There can be only one.
In 1986, these words were uttered and it changed the course of fantasy nerdom forever. It’s a battle cry and a declaration of supremacy on its own, but now also works to identify others whose fandom extends to the Russell Mulcahy-directed Highlander. A film which, truth be told, makes absolutely no sense yet takes itself to the point of seriousness where all of that is glossed over in favor of having a great time. Conceived by Gregory Widen (Backdraft) and written by Widen, Peter Bellwood (Highlander II: The Quickening), and Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October), Highlander introduced global audiences to the immortals who walk among us, locked in battle in search of a nebulous prize, only discernable as friend or foe until close enough for a sword’s point to reach their throat. The film is a little sad, a little comic, a little horrific, and a little sexy and, now, it’s out on home video for the first time in 4K UHD with Dolby Vision and a bevy of bonus features. Luckily, no brawls are necessary to bring this one home and you have several options to choose from.
Hidden among us, some for thousands of years, living mostly ordinary lives, are immortals involved in a most dangerous game. Why they are immortal is a kind of magic but the object they compete for is far more clear: The Prize. To earn it, there must be one immortal left standing, having survived long enough not to lose their head in combat and lose the power which keeps them alive, referred to as The Quickening. One such immortal is Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), born in the Scottish Highlands, pulled to New York City to take part in the final days of combat, which these princes of the universe call The Gathering. But while Connor contends with reuniting with old friends and battling deadly foes, he also tries to avoid murder charges from the police and the advances of the man who first killed him in 1536, the deadly warrior known only as The Kurgan (Clancy Brown). Can he avoid prison and not lose his head in the process? Only time will tell, and who wants to live forever?
It’s likely been decades since any of the Highlander films screened in my home and the 4K UHD release of the first film is as good a reason as any to revisit it. It’s as original as it ever was, it’s concept diminished by sequels and spin-offs that made the conclusive nature of the finale less so, yet Highlander remains singular nonetheless. Told using one vision of the past to another, the audience is invited to jump forward and back, as Connor considers his present life and his past ones, including his metaphysical rebirth, as this world-weary immortal comes to the end of a centuries-long battle. He is not the oldest (that title goes to Peter Wingfield’s Methos of the television adaptation Highlander: The Series) but he is the underdog, required to face off against the man who killed him, a man whose acceptance of The Prize would deliver pain upon the world, a treat for Kurgan as he finds pain so close to pleasure. This is the typical hero’s journey story told in an atypical fashion and its uniqueness in concept, as well as the performances from Lambert, Sean Connery (Dr. No), and Brown (The Shawshank Redemption), that give Highlander unending energy, distract from a myriad of problems in the details of script, character, and technical appearance. For instance, are we to believe that Connery’s Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez is Egyptian when his accent is Scottish? As a child, I didn’t think much of it at the time, much in the same way I didn’t consider Kevin Costner’s lack of appropriate accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) when I sat in the theater for that one, and his costuming makes sense as someone who initially identifies himself as from Spain, but the voice? That one takes some serious hand-waving to ignore. Then there’s the script which raises way more questions than it takes time to answer. Now, don’t lose your head, this isn’t to suggest that Highlander is some great piece of art, but the fact that there’s no explanation for so much that the audience just has to go with. It’s easy to understand why Kurgan wants to kill Connor as he senses the Quickening within the Highlander, but why does Ramirez even give a damn about Connor to the point where he sought him out to teach him versus clear an easy one off the board? Ramirez is an Obi-Wan-type without the backstory to explain it. Credit to the screenwriters, though, for making sure that the officers in blue are both bullies with a badge and homophobic as hell, whereas Connor redirects their projections like a proper ally.
I could write forever about Highlander, but, truth be told, the film remains an engaging and fun time, even if it’s not as mind-blowing as one remembers. The soundtrack by Queen (A Kind of Magic) and score by Michael Kamen (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) are just as fantastic as one remembers (I’m currently writing this review to A Kind of Magic), each one adding an anchor of time due to the specificity of the songs while Kamen’s compositions offer an otherworldly and timeless feel. Amid all of the swashbuckling swordplay, Highlander is a romantic tale of a man without human connection, without love, because he’s currently doomed to outlive everyone he carries for romantically (his second wife Heather (Beatie Edney)) or familially (Rachel (Sheila Gish), the girl he saved in World War II). Kamen has contributed to countless films whose scores are evocative listens even without the film — Road House (1989), Hudson Hawk (1991), Prince of Thieves, The Three Musketeers (1993) — and his orchestration for the 2000 Metallica album Metallica: S&M is one of the band’s best albums to date, largely because of what Kamen brought to the table, elevating the already larger-than-life tracks from the notable heavy metal band. This, of course, is all over-shadowed in comparison to Queen’s tracks, each one tailored to suit the needs of scenes to amplify Kurgan’s bloodlust, Connor’s pensiveness, or just the rock n’ roll nature of the whole film. In the parlance of the times, each track on A Kind of Magic, the unofficial soundtrack to the film (and keeper of the Iron Eagle (1986) single “One Vision”) is an undeniable banger.
Now, let’s get into why we’re here: the 4K UHD edition.
