It's inevitable that 2011's Conan the Barbarian will be compared to the John Milius / Arnold Schwarzenegger film from 1982. In that comparison it will pale, but the film isn't quite the complete and total disaster that it's often made out to be.
This update, directed by Marcus "Allergic to Original Thought" Nispel and starring Jason "Sun and Stars" Momoa starts off with with Conan's in medias res battlefield birth via a particularly nasty impromptu c-section and an animatronic baby. Even though it often feels as if we're watching a script-by-committee unspool, screenwriting cabal Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood dedicate a surprising amount of time to the relationship between young Conan (Leo Howard) and his transient-looking father Corin, played by utilitarian medieval movie guy Ron Perlman.
L'il Conan is depicted as particularly savage, even for a barbarian. After single-handedly dispatching a band of Picts and going berserk against his dad during a sparring match, Corin is forced to declare that his son is too wild and undisciplined to wield a sword. As Conan seethes in anger, his village is suddenly set upon by the army of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a fanatical warlord who is looking to recover a vital artifact. After callously slaughtering everyone in the village, including Conan's pop, Zym makes off with the final fragment of the all-powerful Mask of Archeron.
As the only survivor of the massacre, Conan swears obligatory revenge. All of a sudden, the story jumps ten years or so into the future and we see that the adult barbarian has fallen in with a socially-conscious band of brigands led by the Kushite Ukafa (Bob Sapp). During a spot of victorious carousing, Conan spies one of Zym's goons and permits himself be captured in a bid to get within striking distance of his hated rival.
Meanwhile, Zym seeks to complete a ritual which will galvanize the power of the Mask. Thanks to an unconventional method of testing devised by his creepy, magic-wielding daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), our antagonist discovers an answer in the blood of a warrior-priestess named Tamara (Rachel Nichols). After Conan crosses paths with the wayward monk, he refashions himself as her guardian, guaranteeing a confrontation with his father's killer.
By far the film's biggest failing is its overly-simplistic script. Conan really doesn't experience any growth or evolution to speak of. Promising early references between Conan and his dad to discipline and focus are summarily dispensed with. In fact, Conan continues to charge headlong into battle like a sword-wielding bull moose with a perm. It's a shame since it might have given the character an iota of depth.
Whereas the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian brazenly dared to feature a story composed of actual interconnected events, this one is a helluva lot more choppy. Most of the film's plot beats feel completely arbitrary and exist only to justify what's to follow. Conan needs to be an adult now, so here his is, all growed up. Okay, now he needs to celebrate a victory, so here's an unconnected battle sequence. Dude's also got to have mobility, so let's make him a pirate and put him on a ship. The script lacks so much connective tissue that it makes the average anime feel like The Usual Suspects.
The film's visual style is also a mixed bag. It's best when the characters are immersed in a fully-dressed tavern set or outdoors in some exotic-looking wilderness environment. Unfortunately there are way too many scenes of the actors Photoshopped in front of clearly-fraudulent digital backdrops. Sometimes it felt as if I was watching Kull the Conqueror meets The Phantom Menace.
Although the over-zealous application of color timing is likely the main culprit, cinematographer Thomas Kloss has delivered a film that's either weirdly overexposed or blandly monochromatic. Man, I'm getting really sick of movies that look like the cinematic equivalent of a KFC meal. Just compare the weird lighting effects in the scene where Conan interrogates Remo (Milton Welsh) to the "what the fuck is going on?" levels of murk that plague the infiltration of Zym's keep.
The assembled performers also yield mixed results. After watching Jason Momoa in Game of Thrones, I was totally convinced that he had the presence, authority and bombast to play Conan. Unfortunately, many of his line deliveries sound way too contemporary. Now, I'm not saying that he needed to ape a certain incomprehensible Austrian but something had to happen vocally in order to prevent the whole thing from sounding like an episode of Young Hercules. Even a variation on Drogo's accent would have been preferable.
Rachel Nichols is plucky, appealing and perfectly capable as Tamara but I think she's a bit too girl-next-door for a Hyborian lass. I really wish that they'd gone with someone more exotic and "Frazettan" like a Mila Kunis or an Olivia Wilde. Don't get me wrong, Rachel's performance isn't bad, I just think that she's miscast. Even though Tamara is supposed to be a cloistered monk-type, a more sultry and smoldering actress could have brought an interesting hint of sexual repression to the part and a possible character arc. But, of course, this presumes that the producers and writers even know what a "character arc" is.
A movie like this gets a lot of milage out of its villain and Stephen Lang is actually well-cast as Khalar Zym. I have to credit the writers for giving him a motivation that's actually more noble then the hero's. In fact, Zym's main goal is to resurrect his wife who was immolated by a bunch of religious yahoos for practicing magic. As a nuts-and-bolts actor, Lang is actually quite good, spitting out every line as if it's been marinated in venom.
Clad in a bizarre costume and buried under a pound of pancake makeup, Rose McGowan is almost criminally unrecognizable as Marique. Now, I'm not gonna sit here and claim that Rose is the same caliber of actress as say, Anne Hathaway, but I still love watching her nonetheless. Actually, she does manage to give Marique a few interesting quirks, even going so far as to gamely pursue an icky implied Electra complex with her father.
There are a few more baffling choices that make this version vastly inferior to the original. First off, the moron who decided to have Morgan Freeman do the narration should be dressed up in a loincloth made of bacon and then thrown into a pit of rabid wolves. This is Conan, not March of the Penguins, for fuck's sake! As soon as I heard his incongruously warm intonations I just sat there for a bit, amazed that no-one on the production pointed out how dumb this move was.
Also, if I were Tyler Bates and tasked to follow-up Basil Poledouris's iconic score from the 1982 film I'd probably spend a few hours every morning playing with a loaded revolver. Indeed, the soundtrack proffered up here is imminently forgettable. I don't recall one instance in which the music was rousing, evocative or contributed significantly to the film's dramatic impact.
The movie also stumbles a bit in terms of what you might expect from a Conan film. Despite endless fountains of cartoonishly-exaggerated and fake-looking CGI blood, the film is surprisingly un-gory. And although director Marcus Nispel provides some bountiful boobage (if you're *ahem* into that sort of thing), the Cimmerian is actually rather chaste, only indulging in one carnal encounter. Honestly, for a thief, reaver and slayer, Conan's kind of a Republican.
But for all the pointed criticism, you certainly can't accuse the film of being boring. In fact, the movie zips along at an almost breakneck pace. A carriage pursuit sequence, a below-deck brawl and a chaotic battle with an unseen tentacled horror are all fairly well-mounted. Unfortunately, an ill-conceived desire to give popcorn-munchers something "original" also results in a gimmicky, video-game-like clash between Zym and Conan while hanging from a sacrificial pinwheel. Their earlier encounter, featuring a platoon of Flint Marko's conjured up by Marique, is considerably better.
Honestly, the film isn't as terrible as its detractors have made it out to be. Having said that, I'm really glad that I didn't lay down full admission price to see it. It's worth catching on Netflix if you've got a few hours to kill.
Some sage advice: if you strike all thoughts of the superior original from your troubled brow then you should find this version amusing at least.