Highlander (UK - BD)
Chris Gould takes a look at Optimum's new Blu-ray release of this 80s feature
In 1536 Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) of the Clan MacLeod is mortally wounded by a mysterious 'dark knight' during a battle with the Clan Fraser. Although seemingly at death's door, MacLeod makes a remarkable recovery from his injuries, which leads to accusations of witchcraft and banishment from the Clan. After wandering for a long time MacLeod eventually settles in Glencoe, where he becomes a blacksmith and marries the beautiful Heather (Beatie Edney). In 1541 he encounters another Immortal, Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (Sean Connery), who outlines the rules of the 'Game', a contest between Immortals that sees them fighting for an unspecified 'Prize' of unimaginable power. Ramírez explains that the dark figure who 'killed' Connor years earlier is known as the Kurgan, the strongest of all the Immortals, and takes it upon himself to instruct MacLeod in the way of the sword in order to prepare him for the Game.
One fateful night, the Kurgan arrives at MacLeod's home while MacLeod himself is absent. Ramírez duels the Kurgan in an attempt to protect Heather, but although he succeed in wounding the Kurgan, he is eventually overpowered and decapitated. MacLeod returns to find his home in ruins and his mentor dead, but he remains in Glencoe with Heather until her natural death from old age. He then wanders the Earth for hundreds of years before eventually settling in America. By 1985 he has been drawn to New York City for the 'Gathering', a meeting of the last few remaining Immortals where the final battle for the Prize will take place. When MacLeod (under the alias Russell Nash) is questioned by the police over a series of murders by decapitation, he meets forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), who becomes a valuable ally in his battle against the Kurgan.
Prior to this review I hadn't seen Highlander in years. It was a firm favourite of mine as a child, but my rose-tinted glasses couldn't mask the uneven tone and hammy performances this time through. The film’s biggest problem is Christopher Lambert, who can't act. He lacks the ability to sound even remotely like he could come from the Highlands, a problem that is exacerbated when Sean Connery's Egyptian-Spaniard Ramírez arrives and speaks with a Scottish accent. That the film's most interesting character, the Kurgan, has precious little screen time in the almost-two hour film is also lamentable. I spent every moment that he wasn't on screen wishing that he'd come back so that something interesting could happen. I'll admit that Highlander explores a number of interesting concepts, but unfortunately the whole fails to be greater than the sum of its parts, something even the writer seems to acknowledge in the bonus material. I'm sure I'm going to come in for some stick from the fans, but I really don't think Highlander is a particularly good film.
Highlander arrives with a 1.85:1 (1080/24p VC-1) widescreen transfer. Serious fans will have to pardon my relative lack of familiarity with the film, but hopefully I can provide enough information to enable you to make an informed purchase. From what I can tell, Highlander was never the best looking film around. My old Warner DVD was pretty shocking, and this BD looks to have come from the same master. However, it has undergone some restorative work, specifically the removal of many of the film artefacts that littered the print. The result is a surprisingly clean presentation with minimal grain throughout the majority of the runtime, although a couple of scenes do go into grain overdrive (with the resulting shimmering looking most unsightly).
At first I thought that a lot of noise reduction had been applied to the image, as people often look like Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but after checking the DVD release I found that the phenomenon was present there as well. I’m not denying that some form of noise reduction has been utilised (in fact I’m fairly sure that it has), but I don’t think it’s entirely to blame for the slightly waxy appearance of faces. Paradoxically, detail levels elsewhere are actually quite good, and certainly light-years ahead of the DVD. Scenes that looked incredibly muddy on DVD look much, much sharper on this new BD release, although detail is inconsistent between scenes. Generally the darker scenes are of a lesser quality than the brightly lit ones, with more grain, more artefacts and less detail, but I guess that’s partly down to the film stock and shooting conditions.
The transfer’s strong point is its bold, natural colour rendition. I really was surprised at the level of improvement over the DVD release in this area. Black levels are about average for a film of this age, which is another way of saying that they are satisfactory if not excellent, and shadow detail is fair. I did notice some telecine wobble during the opening credits and the wires supporting Christopher Lambert in the final duel are more visible in high definition than ever before. Even so, I think this is a reasonable effort considering that Highlander has never looked particularly good on any format. If I didn’t have access to a DVD release of the film I think I would have been far more critical of the transfer, but while it definitely has its faults, it’s almost certainly the best looking version of the film that you will see.
