Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Story by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Starring Jason Momoa (Conan), Leo Howard (Young Conan), Rachel Nichols (Tamara), Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym), Rose Mcgowan (Marique), Ron Perlman (Corin), Nonso Anozie (Artus), Saïd Taghmaoui (Ela-Shan), Morgan Freeman (Narrator), Several Horses
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
–Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932
It was probably a gimme that Conan the Barbarian would not be terribly good. So there’s no true disappointment on that level. But the movie also wasn’t very effing Metal. And for this franchise, that’s close to criminal. Even if you’re merely looking for sword and sorcery thrills of the 300 or Clash of the Titans variety, a bar so low we may as well be talking Carnival Cruise limbo, all you’ll be left with is a greasy bag of kernels.
The biceps are big, but they’ve got no place to go.
For a movie with so many establishing shots of lost cities and mountain strongholds, and with a character who racks up so many frequent caravan miles, Conan the Barbarian feels downright claustrophobic. It simply doesn’t have the scope or the breadth its 1982 predecessor boasted. It’s a simple thing, but we never really get those crucial images of our wandering hero actually…wandering. He departs. He arrives. But when he’s hoofing it, it’s during a chase scene or moment of conversation. Then we cut to one of the admittedly dazzling establishing shots of a thieves’ city or a port of ill repute. That’s acceptable in a contemporary jet-set romp, but Conan is a traveler. This is likely part of the reason Momoa’s performance has been somewhat criticized as too warm.
While Momoa captures the “gigantic mirth” Schwarzenegger never really grasped, the filmmaker doesn’t give the adult Conan many opportunities for solitary contemplation, the “gigantic melancholy” so surprisingly present in the 80s films. Hacking and slashing is vital to this character, but there also ought to be equal measure to revelry and thoughtfulness. We look at Conan as a savage and angry brute. But he’s also a cunning tactician, a thief, and a warrior bound for kingship. Momoa proves he can deliver such brooding austerity in the final moments of the film, but it’s probably too little, too late. As for the mirth, the arm-wrestling with comrades and flirting with bare-chested harem girls? That’s important, and a newfound link in the chain. The actor obviously possesses the stature and acumen as a fighter to make a convincing Conan visually. I’d argue that he’s also capable of portraying the full scope of the complex character, given a script that does likewise.
The principle antagonist–the Frank to Conan’s Harmonica, to draw the second Once Upon a Time in the West analogy in as many movie reviews–is the wild-eyed warlord Khalar Zym. Stephen Lang’s broad, hyperbolic performance felt much more appropriate here than it did in the manic third act of Avatar. In fact, he’s even reined in to a degree, though the lack of mech armor probably helped. Zym has a chinstrap beard, so you know he’s a loose cannon. He also travels with a posse of snaggletoothed warriors I’m sure we’ve seen as orcs or Jem’Hadar in some other lifetime. It’s Zym’s ambition to reassemble the arcane artifact known as the Mask of Asheron, a Starro the Conqueror lookin’ bit of headwear that, if reclaimed, lets you do stuff that narrator Morgan Freeman promises to be just ghastly. In the opening act of the film, Zym invades Cimmeria with his army of whooping subhumans and wrests the last piece of the puzzle from Conan’s pop, Corin (a matted and criminally underused Ron Perlman). He also snatches the sword Corin forged with his impetuous son, a blade promised to the boy once he musters the patience and focus needed to earn it.
Were legendary sword and sandal artist Frank Frazetta tasked with drawing a leather-clad, Alopecia-stricken Kate Gosselin, he might’ve come up with something like Rose McGowan’s Marique. The actress long attached to a stalled Red Sonja remake delivers one of this film’s more compelling performances as Zym’s witchy-poo daughter, an alluring if deeply disquieting young woman with a discerning taste for pure, Asheronian blood. Marique is a dead-ringer for her late sorceress mother, and it’s apparent she’d be more than willing to fill that space in her father’s heart (ick). She’s a close-talker, cooing in daddy’s ear and whispering bittersweet nothings to her victims just before delivering lethal slices with her signature metal talons. Marique also provides one of the story’s few sequences of bonafide fantasy, summoning a small pack of sand golems with a blown kiss. That this brawl quickly dissolves into an uninspired platforming level just as tedious as the other action set pieces is hardly her fault.
It’s a relentlessly violent film which careens breathlessly from brawl to brawl, beginning with Conan’s only bloody birth by battlefield C-section. There are some truly grisly moments, as there probably should be. But it’s too much, too often to really necessitate smelling salts. Marcus Nispel’s stunningly unremarkable visual style makes for fairly bland bloodletting. Once you’ve seen one brown slash of freed blood you’ve seen them all. So while Conan and his neglected comrades fight their way through countless skirmishes, these set pieces grow increasingly more dull as the story progresses. With few moments of real gravity or visual innovation, the movie doesn’t really provide the kind of guttural excitement thrill seekers crave.
Ultimately, Conan feels like a fair bit of squandered potential. Momoa is a step up from Arnold, though that’s probably not saying a whole lot. Rachel Nichols has the briefest glimmers of feminine power and discernment as a monk turned corsair warrior before traipsing off after Conan for an admittedly classic softcore sex scene on a bed of straw. A few sand golems and a tired tentacle beast (fishfood in the wake of “Release the Kraken!”) fail to deliver on the fantasy frenzy. Even the Mask of Asheron gets short shrift in the end.
Conan famously has a very specific idea about what’s best in life. He may even have the means to go after it. But all we’re left to do is lament.
(Out of 5)