Highlander (fight 5 of 5)

5) Connor MacLeod vs. The Kurgan (final round)

OMG YOU GUYS

The Fighters: Connor and the Kurgan, aka Good vs Evil. Special appearance by Brenda Wyatt, damsel in distress/interference-runner.

The Setup: The Kurgan, wise to Connor having consummated his attraction (wink wink nudge nudge) to plucky metallurgist Brenda, has kidnapped the fair maiden and locked her up in a tower. Well, not quite so medieval, but the nearest possible modern thing: he tied her up in the structure behind a giant “SilverCup” electronic billboard on top of a building.

Apparently it’s a real place.

The Kurgan wants MacLeod unnerved & distracted during this fight– this villain doesn’t play fair if he doesn’t have to.

The Fight: Connor is immediately attacked as he tries to free Brenda and the action begins briskly, the two combatants clashing swords while also dodging amongst the surprisingly intricate infrastructure behind the billboard. MacLeod sends his opponent tumbling several feet to the ground but, as he tries to free Brenda, the Kurgan retaliates by wantonly destroying everything in sight, sending showers of sparks and breaking the heck out of the entire thing. Connor gets out of the collapsing structure by gripping a support cable and sliding down it like Errol Flynn.

Soon enough an inexplicably nearby water tower also breaks, flooding the immediate area and creating a temporary pool for Connor to hide in while he tries to assist Brenda. The Kurgan swings around looking for the hidden hero and soon decides to search for him by going underwater himself, but rather than blandly diving or falling into the temporary pool, he spins around slowly while gradually lowering himself. The strangely graceful movements make the villain seem like a predatory animal– a rather nice touch, there.

Soon the two participants fall through a skylight into an empty warehouse. MacLeod, separated from his sword, is at the mercy of the Kurgan, and is only saved by some desperate interference from Brenda (being too mortally fragile to survive the skylight fall, she apparently opted for the stairs), wielding one of the movie’s many lead pipes. The inconvenience only seems to irritate the Kurgan, but before he can cut her down she is in turn saved by Connor, who, having recovered his sword and his composure, is ready to seriously throw down– he’s even balanced enough to snark/flirt with the relieved Brenda, giving her a faux-irritated “what kept you?”. Now it’s on like Immortal Donkey Kong.

Pictured: AWESOMENESS

From here, everything about the fight, and the movie, kicks into high gear and doesn’t let up. This is what the entire story has been building up to and it does not in any way disappoint.

As you can see from the picture above, everything is saturated in dark blues. The lighting from the huge bay windows (and, obviously, the film crew) is just right: when the camera’s in close or medium shots we can see enough to make out the combatants’ faces, and as it gets farther out they become stark, iconic silhouettes. Speaking of the camera, it moves smoothly back & forth, sweeping across the room as the combatants circle about in this dance of death (according to the commentary track, this was accomplished by strapping the camera to a chair on wheels and kicking it across the set). The music, which kicks in immediately after Connor’s smirking line to Brenda, is unapologetically and unselfconsciously strident. It all comes together to match the epic tone of what we’re seeing happen. There is no dialogue between the two at this point, and there doesn’t need to be. The swords do the talkin’.

The fencing choreography is never better in the movie than it is here, as the opponents push back & forth, circle each other, and exchange strikes with yet more flying sparks and loud whooshes. It’s not too long (but not too short) before the Kurgan begins to lose. He is pushed back and kept on the defensive by the smaller man’s aggressive skill, and even suffers an escalating series of surface slashes. The music swells in triumph to signal what we already know: Connor MacLeod, finally given an open space and no distractions, is just better.