October 31st of 2022, STUDIOCANAL released Highlander in 4K UHD, with releases in Australia, New Zealand, and France in November. Luckily, American audiences didn’t have to wait longer, like one year (of love) or more, as a Region A (North America) edition is now out. This does mean that home viewing audiences have several options when deciding which version of the film to snag and, luckily, the 4K UHD disc itself is region-free, so that specific disc will play on any 4K player you have. I point this out because the accompanying Blu-ray will not, unless you have either a region-free or region-specific Blu-ray player. The UK edition includes both a 4K and Blu-ray disc, a 64-page booklet with new essays, a prequel comic, four badges, a poster, artcards, and several brand-new featurettes. The artwork on the outside is unique for this release, as well, a montage of characters and the final confrontation between Connor and Kurgan. This is available from places like Zaavi, should you want as many Highlander goodies as you can get.
For the American release, there are two versions to choose from: regular and limited-edition steelbook available from Best Buy only. Both U.S. editions include a 4K-Blu-ray-digital code with bonus materials that match the October UK release, so those hoping for some region-specific features or featurettes will be disappointed, but, at the very least, it should reduce the feeling of double-dipping that some special editions elicit. The cover of the regular edition has Connor wearing his Scottish kit, holding both his signature sword and Ramírez’s. The steelbook is far more artful, with a montage of characters and moments on the front and Kurgan on the back. The inside left is a photo of Connor in his Scottish kit (different pose than the regular edition cover) and the inside right is a photo from the final battle. The 4K UHD disc is decorated with Connor’s profile from the cover and the Blu-ray has The Kurgan’s. Overall, steelbook collector’s will be delighted with the design inside and out, especially with the mostly-clear plastic slipcover which places the MacLeod Family sword overtop the front of the case. Research indicates that both the regular and steelbook editions include the artcards of the UK edition, but that the discs and case art are unique to the each release edition.
**Digital codes users: redemption goes to Vudu.**
Perhaps packaging isn’t your primary concern, but as this is the same 4K disc as released in October, much has already been written about that specific portion. To that, however, allow these few thoughts: it’s fine. Oddly, the 2.0 audio track sounds clearer and with better balance than the 5.1 audio track, the dialogue a little warbly as though played over itself and the ambient sound simply louder than immersive. It may be because 2.0 is the audio track we’re used to, but it offers crisper dialogue and more balanced, though not perfect, ambient sound. You’ll feel more locked into the film with the 2.0 track and, thanks to the ability to change settings mid-watch from the pop-up menu, you can play with the tracks for yourself to see which you prefer. During the opening credits as Queen played, I felt like the 2.0 track was easier on the ears compared to the 5.1 and did Freddie Mercury less dirty. Regarding the picture, that shifts depending on the scene. This edition is of the Director’s Cut, so one might expect that only those added later would appear less processed or somewhat degraded compared to scenes from the theatrical version, but it’s far more inconsistent than that. There’s less grain but the colors themselves don’t always pop as one would expect a 4K UHD with Dolby Vision to do. The final confrontation is gorgeous, the blues and purples of the warehouse windows visually striking as the black silhouettes of Connor and Kurgan physically strike their swords. Some of the shots in the highlands are similarly beautiful, the blue sky and the green grass distinct and clear, presenting a sense that it’s being shown exactly as it was at that time of filming. Then there are moments like Connor remembering his death that are a tad foggier and, in the depiction of his post-stabbing form, almost completely unrecognizable due to severe deresolution. Some of this can be placed on the fact that Mulcahy didn’t have the best equipment to shoot the film, therefore the quality of the original images may not be up to snuff even with remastering 36 years later; while others can just be attributed to the actual styling of the film, something which audiences have come to cherish. Ultimately, the sound and video, while not the best, will satisfy fans looking to improve their DVD-quality experience of a modern cult classic.
Highlander — the films and the show — were my gateway to Queen, so my love the film is certainly biased. There’s also the hazy filter of nostalgia through which my I place my gaze. Does Highlander hold up to today’s films in terms of singularity of idea? It absolutely does, but that doesn’t mean that it would be as big of a hit now with the things that plague it. We can at least be fair with that. However, it was released 36 years ago and it has a large fan base and I doubt any of them (myself included) gave any thought before slamming down their payment to snag at least one of the 4K UHD editions when announced. To that end, I don’t think longtime fans will be disappointed with this purchase. Some of what makes Highlander as endearing as it is *is* the grime, the imperfections against the beauty. At the end of the day, friends will be friends when it comes to this remaster as The Prize takes the form of whichever edition you want.
Highlander Special Features:
4K UHD Disc:
- The Immortal Attraction of Highlander – Looking back at four decades of Highlander magic
- A Kind of Magic: Music of The Immortals – A featurette on the soundtrack
- There can only be one Kurgan – Clancy Brown remembers Highlander
- Capturing Immortality: Interview with photographer David James
- Audio Commentary with author Jon Melville
- Audio Commentary with Russell Mulcahy
- Audio Commentary with Russell Mulcahy, Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer
- Audio Commentary with Russell Mulcahy
- Interview with Director Russell Mulcahy
- Interview with Christopher Lambert
- The Making of Highlander
- Deleted Scenes
- Archival Interview with Christopher Lambert
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital December 13th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official STUDIOCANAL Highlander webpage.