been more clear about the stakes. BUT I have to say that for me personally, I'm glad they never explained it. I like the ambiguity of it because I think any real explanation would have lessened the film. But of course, I know that's not a popular position with most audiences, who really do want to "know" everything rather than having things left for them to figure out.

Joel Farnham said...


Nice choice. Yep, it is a great movie. The strange thing is Highlander the series ranks right up there with it. The series introduced during the second season a character class of people called "The Watchers", mortals who only watched but didn't interfere with the Immortals. The series explored subjects like how should an Immortal who gave up killing mortals deal with some one who witnessed/filmed him killing another Immortal. It also introduced female Immortals, even child Immortals.

In the movie, it hardly touched on an Immortal's love life. In the series, Duncan MacLeod had a girlfriend in a serious relationship with all aspects to it. That is what the women loved about it. It ended when she was killed.

AndrewPrice said...

Hi Joel,

I liked the series a lot. At first, I didn't like the idea they made him such a pacifist, but it worked. And I really liked the idea of the watchers.

Anonymous said...

Something I enjoyed character-wise of Highlander was that Connor was very competent at what he had to do, but he would have preferred not to. Not out of cowardice or fear, but out of his beliefs. He'd rather socialize with Kastagir than fight with him. He was not driven towards power like the Kurgan. He was a somewhat humble man caught up in something he probably preferred not to be caught up in.

I think he understood his situation well. It is an example of a man's ability to question his situation in order to better see what his "Reality" truly is. It was also an example of questioning ones urges. Maybe he could have risen above that irresistible pull, maybe not. It never came to that, but at least he openly thought for himself.

While truly a mild point in the film, it left an impression on me when I saw it so long ago. A forced man surviving his environment. Writing 101. Well done.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Very true. At the time, there weren't many characters like him. They tended to be either cynics like a Redford or over-the-top like a Schwarzenegger. The idea of a competent, but not adventurous hero was a new idea. And I think it fits well with the American psyche -- someone who doesn't want to be a hero, but will do it if needed.

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