There are two English audio options on the disc: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I chose to watch the film with the 5.1 soundtrack enabled, but I did perform a comparison between the Surround track (decoded to Dolby Pro Logic II) and the 5.1 track on a number of key scenes. The volume of the 5.1 track is considerably lower than the Surround track, but that’s to be expected given the wider dynamic range of the lossless track (although Master Audio, the 2.0 Surround track is actually fixed at 768Kbps).
The mix is a lively one, with plenty of surround utilisation from the outset., with plenty of surround utilisation from the outset. Most of this is limited to the film’s score or the Queen music, but every now and then the odd discrete effect will make its way into the rears (things such as rain, cars driving by, or the clattering of a pipe as it falls to the floor). These effects are few and far between though, and obviously the Surround track misses out in this respect. In fact, the rear channel discrete effects aren’t even reproduced monaurally, and are instead presented at the front of the soundstage. Like the video, I don’t think the original elements were in the best of shape to begin with, as fidelity is lacking even when compared to other films of this age. There are numerous jarring volume shifts, and the limited dynamic range makes everything sound a little bit flat.
As the film progresses the audio does improve, but even then there are times when the quality takes a nosedive. The dialogue remains largely coherent above the other effects, although it does sound quite hollow for the majority of the runtime. Unfortunately bass is fairly impotent for much of the film, and I’m struggling to think of any really good examples of LFE utilisation scarcely an hour after watching it. Obviously I wasn’t expecting Highlander to have the clarity of a modern soundtrack, but I still came away disappointed. I don’t think it’s a technical issue with the BD though, but rather a limitation of the source material, so those more familiar with the film will probably find more to get excited about than I did.
I’m not particularly familiar with other releases of the film, but this Blu-ray includes a comprehensive three-part documentary, an interview, a director’s commentary, deleted scenes and a trailer, which appears to be equal to anything we've previously seen on the UK releases at least.
A Legend is Born (29:11 SD): The first part of the Highlander documentary includes interviews with scriptwriter Gregory Widen and co-scriptwriter Peter Bellwood as they discuss the genesis of the film and its subsequent popularity. Widen talks about his disappointment with some of the changes made to his original vision, while Bellwood talks about director Mulcahy’s involvement and the critical response to the film.
The Visual Style (40:01 SD): The second part of the documentary focuses on the visual aspects of the film and includes interview footage with DP Gerry Fisher and set decorator Allan Cameron. They both discuss how they got involved with the project, their early meetings with Russell Mulcahy,some of the tricks used to get specific shots, some of the locations used and more.
A Strong Women (15:53 SD): The third part of the documentary is an interview with Roxanne Hart, in which she talks about her first impressions of the script, how she got the part, her character’s place in a male-dominated film, her past experiences in film, Mulcahy’s shooting style and more.
Christopher Lambert Interview (08:26 SD): A short interview with the star of the film, conducted in French with English subtitles. He talks about his character, how he first read the script, his meetings with the director, Mulcahy’s visual style and more.
Commentary by Director Russell Mulcahy: The director is on hand to provide his thoughts on the film in this average commentary track. Some of the information is quite interesting, but there are frequent gaps in the proceedings and his dry tone makes for a frustrating experience. I'm sure die-hard fans will get more enjoyment from it than me though.
Deleted Scenes (06:14 HD): The deleted scenes aren’t really deleted scenes, but more of an assembly of scene extensions and alternate takes discovered during the restoration process. There is no audio, so the scenes are set to music from the film, and they shift between colour and black and white throughout. I’m not really familiar enough with the film to say if there’s anything particularly juicy here, but they do add curiosity value if nothing else.
Trailer (02:31 HD): The film's theatrical trailer is presented in high-definition. It’s pleasantly eighties in its unsophisticated approach to selling the story, but that's about it.
Highlander on Blu-ray is a bit of a mixed bag. For me, the film has not aged well at all, to the point that it was actually pretty difficult to sit through the whole thing. The audio-visual elements are also a bit of a disappointment, although perhaps understandably so given the relatively poor quality of the original elements. The extras fair slightly better, with the informative ‘making of’ documentary the highlight of the disc. I’ve got a bit of a tricky one on my hands here. On one hand I find it hard to recommend a film that I didn’t particularly enjoy, on a disc with only average A/V. On the other, I realise that the film has a large and dedicated following that will most likely be very pleased with what’s on offer. If you're a die-hard Highlander fan I say go for it, but I can't really recommend this release to the casual viewer. If you fall into that category you should try it out with a rental before laying down the cash.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 6th July 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 German, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround Italian, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Portuguese (Brazilian), DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono Spanish
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazilian), Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Documentary, Audio Commentary, Interview, Deleted Scenes, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Cast: Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Clancy Brown, Roxanne Hart
Length: 116 minutes
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