Conan the Barbarian (United States, 2011)

August 19, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Conan the Barbarian Poster

The popularity of Conan the Barbarian peaked during the early 1980s, with no fewer than three monthly comic books to go along with the books and the first Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The success of the 1982 film begot a horrible sequel, Conan the Destroyer. A third movie ended up in development hell and attempts to resurrect the franchise were curtailed when Schwarzenegger exited acting for politics. Now, after years in limbo, Conan has finally been rebooted; the result is about what one might expect from a B-grade production team. The 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian looks cheap and feels rushed. The few good elements are dwarfed by a generic, nonsensical plot and shoddy storytelling.

The 1982 Conan meshed original narrative elements with bits and pieces of established lore to create an epic tale of swords, sorcery, and general mayhem. The world of Hyboria is realized in painstaking detail, making it as real a land as Middle Earth in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Sadly, this "re-imagination," which features an alternative telling of Conan's origins, retains little of Howard, opting instead to make Conan a generic barbarian superhero. Viewers are presented with glimpses of CGI-rendered ancient cities, but they rarely come to life as more than pretty pictures appropriate for pages of a calendar. Conan's world remains fragmented and half-formed. And there's nothing remotely epic about this story, even if Morgan Freeman's opening narration would have us believe otherwise.

One instance of success lies in the casting of Jason Momoa in the title role. Bearing a striking resemblance to a Frank Frazetta painting, Momoa is arguably a better choice than Schwarzenegger ever was, and he is able to deliver dialogue more convincingly (not that Conan has a lot to say). Momoa, who essayed Khal Drogo in the first season of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, appears to have the market cornered on playing barbarians of few words. It's doubtful that his portrayal of Conan will do for his career what Schwarzenegger's did in the '80s. Conan's popularity isn't what it once was and the movie is unlikely to make a significant impact on the late summer box office before heading to home video.

The story has the same basic structure as its 1982 predecessor, although it is not a remake: Conan, whose father is killed by an evil warlord while he watches, grows up to seek revenge. Curiously, although this basic idea has now fueled two major motion picture, it was never an element of Howard's Conan. Faithfulness to "canon," whatever that might be in the case of a franchise that has had so many different aspects, is not of interest to director Marcus Nispel or his screenwriters, whose familiarity with the main character appears to be from the 2007 action video game (a God of War knockoff in which the player manipulates Conan).

The action, set to depressingly uninspired music by Tyler Bates that makes one yearn with painful desperation for Basil Poledouris' classic score, starts out in wintery Cimmeria, where Conan (played as youth by Leo Howard), is learning the way of the sword from his father, Corin (Ron Perlman). His lessons are cut short by the arrival of the warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his band of riders. They are seeking the missing piece of an artifact. It's hidden somewhere in the Cimmerian village and, once they find it, they kill everyone except Conan. The action fast-forwards some fifteen years. Khalar Zym and his daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), are now searching for a "pure blooded" woman (Rachel Nichols) whose sacrifice, used in conjunction with the artifact, will resurrect a dead sorceress and give Khalar Zym great power. Conan, seeking vengeance, is hunting them. The initial encounter does not go well, but Conan emerges with an unexpected prize: the woman Khalar Zym needs is his captive.

The action sequences are adequately choreographed, although the camerawork is a little too frenetic for optimum 3-D rendering. The violence is extreme but in a campy, cartoonish fashion. There's some sex and nudity, as well, but that's all window dressing. No camels are punched, however. In fact, I don't think there are any camels in the movie.

The screenplay is where Conan the Barbarian stumbles its most mightily. For a movie of this sort to work, it needs scope, but there's nothing here for the viewer to latch onto. The characters are lifeless types. There's no emotion or passion. Conan's father dies in front of his eyes, yet we feel nothing. For all its faults, the 1982 Conan the Barbarian was operatic in the way it played with emotions - from the butchering of Conan's village to the death of Valeria to the final confrontation with Thulsa Doom. Here, we're watching mostly second rate actors going through the motions with a paint-by-numbers script designed primarily to keep special effects technicians employed. Robert E. Howard was a pulp writer; even he would have scorned this kind of shoddy treatment.

To give the devil his due, the postproduction 3-D conversion in Conan the Barbarian is among the best I can recollect. It doesn't add a lot, but neither will it make the average viewer want to gouge his eyes out rather than continue watching. Whether it's worth an extra $3 is another matter, especially considering that Conan the Barbarian isn't worth the price of a regular admission, let alone one with a surcharge. Still, the real problem lies not in the 3-D but in the sloppy handling and ignorance of the filmmakers in resurrecting one of the titans of Swords & Sorcery.

Conan the Barbarian (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2011-08-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1