And the Kurgan knows it. His initial confusion is soon replaced by something else. For the first time in his long, long life, the Kurgan is confronted by the possibility that he might actually lose, and he seems… intrigued by it. As he circles around Connor for the final time, he stares at his opponent like a scientist beholding a new alien species. The look on Clancy Brown’s face is some strange mix of fascination and rapturous joy. The man has lived on destruction & thrills for thousands of years, and while he has not displayed nihilistic traits before, he finds the prospect of his own destruction the most thrilling of all. This is noteworthy, because many a movie bad guy has been known to mentally unravel when facing defeat at the hands of a determined hero– reduced from grand villainous scheming to childish temper tantrums– but not this one. This one faces his doom like a man. The Kurgan may be a dishonorable barbaric raping murderer, but he is NOT a chump.

Not pictured: a chump.

The villain lunges ahead with one final charge, and MacLeod takes the opportunity to move in with one well-aimed slice. The Kurgan takes a few steps, pauses, smiles, and, well… Connor has pulled off one of those “yank the table cloth without disturbing the plates” moves, but with the Kurgan’s head. It rolls right the heck off, and Connor receives the mother of all Quickenings, followed by the glass-shattering light show that is The Prize.

ERMAGHERD

The film’s climax is a marvel of staging, construction and choreography. Notably, it can really be broken down into two parts: the part outside by the SilverCup sign, and the part inside the empty building. The first half is all frantic, with lots of elements at play: protecting/freeing Brenda, dodging amongst the sign structure, the water, the Kurgan smashing stuff to bits– it’s really a mini-action sequence that includes a bunch of sword-fighting. The second half, in contrast, is all focused intensity, bombastic filmmaking capturing an epic duel. It is pure.

Watching the whole thing at once, the first half is certainly less interesting than the second, but it’s the opening segment that provides necessary buildup to the last. If the whole thing has been nothing but a straight sword fight from beginning to end, it would have gotten boring and repetitive after a while. As it is, the part of the second half of the climax where they’re actually fighting clocks in at under two minutes, which is just about the perfect amount of time. Breaking down extended fight sequences into distinct chunks is actually an important part of making them both watchable and memorable.

The whole thing really is damn near perfect, actually. I will deduct a very slight amount of points for the final shot of the Kurgan before his head lolls off, as the sub-par effects work make it comically obvious (in a bad way) that the villain is about to get a lot shorter. But oh well.

Grade: A+

Recommended reading:

  • The Highlander Wikia page, whose extra information and pictures have been invaluable to me for this series.
  • The whole last half of the fight on YouTube

On another note, you may have noticed I started to write this post in more of a templated format, with sub-headings for each part of the entry. I think this streamlines the writing process a bit and helps keep me from wandering, I’ll be trying to stick to it from now on, though I may refine it as necessary. It’s an ongoing process.

Coming soon: Am I really going to do two sword-fighting movies in a row?!

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Highlander (fight 4 of 5)

A quick breather before the show-stopping climax.

4) Sunda Kastagir vs. The Kurgan

Similar to the film’s first “skirmish,” this fight takes place in a generic outdoor city area at night, and is walked into in media res by a non-Immortal bystander. This time however the bystander is not a sexy, yet determined police metallurgy consultant (such a stock character!) but rather Kirk Matunas, a machine gun-toting vigilante.

Pictured: someone Hollywood thinks is everywhere

A paranoid Vietnam veteran, he patrols the streets with fully-automatic machine gun (as one does), apparently wary of a Soviet invasion. We first see him driving around contemptuous of all the “filth” around him like De Niro in Taxi Driver, but soon he catches a glimpse of the second-to-last Immortal clash, and goes to investigate.

In a rather uninteresting alley, the Kurgan is fighting against Sunda Kastagir, an African Immortal who’s a longtime friend of our main hero. A pair of scenes showing Kastagir with MacLeod (one in present day where they meet pleasantly & agree not to fight, one in the past showing them abusing Connor’s invulnerability to mess with a French dandy’s head) have endeared us to him. We don’t love him like we did Ramirez, but we like him, certainly enough to not want him to get murdalized.

