Recent reports have confirmed that Lionsgate is preparing to get the Highlander reboot starring Henry Cavill out of development hell and up for sale to international distributors at this year’s American Film Market. With that positive news, let’s look at what the franchise reboot needs in order to be a big success.
Highlander is one of the best-loved fantasy films from the ’80s. The original film was released in 1986 and was directed by Russell Mulcahy and based on an original story by scriptwriter Gregory Widen. It starred Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, a 16th-century swordsman born in the Scottish Highlands. MacLeod is mortally wounded in battle by his arch-enemy, the Kurgan (Clancy Brown). MacLeod is revived and meets fellow swordsman Juan Sanches Villalobos Ramirez (Sean Connery).
Ramirez explains that MacLeod was resurrected because he is immortal and must fight in a battle with other immortals until there can be only one. Ramirez reveals that beheading is the only way an immortal can be killed. The death of an immortal releases a surge of power called the Quickening, which is absorbed by the victor, increasing their overall power and abilities.
There Can Be Only One
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Highlander 80s Movie
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While the original film is considered a cult favourite today, its release was met with mixed to poor reviews and a low box office. Appreciation for the films developed over time. While some critics found the acting hammy and over the top, Lambert, Connery and Brown still gave charismatic performances. The film’s noir-style locations in New York and stunning vistas of the Scottish Highlands gave it a visual depth and intrigue.
The historical backdrops, coupled with the epic swordfights, appealed to audiences. The original score by Michael Kamen was outstanding, balancing all the film’s themes: love, tragedy and power. Queen was also featured in the film’s soundtrack, releasing classic songs like Princes of the Universe and Who Wants to Live Forever. The theme of mortality vs immortality was summed up in the tagline, ‘there can only be one’, and was vital to the film’s story and its enduring appeal.
The lore of Highlander is another compelling aspect of the franchise. It was able to spawn several sequel films and a television series. The nature of the immortals, especially the concept of the Quickening, is a compelling mythology that has kept fans captivated. The unique story has kept fans captivated. Writing in The Hot Corn, Adam Lowes says that:
“Highlander is a completely original product, and that’s precisely why the film has enjoyed longevity.”
Germain Lussier, writing in Gizmodo, pondered the reason for the film’s lasting appeal and attributed it to ‘World-building.’ He explores the underpinning of Highlander’s legacy and writes:
“The film weaves a story and mythology that’s bigger than the screen can hold. We discover a world in which an ongoing battle has been taking place between immortal warriors through centuries. They have the knowledge that one day, they’ll join an event called the Gathering, where any remaining immortals will battle to the death until only one remains, and that person will be gifted a mysterious power.
In the Highlander film, though, only a tiny sliver of that story is seen. And even in that sliver, it still leaves a ton to the imagination.”
The subsequent sequels and spin-offs reveal the limitless potential of the Highlander lore and mythology. Despite needing to fully utilise and do a better job of using the deep backstory of Highlander, the other films and television series in the franchise show this potential to create massive world-building.
The first Highlander set the template for what other films and spin-offs should be. Unfortunately, much of the story and lore was twisted and changed with each subsequent release. The second film in the franchise, Highlander II: The Quickening, was the first to mess with the lore. It recasts the earthly origins of the immortals and baptises them, aliens, from the planet Zeist. A poor script focusing too much on ecology and corporate greed was another death blow to the film’s success at the box office.
Slade Hale from Bounding Into Comics writes what Highlander II got wrong:
“No longer were the immortals random humans gifted/cursed with their inability to die and chop off heads. Instead, it was revealed that they were actually aliens from a planet called Zeist who were exiled to Earth to participate in the game. This single act destroyed all mystery and fascination audiences held for the immortals and damned the film to the manure pit.”
The film’s director’s cut removed the alien origins of the immortals and redeemed the mythology of the franchise. Subsequent tinkering to the lore was rampant in follow-up sequels. It would spell disaster for Highlander’s appeal amongst general audiences who loved the mystery and coherent world-building of the original.
