Borne on the crest of the wind, I hear already the lamentation of women. Women whose dates have dragged them, possibly by the hair, to the late summer picture show. By now many of you know that Lionsgate will soon release a new film entitled Conan The Barbarian. Most of you will also recall a cult classic by the same name from 1982, which marked the breakout performance by a certain Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Predictably, the parties involved claim that this new Conan is not a remake of the Schwarzenegger favorite, but a square-one adaptation of the original stories by author Robert E. Howard. They always say that, but in this case it might not be so hot an idea. Howard’s stories are respectable enough, brimming with imaginative prose and lavish detail that gave rise to the whole sword and sorcery genre. Howard, by the way, was a correspondent of an even more influential writer by the name of H. P. Lovecraft. Sad and weird as both men were, their peculiar talents have granted each a legacy lasting well into the century beyond.
At the same time, to have horseback barbarian kings quote the mannered speeches of Howard’s characters may not work so well on screen as it does in books. The 1982 film, as well as its 1984 sequel Conan The Destroyer and its spiritual cousin Red Sonja had competent action directors (John Milius and Richard Flesicher) who knew how to distill the spirit of the tales without relying too much on dangerously corny dialogue. They also knew how to cast entertaining players, including the two greatest performers ever to bear the name of Jones – Grace, and of course James Earl. In addition, all three of these films had outstanding scores. The Conan movies boasted music by Basil Poledouris – that’s right, the guy who scored Robocop – and Red Sonja felt the touch of spaghetti western guru Ennio Morricone.
Sure, modern day actors playing barbarians and amazons is silly (less silly if you happen to be Grace Jones), but there is enough action and imagination all through these movies to keep viewers from minding too much. They may lack the clean-cut wit of Indiana Jones, but the Conan films are adventure stories of far more substance you might guess from the notoriety of Schwarzenegger’s acting. Say what you will, he is fun to watch and you know it.
Who better to inherit the crown of Conan than some guy named Jason Momoa, whose one notable credit appears to be Stargate: Atlantis? Oh, I’m sorry, he is warming up for period fantasy in Game Of Thrones as we speak. And who better to join in the sword-swinging fun than Marcus Nispel, a director who after nearly a decade in the biz is still learning that movies are supposed to be fun?
Apparently, Robert Rodriguez came darned close to realizing the new Conan project a while ago, but dropped it in order to make Planet Terror for his Grindhouse project with Quentin Tarantino. I am not convinced the world is ready for the Rodriguez perspective on sword and sorcery, but compared to most alternatives I would gladly give him a vote of confidence. Even Brett Ratner, another reputed contender for the directing chair, would have been fine, but anyone paying attention ought to have grave doubts about Marcus Nispel.
Cynics (unlike myself, of course) might point out that given the probable content of the script, Nispel is an ideal choice. When a film tumbles this far down the director totem pole, the script is more than likely the kind of thing that ought not to be filmed. Marcus Nispel excels at making those kinds of movies. His feature debut, a vile stinking sack of outrage entitled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, did to the legacy of one of history’s greatest horror films what Leatherface does to nubile interlopers. The director later gave us another high-profile reboot and megaflop, Friday The 13th, which is marginally more forgivable because, let’s face it, the prestige of that franchise did not have nearly as far to fall.
More to the point, Nispel’s other theatrical release is a largely unseen (and rightly so) action adventure called Pathfinder. Remember the movie about the Viking child left behind in the New World after his people soundly berserked the Wampanoag? Then he grows up to fight on the side of his adoptive tribe when the Norse longboats return, culminating in an orgy of excessive violence and preachy moral themes? You don’t? How curious. That may have something to do with why the film only grossed $30 million of its $45 million budget. Fear not. The only reason more people should have seen Pathfinder was that it foretold Avatar in the plainest terms. But as history teaches, nobody listens to prophecies until it is too late.
A return to the florid prose and sweeping adventure of Robert Howard’s Conan tales sounds like a really fun idea, but Nispel’s track record indicates that he probably charged into this project like a two-bit Zack Snyder, which seems to be his one aspiration, and the result will be a nasty, splattery, yet surprisingly dull mess.
And yet… is each new project not a chance for a director to surprise and amaze us all with an unexpected triumph? After savaging Nispel for his previous atrocities, I say here and now that I will write a formal retraction with apology if Conan The Barbarian 3D is as much fun as it ought rightfully to be. Let it not be said that I want directors to fail. I just want them to quit when they fail too much. Let the distinction of total failure pass over the head of Mr. Marcus Nispel, with my fondest wishes for a 3D summer hit.
Wishes and hopes.