(Incidentally, Kastagir is played by British actor Hugh Quarshie, who never truly reached star status despite appearing prominently in several major genre works. Most people will at least recognize him as Captain Panaka, the security chief from The Phantom Menace who follows Natalie Portman around mainly so she can disagree with everything he says. No, seriously, if you ever watch TPM again and want to wring some extra amusement out of it, count how many times Amidala does the exact opposite of what Panaka suggests. It’s really funny.)

Unfortunately for Kastagir he’s already fighting a losing battle by the time Full Metal Wackjob arrives. He swings away desperately but the Kurgan, dominant as usual, clearly has his number. Overall, the construction of the battle is… not impressive. There’s much flailing but for the most part it looks half-hearted and not particularly creative. It is also brief, which is arguably good given how uninteresting it is.  Notably, Quarshie fails to sell the reality of the fight, several times holding his sword in such a way that he couldn’t possibly be blocking the blows the movie asks us to think he is.

Visually, however, there is still some nice stuff going on, mainly in the use of shadows. We cut back to Kirk several times, witnessing his disbelief as he watches something even his own paranoia could never have dreamed up, and he’s framed by shadows in such a way that you definitely get a sense of proportion: not just of how puny this mortal is in comparison to the titanic duellists, but of how huge the Kurgan is in comparison to Kastagir.

“I’m gonna need a bigger gun.”

The way the fight ends is an unexpected treat (for the viewer, if not Kastagir), too: the Kurgan slices off Kastagir’s head right in the midst of the battle, with a sudden spin move before the latter’s blade could block it. In not just this movie but most Highlander franchise fights, the loser tends to get his or head removed under much more mundane circumstances, after being cornered, disarmed, or beaten down into helplessness. It’s rare for Highlander fans to see an Immortal lose their head via surprise rather than while standing/kneeling there waiting for it like a chump, and this shows that Kurgan has some decent skills to go with that brute strength.

The Kurgan gets the Quickening, but not before being temporarily gunned down by Kirk’s probably-not-legal Uzi. Kurgan rewards the former Marine by impaling him, lifting him off the ground, and literally tossing him aside. With one hand.

Nutjob-kebab

A decent-sized crowd has gathered by this point as well, and the Kurgan escapes from the scene by ripping the roof off a nearby car, removing the driver and menacing the little-old-lady of a passenger, who he laughingly addresses as “Mom!” before driving into the night (Brown even manages to sound lascivious while yelling).

Overall this is a bit of a Blah fight with some nice trappings. Like the previous MacLeod/Kurgan dust-up, this is a skirmish– a smaller fight by design. It’s not a big deal, but it’s not meant to be and doesn’t need to be, though that still doesn’t excuse some lackluster execution. Extra points are gained for some sweet shadow-play and an unexpected finishing move; slightly less points are lost due to the unnecessary Hollywood caricature of an anti-Commie nutbar. Kirk’s presence in the scene and film serves no real purpose. We see him again in the hospital shortly after, giving the police a very not-MacLeod description of the headhunting killer, but there was about a dozen other bystanders there to describe the Kurgan too, so Kirk’s role in the “getting the cops off MacLeod’s back” subplot is extraneous.

Grade: C+

Recommended reading: Quite amusing CHUD article about the unfortunate fate of “Mom,” from which I will steal this GIF:

Coming soon: We finish the film and there can, finally, be only one.

Highlander (fight 3 of 5)

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.

Not pictured: Roger Moore.

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.

I sure wouldn’t.

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….

“Suck it, Trebek!”

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…

Grade: A

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?

Be honest.

Highlander (fight 2 of 5)

And we’re back for more!

When we last left off, we’d gone through a very unusual but telling introduction to this film’s mythology and aesthetic. It’s difficult for those of us who have grown up knowing the ground rules of the Highlander world for decades now to really understand what it might have been like to watch this with virgin eyes, to see it all unfold in a movie theater in 1986 for the very first time. “There’s apparently this small number of magical sword-fighters who occasionally duel secretly in public places, and stuff gets blown up? I’m on board.” One of the more tantalizing hooks of this franchise, what appeals to the inner geek in so many of us, is the idea of this sub-society of Immortals who hide in plain sight, right here in our “real” world. And with the film’s second fight, we get a bit more of that.

