REVIEW: Highlander: The American Dream

Published by: IDW Publishing
Writer: Brian Ruckley
Artist: Andrea Mutti

The release of IDW’s Highlander: The American Dream, a five-issue limited comic series that finished in mid-June, was a weird thing for me. Not in the existential way, just a total coincidence: I’d been planning a comic series for essentially my own version of Highlander at the same time, taking the ideas and themes of the original 1986 film, stripping away all the goofiness that comes from having both Sean Connery (playing an Egyptian, accent unchanged) and Christopher Lambert in the same movie, and expanding the overall story into a fantasy-adventure epic across numerous characters. It would have to lose that kick-ass Queen soundtrack, unfortunately.

Lucky for me, Brian Ruckley (writer) and Andrea Mutti’s (art) Highlander: The American Dream immediately fulfils almost all of what I felt was missing from the original but rather dumb film and concept. If it was to continue and create a comprehensive, historical background around its central premise, it’d be one of those very rare occasions that a dream comes true. A little dramatic but it’s rare to come across something so in-line with what you want from a product creatively.

IDW Publishing

For those that don’t know (and I don’t blame you), Highlander (1986) is a action-fantasy film about immortal warriors throughout history, fated to face off and kill each other (with swords) until ‘there is only one’. Each warrior originates from a different point in history across the world – the protagonist Connor MacLeod (Lambert) born in 16th century Scotland – until, in 1985 (for some reason), the remaining immortals converge on New York City to finish their unspoken tournament.

It’s a movie I watch and enjoy mostly for its out-and-out cheese. It’s fun to laugh at, it’s 80s era special effects can be fantastic, action is decent-to-good, almost everyone is chomping the scenery to bits, but overall, it’s just a bizarre movie that’s hard to get tired of. It was only after the fourth or fifth time watching it that I got a proper sense of the ideas at its core, none of which are really capitalized on.

Highlander (1986)

The original film includes or implies a handful of interesting ideas: immortals, assumedly chosen by God to defeat and kill each other over centuries, across a variety of cultures and people, who (assumed and not shown) would have their own interpretation of their own immortality and the ‘prize’ at the end. It’s a derivative premise with so much room for strong storytelling and characters, but the film doesn’t really take the initiative in this area (you get the sense they just wanted an excuse for some sweet swordfights). The sequels somehow involve aliens and Sean Connery’s dead character so I think it’s safe to assume they don’t either.

But Highlander: The American Dream does. Short and sweet across five issues, The American Dream recognises these themes of religion and the ennui of immortality (especially as warriors) and crafts a powerful if limited prologue to the original film.

IDW Publishing

The limited series adds two new immortal characters to the story of the film alongside two more time periods of Connor MacLeod’s life in America: 1863 during the Civil War and 1955 Manhattan. Its story revolves around the characters Osta Vazilek, a monk born around 1190 with a quiet wisdom and greater understanding of what the ‘prize’ implies for mankind; and John Hooke, a psychopath of a different vein to the film’s villain Kurgan, representing the twisted horror of a sadistic history that’s lasted through time.

Its story is simple and largely just recounts the meetings between Connor and Osta over the centuries as Hooke, more maniacal as ever before, lingers as a common enemy. With the true danger of Hooke winning the ‘prize’ clear to them, Osta and Connor must face off with Hooke as the centuries-old tournament surges towards its conclusion. You can probably guess how Osta and Cooke end up, but The American Dream is notable not in its story but in its characters and dialogue. How they speak with melancholy, how they consider their personal agency within a rather fixed, fatalist outlook. It even calls back to the wrestling match at the start of the film: representative of Connor’s relationship with violence or combat (or something to that effect; the film’s light on this inclusion), the comic sheds some light on this aspect as an unimportant but surprisingly effective bit of characterisation and theme that I’m glad was expanded on a little.

Ultimately the dialogue is the star here, outlining the gradually changing perspectives of these immortals throughout history. There’s a sense of weariness and age from their conversations, adding a cold and stark realism to the world of the film as you gain a better understanding of how these people think and view the world and themselves. I may be overselling it a bit but Ruckley’s writing adds remarkable dimension to an otherwise silly fantasy film, twisting its genre towards grounded historical fiction over the fantasy-action emphasis of the original.

IDW Publishing

Andrea Mutti’s helps ground the story in its historical side, grounding its characters and its action in a way that the live-action film ironically can’t. Reminiscent of older comic book art with its heavy inks and shadows and its clear, hand-drawn illustrations, The American Dream’s action is clear and concise, with fights that are closer to bloody brawls than master sword fighting. The immortals look natural with their swords, not like actors clumsily swinging their swords into each other. But even outside its action, usually dedicated to frank conversation, strong angles and silhouettes with conservative but consistent composition keep the overall story compelling and intriguing.

Highlander: The American Dream is far better than expected, adding thematic dimension and character to a film that never had much interest in either. While it’s disappointing it won’t be an ongoing original adaptation like BOOM! Studios’ Power Rangers or IDW’s own Transformers comics, Ruckley and Mutti’s five-issue limited series is a worthwhile read for fans of the otherwise forgotten franchise.

Buy the first issue here.

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