A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2011

CONAN THE BARBARIAN j
j
½ 

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

SCREENED IN
3D

The opening sequence of the new CONAN THE BARBARIAN reboot is one of the most inadvertently hilarious ones that I’ve ever seen. 

It 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.

Realizing 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.

Conan, 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.  Conan 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 redundant. 

The 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). 

Zym 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.

The 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.

Clearly, 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.

Yet, 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. 

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