2) Connor MacLeod vs. The Kurgan (round one)

This one is definitely a bit more impromptu. MacLeod is being not-so-discreetly tailed by Brenda Wyatt, who will eventually be the film’s main love interest but for now is interested in getting a look at Connor’s sword. That’s not a euphemism: his katana is a historical anomaly, having been forged by the legendary Japanese blacksmith Goro Masamune, using techniques that wouldn’t become popular for centuries to come. The NYPD, having arrived at the Garden just after the previous fight’s Quickening, correctly suspect MacLeod in Fasil’s death, so they’ve enlisted the help of Brenda (she’s a metallurgy consultant for the police, which is apparently a thing) to examine the forensic evidence at the scene. (The cops don’t have sufficient evidence to arrest MacLeod because he stashed the killing weapon before getting picked up, and they haven’t found it because they’re dumb.)

Blah, blah, blah. The thing is, MacLeod is being tracked not just by Brenda but by his arch-nemesis, the Kurgan (more on him soon), and Brenda walks right into a fight between hero & villain in the middle of a dark, generic industrial area. There’s a lot of piping and vague construction-esque structures standing around– basically the type of place that exists for fight scenes in movies, comic books and video games.

The most notable thing about the choreography here is that while the Kurgan came with his own enormous blade, Connor is unarmed. I can’t remember if he is unwilling to use his sword in front of Brenda (who works for the police, and stays there watching the whole time instead of running away like a smart person) or if he merely hadn’t retrieved it yet, but either way MacLeod is left having to improvise– once again Mac deploys a variety of pipes and even at one point a hefty fire hose (again with the euphemisms?). Thanks to the none-too-subtle sound design, we get the impression that MacLeod’s connecting blows do put a serious hurt on the Kurgan, but nonetheless the guy just keeps getting back up, quickly dominating his smaller opponent. Connor’s neck is nearly on the receiving end of Kurgan’s broadsword, but he rallies, and just as the fight continues, it’s interrupted by a police helicopter.

And with that, it’s over. Kurgan vows that they’ll fight again, and takes off; Connor & Brenda run the other direction.

This one is short & largely unremarkable, but solid. As a fight it’s a bit underwhelming, due to its brief nature and lack of resolution, but then, it doesn’t aspire to be anything more. It’s less a real fight than it is a skirmish, a brief diversion to keep the audience excited as the story chugs along. Not every fight in a movie can or even should be a show-stopping number; sometimes it’s best just to give out a little snack between big meals, to keep our stomachs from rumbling. Done right, these little snacks can act as ballast or connective tissue for the meatier sequences– a fact lost on many would-be action filmmakers. It’s all about pacing.

Meanwhile a few bits of character and story are pushed along in this fight. Brenda gets in even further over her head, we see MacLeod being inventive and the Kurgan’s unrelenting brute force. You might ding it for being in such a drab, dark setting, but this is mitigated by some fairly unexpected use of improvised weaponry. Most importantly, this scene does everything it’s supposed to do.

Grade: B

Coming soon: Well, last time I promised we’d cover fights two and three, but this took a bit more verbiage than I expected. Soon enough though we’ll come back to cover the film’s first truly impressive duel, a bravura sequence pitting one of the all-time great genre villains against a flamboyant Egyptian with a Spanish name, a Scottish accent and a Japanese sword. Unfortunately for the latter, there can be only one.

Highlander (fight 1 of 5)

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!

“Let’s fight!”
“Them’s fightin’ words!”

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.

Peter Diamond (actor)

Show-off.

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.

Grade: C+

Recommended reading:

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.

“Hello, ladiesh.”