The Highlander television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was a modest success and was more faithful to the lore. The film Highlander IV: Endgame was influenced by the television series. It starred Christopher Lambert together with Adrian Paul. The film was the best sequel in the franchise and attempted to combine elements from the first Highlander and the television series.
The Highlander franchise has had various attempts at a reboot since 2008, with Fast and Furious director Justin Lin in talks to direct; Ryan Renolds was attached to star in it. The project was tanked along the way. Other actors and directors like Tom Cruise and Dave Bautista were also linked to other Highlander projects.
Finally, in 2016, Lionsgate announced that John Wick director Chad Stahelski would be in charge of the film. Henry Cavill was rumoured to be attached to the Highlander reboot, and recently, Deadline confirmed that the Man of Steel and Witcher star was cast as the lead, Connor MacLeod. The new film will reportedly be based on the original while incorporating elements from the television series.
The casting of Henry Cavill bodes well for the Highlander reboot. Cavill seems perfect for the role. His extensive swordwork in The Witcher, Count of Monte Cristo and The Tudors seems like training for his role as Connor MacLeod.
A reboot has to have epic sword duels that rival or are even better than the fighting in the original film. Highlander also had terrific locations and stunning cinematography. The reboot has to update the visual elements of the first film by focusing on epic natural backdrops in a similar fashion as the first film and its immersive views of the Scottish Highlands. The reboot also has to include stunning urban locations.
The John Wick films have great cinematography and impeccable locations. Hopefully, Stahelski can mimic John Wick’s rich visual palette while incorporating the epic vistas and urban noir elements of the first film into his reboot.
Chatting to Collider in 2017, Chad Stahelski, a fan of the original film, offered his thoughts on a Highlander reboot.
“If you go back and watch the original Highlander, whether the quality holds up or not or the filmmaking process holds up, there are things about that movie beneath just the shots and the lighting, there’s a mythology there, for some reason, it hooks us. We love that world. Everybody loves the immortal realm.
Everybody loves the code, ‘there can be only one’. There’s something about it that hooks you, hooks me, hooks all the fanboys about it. I went so far as I know every episode of all six seasons, plus the seventh season if you count Raven as a series, plus the novels, there’s something about the world that’s hooking.”
Stahelski clearly understands the mythology and lore of Highlander is what captivates audiences. Any Highlander reboot has to grapple with and engage faithfully with the lore. Further in the interview, the director mentions that they are not focused on the financial aspects of the film. They are working hard on a script that can expand the world of Highlander. A great story is paramount for the reboot; Chad seems to agree, stating,
” it’s not about marketing, it’s not so much about the financials, it’s about how can we make a more mythological, chapter one, chapter two, whats a great way to tell this story?”
As iconic as the immortals and their mythology are and as famous as the film’s tag, ‘there can be only one,’ is, so is the music from the original film equally famous. It’s another iconic element of the franchise. Queen’s soundtrack for the film and Michael Kamen’s score were vital to the original film’s appeal. Hopefully, Stahelski’s reboot can incorporate elements of the original score and soundtrack. Thankfully, the director seems to agree. In the Collider interview, he says,
“I can’t see Highlander without Queen, without the Queen center, without having Freddy Mercury, Prince of the Universe, and all this stuff. I can’t picture the movie in my head without it.”
Stahelski said Guardians of the Galaxy and John Wick composer Tyler Bates is working on the Highlander reboot. Stahelski said, “I’ve already talked extensively with him about how can we take the magic of what Freddie Mercury and Queen gave us and how can we transpose that to modern day and give us that edge.”
It’s a tall feat imitating and honouring Queen and Michael Kamen. Hopefully, Bates is up to the challenge and can write a memorable score that honours the original and be able to incorporate themes and songs from Queen in the soundtrack for the reboot.
Stahelski seems like a genuine fan of the franchise. More importantly, he seems grounded in understanding what made the original film work well. With him behind the director’s chair and Henry Cavill in the lead, all that’s needed is an excellent script by John Wick 4 writer Michael Finch.
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