Highlander: The Director’s Cut 1986 ****

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There’s been a reboot of Russell Mulcahy’s film in the works for a decade now; how hard can it be to revamp such an appealing property as Highlander? Five sequels, a tv show and many a rain-soaked holiday in Scotland has been inspired by this wonderfully daft bit of world-building. Highlander is a great-looking, funny and often dazzling fusion of The Terminator with sword and sorcery; if it seemed indigestible to critics in 1986, perhaps the time has come to embrace the story of Connor Macleod. Certainly, letting the John Wick’s Chad Stahelski loose on the Lionsgate property seems like a good idea, since when it comes to great Highlander movies, it would be a real shame if there could be only one.

‘I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal…’ is the line that introduces our hero, played by Christopher Lambert after Mel Gibson turned the role down. Lambert was, and still is, something of a dude’s dude; his shock-haired turn as the evasive thief in Subway built his reputation is an unpredictable but charismatic leading man. Lambert’s French accent was widely mocked, but there’s always been a close historical connection between France and Scotland via the Auld Alliance, so that mis-step could be forgiven, even if Macleod’s inability to pronounce Glenmorangie seems like a genuine gaffe.

Macleod is an Immortal, doomed to walk the earth listening to a Queen soundtrack, brooding in an awesome New York apartment, watching wrestling matches and heeding the advice of his foppish mentor, Egyptian metallurgist Ramierz (Sean Connery). A reckoning, a quickening, a happening, whatever it is, something bad is coming and it’s likely to take the form of bad boy The Kurgan, played by the perennially awesome Clancy Brown.

This European cut has some key scenes in the Highlander universe; during WWII, he rescues a little girl from a Nazi and casually machine-guns him to death with the line ‘Whatever you say, Jack, you’re the master race.’ This is a striking, irreverent and surprisingly brutal throwaway scene that opens up a potentially interesting world. If the Highlander is immortal, then he’s an old soul with a uniquely educated and evolved historical perspective, and his instant recognition of the Nazi foe is delightfully fleet and sour at the same time. More such flashbacks would be welcome, although training and soul-searching are centre-stage, this being the 80’s and all.

As with the John Wick films, the first in the series offers an imaginative springboard that the later films can only limit in terms of choices. The second Highlander film killed the idea stone dead by positioning Macleod as an alien. But Gregory Widen’s script taps into specific Scottish folklore with regards to magic and immortality, and there’s every reason to think that a reboot could boil down the existential philosophy of the Highlander films to an organic, granular level. There’s a reason why Scotland punches above its weight in terms of talent, in terms of acting, writing and ideas, and that eternal struggle finds one of it’s most entertaining manifestations in this gloriously deadpan fantasy epic.

The Untouchables 1987 *****

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Sequel and prequels (Capone Rising) have come to nothing; Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster opus remains one of the best examples of reworking a hit tv show on an epic scale. There’s an operatic sweep to the story of Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), the FBI-enforcer who sets out to bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) with the help of an old Chicago cop (Sean Connery). Also a couple of the effects now show their age, and the film’s budgetary concerns are visible, The Untouchables has one great scene after another; the store bombing, the first border raid and it’s bloody aftermath, the baseball scene, the railway-station shoot out, the show-down with Frank Nitti (the late, great Billy Drago). Costner fits his white-collar character like a glove, and Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia make ideal support. David Mamet’s script also crackles with great dialogue, and De Palma’s sweeping camera and desire to entertain made The Untouchables an instant classic.

Murder on the Orient Express 1974 ***

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Albert Finney was an unlikely choice to play diminutive Belgian detective Hercule Poirot for Sidney Lumet’s 1974 all-star re-enactment of Agatha Christie’s famous who-dunnit, but he makes a decent fist of the role in the heavily-padded style of Brando in The Godfather. Paul Dehn’s screenplay features the murder of Richard Widmark’s Ratchett played out over and over again, allowing each of the stars to been seen holding the knife. Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Rachel Roberts and Jacqueline Bisset are amongst the suspects, and the resolution is strongly delivered through a lengthy exposition by Poirot. Lumet handles his cast well, and Richard Rodney Bennett contributes a notable score; while the mystery isn’t hard to solve, the trappings on this murder mystery make it worth returning to; even Agatha Christie was happy with the result.

