A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2011
CONAN THE BARBARIAN
2011, R, 112 mins.
2011, R, 112 mins.
Jason Momoa: Conan / Rachel Nichols: Tamara / Stephen Lang: Khalar Zym / Rose McGowan: Marique / Said Taghmaoui: Ela-Shan / Leo Howard: Young Conan / Ron Perlman: Corin
Directed by Marcus Nispel / Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, based on Robert E. Howard's character
opening sequence of the new CONAN THE BARBARIAN reboot is one of the most
inadvertently hilarious ones that I’ve ever seen.
involves a large-scale war between battle-hardened armies in the ancient
land of Cimmeria. There we
meet Conan’s mother, mortally injured, pregnant with him
and apparently going into labor, which is highly inconvenient
seeing as she is smack dab in the middle of the battle and could be sliced
and diced at any minute. Conan’s father-to-be and Cimmerian leader, Corin (Ron
Pearlman) swoops in and hacks and stabs his way though countless
adversaries to get to his beloved.
that she is about to die at any second, husband and wife decided that their
only choice is…to perform an emergency Caesarian section with Corin’s
own sword in order to get the future Barbarian out of the womb and alive
and well. Corin dives his
sword into his wife’s belly (without so much as aiming) and carves the
sweet little screaming infant out.
Before she croaks, she names him “Conan” and Corin, like any
proud papa, hoists the baby, umbilical cord and birth matter and all, into
the heavens and screams. You
know the cliché “born on the battlefield”?
Well, Conan takes that adage beyond literally.
of course, is the iconic 80-year-old pulp creation of Robert E. Howard,
and his character has appeared in magazines, novels, comic books, and, yes, the classic
John Milius 1982 film, starring a then virginal action star and future
Governator-to-be, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
has always occupied, in one form or another through the decades,
a fantasy-action genre that I cheerfully would describe as brutes, babes,
and bloodletting. The 1982
film adaptation of Howard’s legendary creation and, to perhaps a similar
extent, this new reboot of the franchise are precisely…what they are:
mindlessly and relentlessly violent fantasy adventures that showcase the
title character at his most agreeably savage.
This new CONAN supplies, I guess, precisely what aficionados of the
Howard’s legacy have come to expect, and by that I mean its Cimmerian
hero slashing, flaying, stabbing, beheading, punching, kicking, and
grunting his way through endless hordes of his enemies.
On those crude levels, CONAN THE BARBARIAN is an effectively
workmanlike splattergorium of wanton, perverted excess and is a success.
Yet, it’s also because of that as well that this remake
simultaneously feels numbing, superficial, vacant, and monosyllabically
new retooled story follows the original '82 incarnation fairly well in
terms of large narrative arcs, but it nonetheless feels like a
dime-a-dozen revenge picture with undisciplined focus and half-baked
ideas. As I have already
relayed, the film is an origin story beginning with the adventurer’s
birth and then flash-forwards several years to a winter-ravished Cimmerian
village where Conan (Leo Howard) learns the ways of battle from his father
(one of the amusing pleasures of Pearlman here is not only his
caveman-like bravado, but also in the audience trying to decipher where
his beard and hair ends and his outfit begins).
After showcasing his worth in an extreme test of strength, resolve,
and skill alongside his fellow warrior-wannabes (in a particularly gory,
but effectively staged, scene), young Conan returns to see that his father
and people have been overtaken by an evil and despotic warlord named
Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, whom after AVATAR
and now this clearly reveals that his contract specifically indicates that
he must play heavily scarred villains in all his movies).
and his army are looking for pieces of an artifact that will
make him all powerful and, once they find one of the pieces in the
village, they wipe out everyone, Corin included, with the exception of the
spared Conan. 15
years go by and Conan (GAME OF THRONE’s Jason Momoa) is now a
fully-fledged killing machine that will stop at nothing to seek vengeance
on Zym. The villain, at
the same time, is looking for, you guessed it, a pure blooded female monk
that he needs to sacrifice in order to use the artifact to fulfill his
ultimate end game. The monk in question (the fetching Rachel Nichols, in a
nothing female damsel/warrior princess role) does hook up with Conan
– in more ways than one – and the two realize that they will have to
begrudgingly work together to rid Cimmeria of Zym for good.
Hawaiian-born, Iowan-raised (that’s one hell of a combination!) Momoa has
the incalculably thankless and difficult task of re-claiming a character that
Schwarzenegger before him championed as one of the defining action
movie heroes of the 1980’s. Nothing
will perhaps erase the memory of Auh-nald in Milius’ fiercely
militaristic version of the character, but I will say this for Momoa: he
looks even closer to many of Frank Frazetta’s mythic paintings of Conan
than even Schwarzenegger and, in terms of persuasively emoting, Momoa is a
better actor than his early 80’s antecedent.
Momoa does not, however, in any way erase the memory of
Schwarzenegger, but he at least more-than-credibly fills the shoes of a
teeth-grating, nostrils-flaring, and all-out ass-kicking barbarian.
More crucially, Momoa seems to relish every grotesquely violent
exchange his character has with his many opponents, which makes the
overall film a bit more digestible.
the film’s over-the-top and oftentimes cartoonish sadism is its chief
selling points, and CONAN certainly does not fail at delivering.
The film does have some well orchestrated chase sequences, fist
fights, and sword battles between unimaginably macho behemoths, the latter
typified by many wince-worthy disembowelments, carved, slashed, smashed,
and gouged limbs and craniums...and so forth, all showed in great,
geyser-spraying pornographic detail (and in a surprisingly well rendered,
if not completely unnecessary, 3D, upconverted after the fact).
One particularly sickening moment involves our “hero” sticking
his finger into the nose hole of one of his sworn enemies (who did have
his nose hacked off by Conan earlier). The director, Marcus Nispel (who made one of the worst films
of 2007 in PATHFINDER) seems to be
honing his trashy cinematic craft a bit better, but he still frames and edits
the action a bit too spastically, especially for the usual headache inducing
effect of upconverted 3D.
even on its promises of voyeuristic overindulgence on nauseating carnage, I definitely missed the overreaching operatic nature of Milius’
original CONAN epic in this new translation.
Milius’ movie evoked a soulful masculine melancholy in its
otherwise brutish and savage hero, and you gained a sense that the
blueprint was being laid for a real, larger-than-life mythmaking figure.
That’s what CONAN THE BARBARIAN-redux sorely lacks.
Even though the new Conan is better spoken and has arguably
hundreds of more lines of dialogue than his ’82 precursor, he seems
oddly more grotesquely rancorous, viscously hot blooded, and perversely
animalistic than ever. Oh, we do get a brief voiceover track
provided by Morgan Freeman, which feels a bit desperately tacked on to instill
a sense of grandeur to the proceedings that genuinely lack gravitas.
Yeah…yeah…I know…this is an action-fantasy with the word “barbarian” in the title, and as a blood-and-brain-spattered testament to Howard’s original barbaric iconography, this new CONAN kind of works. I guess that I just found it too noisy, messy, bombastic, and soul-crushingly deadening on the senses to care after awhile.