Here’s where the movie really starts to earn its money.
3) Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez vs. The Kurgan
Background: A series of flashbacks has shown us Connor’s origin story, starting back in his pre-Immortal days as a happy member of Clan MacLeod in the Scottish Highlands over 400 years ago. During a war sequence, Connor is run through by the Kurgan, who had been working as a mercenary for a rival clan on the condition of being given allowed to kill MacLeod himself (the Kurgan can sense Connor’s latent immortality before Connor himself can, and wanted to take his head before the young Highlander could even get started). The would-be fatal wound triggers Connor’s immortal awakening, and when he miraculously survives, his clan, including the woman he loved, brands him as a witch or demon and casts him out.
An unspecified time later, Connor sets up shop somewhere else with a newer, prettier and more tolerant wife, Heather, and is found by Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, an ancient (over 2,500 years old) Egyptian Immortal, lately of Spain and bearing an incongruous Scottish accent. Ramirez senses potential in MacLeod and mentors him, teaching Connor about the nature of his supernatural gifts. And more advanced swordplay, of course.
It’s unclear how long Ramirez stays with MacLeod and wife, but it’s clearly long enough for Connor to pick up some mad skills (thanks, montages!) and definitely long enough for them to bond. Even aside from the attached Connery charm, the audience likes Ramirez. Unfortunately, it’s bad for your health to be an older mentor-character in an action movie.
The setup: Connor is off on some errand, leaving Ramirez with Heather. He is entertaining her with some swashbuckling tale at the start of the scene, and while it works quite well on the page (further establishing Ramirez’s familiarity with the MacLeods), the casting creates a huge plot hole, because no man in his right mind would leave his wife alone with Sean Connery.
Regardless, the pair are soon interrupted by the arrival of the evil Kurgan.
A brief word on the Kurgan. Much is made of Connery’s involvement in the film, and he is surely an asset: he brings with him the aforementioned Connery charm, and more importantly his very presence in the film surely helped to give this odd little sci-fi film much more mainstream attention than it might have had otherwise. Though Connery has surely been in much odder sci-fi films; see above picture.
But the Kurgan, as played by actor Clancy Brown, is the movie’s secret weapon. The Kurgan (he’s only identified by his old barbarian tribe and his real name is never given, which adds to his mythic stature), another ancient Immortal, is a hulking creature of gleeful malice and destruction. There’s not an ounce of honor or goodness in him; he’s driven only by power & pleasure. In addition to playing all these aspects to the hilt, Brown makes full use of his own imposing physicality (at 6’4 he’s enormous by Hollywood standards, and towers especially over the much-shorter Lambert) and deep, growling voice. The actor fully embraces the over-the-top role without a trace of irony, looking as comfortable wearing dragon-themed medieval battle armor in the past as he does made up like a leather-punk skinhead in the present. It requires no hyperbole to say Brown’s Kurgan is one of the all-time great villains, a bad guy who’s fun to watch while still being completely detestable and thoroughly scary. While Brown never did make into super-stardom, he has rightfully become a beloved figure amongst genre film fans and still gets steady work in respectable projects.
That Brown physicality is well-used here, as the Kurgan makes his entrance by breaking through the door of MacLeod’s home. He’s hunting for Connor’s head, but is more than happy to settle for Ramirez’s– the way Kurgan delightedly growls out Ramirez’s name upon recognizing him hints at an exciting history between the two. The Kurgan goes on to display his brute force some more by leaping through the air and smashing Connor’s table. Tactically unnecessary, but certainly intimidating and therefore less gratuitous than a dozen backflips.
Ramirez retaliates with his own bold opening move, his quick swordplay allowing him to get in close enough to slash the Kurgan’s throat, too shallowly for a decapitation but deep enough to leave a permanent scar and damage the villain’s vocal cords– throughout the rest of the film, the Kurgan’s deep rumbling voice will have a creepy rasp to it. Even Immortals feel pain and the Kurgan is clearly put off-balance, allowing Ramirez to control the fight, pushing the bad guy up the stairs while flourishing a bit and making taunts about his wound. Soon enough he is able to knock the Kurgan for a brief fall off the stairs.
Landing on the hard stone probably hurt, but as we saw in his earlier (but chronologically later) skirmish with MacLeod, you can’t stop this villain with blunt force trauma. The Kurgan rallies and turns the tables on Ramirez, pushing him up the stairs. The bad guy is now making full use of his physical power to press back the old Egyptian, swinging hard enough to knock out whole chunks of stone wall. Soon enough they’re in the open air, a sudden lightning storm forming above to mark this titanic battle between ancient enemies.
Ramirez manages to get his sword into the Kurgan’s guts….
But not only is it not enough, the villain seems to almost feed on it. Letting out a primal bellow into the raging storm, the monster pulls the blade out of his stomach and, still gripping it, bashes Ramirez down, slashes him across the chest, then turns him around and runs him through. Ramirez can clearly see the end is near, and spits in his foe’s face after enduring some taunts and threats against Heather.
So much of MacLeod’s tower has crumbled that their battleground has become a literal stairway to nowhere, an appropriately epic setting for Ramirez’s end. The Kurgan cribs a bit from King Leonidas and tells his victim “tonight you sleep in Hell!” before delivering the film’s “there can be only one” tagline and chopping his head off. The Kurgan then receives his Quickening, the accompanying lightning knocking him off his perch. Note that the Kurgan’s “praying” sword pose after a victory is the closest he comes in the film to showing respect to anything or anyone:
(Connor’s wife Heather also sticks around for the denouement, a decision that turns out very badly for her. She should have run away at the start when Ramirez told her to, rather than staying put & screaming the whole time.)
This is very nearly perfect. The sword choreography is not terribly fancy, but that just lets the audience free to focus on the emotion of the scene and the power of the participants. Again, the audience is quite fond of Ramirez, so even if his death is a foregone conclusion before the fight even begins (we have already seen the Kurgan alive in present day, and no sign of Ramirez), watching him die hurts a good deal, and in fact the viewer’s conclusions about how the fight must end cast a sense of dread over the whole thing.
As good as he was, Ramirez was ultimately no match for the powerful Kurgan. Many action movies have a hard time selling the villain’s formidability without making the lesser heroes they take down look like chumps, but Highlander strikes the ideal balance. Here, the doomed sub-hero puts up a struggle worthy of his impressive stature. He dominates the first half or so of the fight, before the Kurgan’s raw strength & determination allow him to assert control. And with one deft cut, Ramirez managed to leave his killer something to remember him by, forever scarring him both visually and audibly; an extra layer of cool is added by the fact that the scar & rasp make the Kurgan more intimidating.
As far as technical specifics go: the music is minimal and unobtrusive; Mulcahy makes the right call in letting the scene “sing” on its own. The dialogue between the two crackles, and the rapidly breaking tower (they just don’t make ’em like they used to) is a fantastic setting for a mythic duel.
Really, this is excellent work all around. It’s the kind of thing we watch movies like Highlander for. Can it be topped? (spoiler: HECK YES) Regardless…
Recommended viewing: The second half or so (no one seems to have uploaded the full thing for some reason) of this fight, on YouTube.
Coming soon: Along with a rather unlikely witness, we see what happens when the unstoppable Kurgan faces off against the most useless security chief in Naboo history.
Also, Mr. Connery has given me inspiration for this year’s Halloween costume. How do you guys think I’d look in one of these numbers?