The Man Who Would Be King 1975 ****

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John Huston belied his early promise to make some right rubbish before his 1970’s career rebirth; The Man Who Would Be King is one of his best, a rollicking adventure yard from the pen of Rudyard Kipling, a passion project for Huston who had tried to get it on screen for several decades. In 1975, he got a dream cast, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, plus Christopher Plummer as Kipling himself. The tall tale pitches the two soldiers who become gods amongst the natives during British rule in India. The Man Who Would be King questions notions of white superiority, but also finds time for plenty of star-powered entertainment; in a pre-Indiana Jones world Huston’s film is about as big and brassy as period adventure gets.

Outland 1981 ***

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Derided somewhat on release as a blatant reworking of classic Western High Noon, Peter Hyams’ 1981 film is set in the same kind of dirty, industrial space as Alien, and features Sean Connery as police marshal O’Niel who has to keep the peace on the remote mining colony of Io. O’Niel discovers that the company are using drugs to heighten productiveness, but also damaging the workforce; the company boss Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) arranges for O’Niel to be bumped off, and the countdown begins to a stand-off between the forces of good and corporate evil. Outland looks good, as most of Hyams’ films do, and has a happy centre in Connery; it may lack originality, but Outland is a fondly remembered excursion into the dirty deals of humankind in outer-space.

Meteor 1979 ***

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‘You can’t cover this up under a blanket of shit!’ an enraged Sean Connery tells an agog United Nations at one point in Ronald Neame’s comic masterpiece of a disaster movie from 1979.  Connery plays a scientist who discovers a meteor the size of a city is heading for earth, and manages to warm up US/USSR relations to organise a missile strike to blow the rock to smithereens. Natalie Wood, Karl Malden and Henry Fonda stare at screens while variable effects depict the arrival of various fragments on earth. The main effect involves the entire cast being smothered in what appears to be liquid excrement, presumably the blanket that Connery is referring to. A relic of Cold War politics, Meteor was responsible for the ruining of AIP studios, but it’s a fun time-passer for disaster movie addicts.

A Bridge Too Far 1977 ****

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Adapted from the book by Corneilus Ryan, who also wrote The Longest Day, Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film is a true war epic, with William Goldman scripting an intricate, multiple character drama about the ill-fated Operation Market Garden as Allied troops attempted to push into Germany. A military disaster might sound like hard going for 175 minutes, but Attenborough and Goldman pull together a number of strong storylines, notably James Caan as a soldier who will not allow his friend to die, and Robert Redford as an equally determined Major.  Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, Gene Hackman and Laurence Olivier all contribute memorable bits, and A Bridge Too Far is one of the few war epics that stands up today, mainly because Attenborough sees far more going on here than just troop movements.

The Name of the Rose 1986 ****

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Umberto Eco’s novel about a group of medieval monks who find themselves picket off my a murderer in a remote abbey was by no-means an obvious conversion job for cinema; Jean Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version has to jettison some of the religious and philosophical ruminations while keeping to the bones of the plot. Sean Connery’s William of Baskerville and Christian Slater’s novice Adso arrive at the Eberbach abbey to initial suspicion, but prove to have the chops for an investigation that leads to the discovery of a book with the power to kill. Rival monks include Ron Perlman and Michael Lonsdale, and their lively performances keep this metaphysical who-dunnit going until the fiery climax. A flop in the US, The Name of The Rose found a big audience in Europe, and the labyrinthine plotting stands up well today.

Wrong Is Right 1982 ***

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Also known as The Man With The Deadly Lens, writer/director Richard Brooks adapts a novel by Charles McCarry called The Better Angels. Sean Connery stars as TV newsman Patrick Hale, who discovers that two stolen nuclear bombs in suitcase are the catalyst for an exploration of late 70’s geopolitics that eerily predates the Iraq war; even the World Trade Centre finds itself under threat. The intention of Brooks’ film is satirical, but amidst the escalating absurdity, Wrong Is Right does a good job in nailing sociological tends in both media and politics, presumably the reason this film is so rarely seen.

The Offence 1972 ****

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As part of his deal to star in Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery managed to get Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of John Hopkins play off the ground, and it showcases arguably a career best performance from the Fountainbridge milkman turned actor. As driven policeman Jonson, Connery gives a powerhouse portrait of obsession as he questions suspected child-molester (Ian Bannen) under the watch of Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard). The offence has an intense conceit, and plays cleverly with notions of guilt, and the coverage of the pedophilia plot is sensible and responsible. Bannen and Connery’s game of cat-and-mouse is beautifully played, and while undeniably talky, The Offence is a treat for lovers of thoughtful, meaty cinema.