Welcome to the inaugural entry of Grading Fight Scenes! This is the site where, in case you couldn’t figure out context clues, I size up the fight sequences in movies and grade how well each of them does what it’s supposed to do. Many action movies live or die by their fight scenes, so it’s an important art to get right.
What better way to start this project than with a subject like Highlander, which is a) structured almost entirely around fight scenes and b) gloriously awesome & ridiculously messy in equal measure? For better or worse, there’s a lot to unpack about this bad boy.
For those of you so deprived: Highlander is a 1986 fantasy film, directed by music video maestro Russell Mulcahy and starring Christopher Lambert, a raspy Frenchman with a penetrating stare (owing to acute myopia, so it makes total sense to let him swing around sharp objects). Lambert plays Connor MacLeod (of the Clan MacLeod), the titular Scot who discovers that he is one of a rare breed of Immortals—men immune to aging and any type of death besides decapitation. Immortals have walked among us since “the dawn of time” and while not inherently evil or hostile, they are compelled to fight amongst each other, until finally the last one standing will win the nebulous “Prize.” Hence all the sword-fightin’.
I love The Highlander, warts & all. And oh, how warty it is: acting & dialogue quality are all over the place, and logic is more or less thrown out the window along with realism (this is not even getting into the sequels and other franchise spinoffs, which are generally less “warts and all” and more “nothing but hemorrhoids”). Whenever swords aren’t clanging, the movie mainly survives on its bizarre magnetism, owing to elements such as frequent flashbacks, an unpredictably jarring visual style, Lambert’s dreamlike gaze, and its wild soundtrack by Queen:
And of course, that wonderfully bonkers premise. I may have undersold it earlier; The Highlander is less structured around its fight scenes than it is a perfect excuse for them. And how do they hold up? Let’s take a look.
Jumping right in:
1) Connor MacLeod vs. Iman Fasil
Thankfully, the first fight scene happens not long after the movie opens– take note, lesser action films. Not every movie needs to start out with a bang, but movies sold on the strength of their “bangs” sure do.
MacLeod moodily attends a rather dull wrestling match at Madison Square Garden, but leaves early and gets a strange sensation in the parking lot. His sensation is due to the arrival of Iman Fasil, a fellow immortal (one of the many parts of the film’s complex mythology is that immortals can sense each other when in close proximity) with an unplaceable foreign accent and decidedly non-tactical business suit. They seem to recognize each other, and after a tense moment, MacLeod tries to call the fight (it’s unclear if this was pre-arranged or happenstance) off, but Fasil is having none of it, and begins swinging immediately. Have at thee!
Right away the movie announces its boldness. Even the most casual sword twirl is accompanied by a noticeable “whoosh” sound effect, and half the time blades meet, sparks fly– even when little to no force is being applied. This will continue throughout the film. It’s possible that at least some of it is mere cinematic license on Mulcahy’s part, but mostly it can be attributed to the mystical nature of the combatants. When immortals fight, it’s not just fencing; there’s some crazy, unpredictable energy at play.
There’s more to the choreography here than mere fencing, too: the surrounding environment is quite fully & viscerally utilized. Cars are jumped upon and slid over. Pipes and walls are hit, releasing torrents of steam and showers of even more sparks. At one point some of Fasil’s willful destruction sets off the fire sprinklers, creating an impromptu indoor rain.
Oddly, actual exchanges between the two fighters are brief, and are always interrupted by something or other: Fasil loses his sword, MacLeod loses his sword, Fasil goes running (sometimes to hide, sometimes just to make MacLeod briefly chase him), Fasil breaks something nearby to distract MacLeod, MacLeod accidentally punctures an overhead steam pipe, etc. It’s as much cat & mouse as it is a genuine sword fight. The most awkward part is the extended bit where MacLeod has to track down his sword (kicked under a car by Fasil) while simultaneously hiding from his opponent. Fortunately, Fasil obliges MacLeod with plenty of time to search by… backflipping. Seriously. He’s this near-elderly man in a business suit and he just starts executing a series of completely gratuitous backflips.
Even weirder, in what’s probably due to some shoddy editing, he does two sets of backflips here: once after escaping from MacLeod (who had made up for the loss of his sword by utilizing a nearby pipe, which he drops despite how well it worked for him), then he stops and walks normally, then he does MORE backflips when he is quite definitely clear of MacLeod and has no plausible reason to do so. Quite athletically impressive, but this is a very odd time to display it.
Once Mac is armed again, the fight is all but over: the next exchange ends with MacLeod quickly disarming Fasil (that’s TWO sword losses for the poor guy), and chopping his head off– hard enough to embed the sword in a nearby pillar, in what will become a rather silly plot point. This leads to “the Quickening” a crazy light show that wrecks everything in sight as MacLeod absorbs the essence of his defeated enemy.
This fight is a mixed bag. What little “fight” material there is is adequate, but fleeting. The staging is very confusing and the editing poor– the camera does a lousy job of tracking who is where at any given time, and sometimes characters even come rushing out of places you’re pretty sure they couldn’t possibly be. Also, despite his unexpected acrobatics, Iman Fasil (played by veteran stuntman Peter Diamond, who was 57 at the time of shooting this. Apparently he plays the Tusken Raider who KOs Luke Skywalker) is just not a very interesting foe. He has no emotional resonance with MacLeod, but that’s okay because we’re not supposed to feel anything of the sort at this point in the movie. But despite his definite athleticism there is just something stiff about him; between that and the general weirdness that is Christopher Lambert, this fight comes off looking all sorts of awkward. This is not helped by the decision to stage a fight that involes all manner of strange accidents (losing weapons, hitting the scenery) and running away from each other for no apparent reason. This doesn’t look like what it should: a titanic battle between two master swordsmen who have had centuries to hone their craft. It looks more like two scared normal guys clumsily flailing away at each other in a panic.
However, it’s not without value. Some points are won by a clever use of the environment, and Mulcahy was right to go over the top with all the aforementioned sound & visual effects. That, combined with the appropriately jarring (if not exactly enjoyable) music, goes a long way toward setting the tone for what is going to be a strange, over-the-top experience. A flawed but interesting start to a flawed but interesting film. If every fight in the movie were at this level, I doubt it would have been as successful, but as we shall soon see, they are not.
Excellent piece on The AV Club about the film’s clunky but undeniable appeal
Highlander’s entry on Wikipedia
Coming soon: We tackle fights two & three, get our first glimpse of the villain and say goodbye to a certain sexy Spanish peacock.