Conan the Barbarian Review

What is best in life? Certainly not this new adaptation of the fantasy legend.

On the surface Conan the Barbarian mark II has everything you could ever want in a fantasy action epic: muscular men whose clothing is as spartan as their vocabulary, huge swinging swords (not a euphemism), sweeping battles scenes, lashings of blood, dozens of bare-breasted slave girls and as many exotic kingdoms as you could hope to see. Trouble is, surface pleasures are all that director Marcus Nispel’s remake has to offer. Lacking the lean narrative drive and focus of John Milius’ 1982 original, this new Conan is eager to please but ultimately pales in comparison; a disposable and forgettable entertainment even as it delivers the visual goods.

Borrowing the basic premise of the earlier Schwarzenegger movie but redressing it with a new cast of characters and motives, this remake begins with Conan’s birth on a battlefield, cut from the womb just before his mother expires. His equally bloody childhood sees his father Corin (Ron Perlman) tortured and killed by the marauding Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a warlord in search of the various pieces of an ancient magical mask, which was broken up and scattered across the known world centuries earlier to prevent it from ever being reformed, and which would give its wearer the powers of darkness (or something; the filmmakers must be praying that no-one from Tolkien’s estate goes to see the film). The now adult Conan (Jason Momoa), still searching for Zym to exact revenge, tracks him down just as Zym finds the last essential ingredient: a woman (Rachel Nichols) whose bloodline will activate the mask.

It’s difficult to think of a recent film that is quite so relentlessly busy as Conan the Barbarian. The frantic pace and noisy soundtrack almost succeeds in obscuring a script which only appears to be interested in finding new ways to bludgeon its two-dimensional characters. And yet it has to be said this reboot does make for a reasonably entertaining time-waster. At least it takes pleasure in what it does: the battles come complete with extravagant violence and copious spurts of blood, while the exotic CGI shots of cities and landscapes (one of which strikingly resembles that of Middle-earth’s Rivendell) help to boost what looks to have been a modestly-budgeted production. All of which is well and good, but at no point do you ever really care about Conan’s quest to take down Zym.

This is not necessarily the cast’s fault. In truth it’s difficult for any of them to register thanks to Nispel’s insistence on not allowing the characters to come to life. We simply move from one fight to the next, with the occasional interlude for sex or sorcery. No attempt is made to do anything with Conan other than to look cool while in battle with the next enemy. The pace of the film is its greatest enemy; one climactic fight scene is so maddeningly over-edited it is almost impossible to see what is actually happening. It was bad enough in 2D; lord only knows how 3D viewers survived it without ripping out their own eyeballs.

Despite this and his relatively short screen career, Jason Momoa makes for a surprisingly decent Conan: he may lack Schwarzenegger’s presence, but on this evidence he is the better actor of the two (admittedly that is not saying much). He is a likeable warrior, tough and coarse but also strikingly handsome, as if he had stepped out of one of those paintings depicting a Robert E. Howard-type world. Though he gets little opportunity to stretch his dramatic muscles, one hopes he gets a chance to reprise the role in the hands of a better director (though given the film’s disappointing box office reception in the States, this looks increasingly unlikely).

It has to be said the rest of the cast don’t fare quite so well. Ron Perlman lends a welcome touch of gravitas to proceedings early on, but of course he doesn’t stick around too long (SPOILER ALERT). Stephen Lang does menacing quite well but he over-indulges on a few occasions, while Rose McGowan similarly camps it up in both appearance and performance in a manner which recalls the excesses of the 80s fantasy cycle, and not in a good way.

As a revival of a cult legend, this new Conan is a disappointment, wasted by a talentless director who is unable to breathe dramatic life in to what should have been an exciting tale. Yet it does offer some slim pleasures if taken in the right mood. One final point: the original 1982 film’s score by Basil Poledouris was a thunderously stirring operatic masterpiece in its own right. Suffice to say that Tyler Bates’ effort for Conan 2011 can’t even hope to compete.

Gavin Midgley

Updated: Sep 04, 2011

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