Conan the Barbarian
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer
Jason Momoa as Conan
Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym
Rachel Nichols as Tamara
Ron Perlman as Corin
Rose McGowan as Marique
How long is Fright Night? 112 minutes.
What is Fright Night rated? “R” for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity.
Conan O’Barian Can’t Stop
NOTE: I have never read the source material and cannot remember a thing about the original film except Arnold decapitating James Earl Jones.
Marcus Nispel’s Conan The Barbarian knows what it is, and, as a movie, it will probably provide target audiences with exactly what they want: blood and boobs. Not everything set in this “era” can be (or should be) Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.
Conan the Barbarian begins with a prologue explaining about some magical mask that had to be destroyed because it contained too much power so kings broke it apart and buried it across the world. The universe-describing prologue has obtained some popularity in the past couple of years (e.g. Thor, Green Lantern), and this is probably the worst of the bunch, never really giving us a sense of the world we’re inhabiting, even with Morgan Freeman’s voice explaining it all. (Don’t worry, anything you miss/don’t understand can easily be picked up from dialogue and standard knowledge of this genre.)
We are then transported to a battle sequence between the Cimmerians (Conan’s clan) and some other group. Conan’s pregnant warrior-mother is stabbed in the stomach, and his warrior-father Corin (Ron Perlman) has to perform an emergency battlefield C-section.
As a teenager, Conan (Leo Howard as the younger Barbarian) proves himself quickly as a great warrior by bringing back the heads of his enemies after what was supposed to be a simple chase. Conan and Corin bond by training, but Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, finding a niche after Avatar) wreaks havoc on their village, massacring everyone (except Conan) because Corin was hiding the last piece of the mask. However, for the mask to work, he needs a to sacrifice a pure blood, which comes from a dynasty of something. It’s not important.
Cut to several years later, and Conan has grown into a man played by Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones‘ Khal Drogo). A bit of a cad, Conan is brutish but not an utter brute. He relishes the battle and takes real joy in killing and torturing his enemies and freeing slaves and allowing them to tear their captors limb from limb. Nevertheless, Momoa portrays him with an acceptable level of charm, and I personally found it preferable that he started semi-decent rather than forcing him into a hackneyed “be a good person, killing is wrong” plot. He also has a crew and a boat, but they’re mostly irrelevant. And, of course, he seeks vengeance on the man who killed his father.
Meanwhile, Zym has finally learned the location of his pure blood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) who lives life as a monk in a peaceful village. Zym, his army, and his devoted sorceress-daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, who plays off the ridiculousness of the world the best out of all the actors, or maybe I was just fooled by the hair/forehead/finger blades) travel to Tamara’s temple to kidnap her. As soon as the head priest realizes Tamara’s in danger, he sends her away. Conan finds her during her escape and they team up, learning more about Zym’s plot, which includes bringing his dead wife back to life so that he may use her magic powers to help control the land, during their travels. The rest of the movie proceeds pretty much as expected.
Director Marcus Nispel (the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, the Friday the 13th remake, the Conan the Barbarian remake) keeps a decent enough pace knowing that people want to see sword fights rather than clumsy exposition and destruction rather than character moments. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratio of screen time between battle and non-battle weighs heavier on the fight side, and Nispel accomplishes this without spending too much time or going too epic on any given sequence. To earn its R rating, Conan accompanies practically every hit or slash with flying blood or some body part being smashed or cut off. The effects are decent (though I saw the film in 2-D), and the majority of the bad guys are humans in make-up rather than CGI creations, which helps a great deal.
Unfortunately, Conan the Barbarian doesn’t offer anything particularly memorable either. The fight scenes are unspectacular (except for a giant wheel battle between Conan and Zym). The villains…are villains, not particularly clever or creative with a scheme simultaneously larger-than-life and ill-thought out. The geography/the time it takes to cross over long distances seemingly doesn’t matter to the filmmakers. And the dialogue only serves its practical purpose.
The best movie to compare Conan to is probably last year’s Clash of The Titans. They both feature a hero who seeks to avenge their father’s death (though Momoa is better and more charismatic than Sam Worthington (or at least Sam Worthington’s Perseus)) in ancient times. They each have friends who barely get any screen time but spend a lot of time on a boat. There’s a woman who must be sacrificed. People reference prophecies and gods (though, in Conan, no gods ever present themselves nor are they even mentioned by name, to the best of my recollection). The good guys regularly fight against nameless ne’er-do-wells with swords. And people ride horses.
But what makes Conan the better movie is that it doesn’t pretend to be deeper than it actually is. Clash of the Titans badly attempted to connect to Greek myths while doing a horrible disservice to the richness and complexity of that universe (in a battle between Hades and Zeus, it’s ridiculous that Poseidon isn’t even mentioned). Clash felt obligated to refer to the battle between destiny and free will, but it treated those subjects with a rote hollowness. When Conan is presented with the question of fate, he responds “I live. I love. I slay. And I am content.” When you cannot take on weighty issues, there’s some value in admitting it.