Conan the Barbarian

The 1982 attempt at bringing Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero Conan to the screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and John Milius directing has become something of a touchstone among fanboys , which I’ve never understood, because that movie is so bad.  It is slow, weighted down by Milius’s ridiculous ideas about “Zen Fascism,” and the plot is far too simple for its two plus hours of length.  This is pulp fiction.  You don’t want an epic; you want a lean, straightforward action movie.  I’m one who believes that Schwarzenegger turned into a decent actor eventually, but he is awful in this thing, emotionally opaque and struggling just to keep from bumping into the scenery.  I checked the TOS for WordPress and technically, I can tell you what I said about the film when I saw it in theaters in 1982, but I believe such language should be used sparingly so as to preserve its emotional impact.  I gave it another chance recently and it is worse than I remembered.

Since I love the books and the comic books, I’ve been waiting a long time for a remake or a reboot.

There hasn’t been much positive buzz about this new version.  The early script reviews were not promising and the director, Marcus Nispel does not have an impressive resume.  In fact he seems to specialize in remakes, having made unheralded versions of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th.  I also think that most fanboys were incensed that someone would want to remake Conan.  I held out hope, since for me the bar was very low.  Any competently made film would be an improvement.

First of all, the new Conan, Jason Momoa, looks the part.  He could have been Frank Frazetta’s model for the book covers.  He’s got the build and he’s got the face.  Being a Stargate fan, I know that he’s a decent actor and can handle the fighting.  The moment I heard he got the part I knew they’d gotten at least one thing right.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive.  Stephen Lang plays Khalar Zym, the principle baddie.  And Ron Perlman plays Corin, Conan’s father.  Rose McGowan and Rachel Nichols are beautiful and talented actresses.

The plot is similar, if not the same as the 1982 catastrophe.  Conan’s Cimmerian village is massacred by Khalar Zym when he is a boy.  His father suffers a particularly gruesome death.  Conan escapes and spends his teenage and young adult years burning for revenge.  Zym, it turns out was hunting for the last piece of a sorcerous mask which will make him powerful enough to conquer the world if he can bring back his dead witchy wife.  For that he needs a pureblooded descendent of the sorcerous kings of ancient Acheron.  Unfortunately for Zym, it takes him several years to find this person, enough time for Conan to grow from a fighting prodigy to an almost invincible warrior.

So that’s not very original or encouraging.  Robert E. Howard wrote several fine Conan stories that would make terrific movies.  Why not adapt Red Nails, Rogues in the House, or Beyond the Black River?  They even mention the events in The Tower of the Elephant.  Any of those would be terrific actioners with fresh plots that would not be as dog-eared as this one.

2011 is an improvement over 1982 but it is not a perfect film.  Nispel and his three screenwriters fail to capture any more than glimpses of the exoticism of Robert E. Howard’s creation.  Not every shot is framed carefully and we are often pulled out of the world either by uninspired locations or poorly integrated CGI scenery.  The dialog is a little too modern and often jars.  For something like this you don’t need to go full Shakespeare, but a more formal tone is one way of transporting us out of the modern world.

Another criticism is that the fights are over-cut to the point that it is hard to figure out what’s happening.  Like dance stage combat is an impressive and beautiful art.  It needs long shots and slower cuts to be fully appreciated.

Much of that violence is pretty graphic.  At times it approaches torture porn.  This is probably a function of Nispel’s background in schlock horror but it also fits in with the blood and brains on the wall tradition of the pulpy source material.  Boys in the thirties did not want to get caught reading this stuff by their mothers.  It is in the pages of Weird Tales where many Conan stories made their debuts, that boys first learned the meaning of words like “viscera,” “ichor,” or “grue,” and Nispel’s web-like blood splatters and severed heads are very much in tune with that unwholesome tradition.

Momoa isn’t given much opportunity to do more than grunt and stab things, but he does that well and as I said, he looks the part.  Stephen Lang plays the bad guy with an easy arrogance combined with just enough humanity to make us believe that power isn’t the only reason he wants to bring his wife back from the dead.  Rachel Nichols plays Tamara, the pureblooded Maguffin of the story as a spunky damsel in distress in the Princess Leia mode only not as well done.  Rose McGowan, however, is pretty creepy as Marique, Zym’s daughter who has inherited her mother’s powers.  There are some unwholesome depths to her performance.  She wants to please Daddy and do what he says but at the same time she desires to take her mother’s place.  This may be the best performance in the film.  Another candidate may be Leo Howard, who plays Conan as a boy.  His chemistry with Ron Perlman, who plays Corin, Conan’s father, is terrific.

Without significant fanboy support, this may be Jason Momoa’s only outing as the Cimmerian.  That would be a shame.  With a better director and a better script, he could be very cool in the sequels.  But even if it stands alone, this is the best screen version of Conan that there is.


2 Responses to “Conan the Barbarian”

  1. 1 MC May 20, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Its sumerian not cimmerian 🙂

  2. 2 theotherebert May 21, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I never know how to react in the face of something like this. It seems incredible to me that someone does not know that the Conan movies and stories are based in a fictional world. And yet a little research tells me that there are people who don’t. But the emoticon on the end of your comment makes me think that maybe you are kidding? Just in case you aren’t:

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