Conan the Barbarian – 2011
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Starring Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ron Perlman and narrated by Morgan Freeman
Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Somewhere around the 3 minute mark, towards the end of the narration, describing shining kingdoms, dark empires and masks with some strange spirits of summation, we catch our first glimpse of the titular character, in embryonic form. Almost immediately, we see a blade cross by him in the embryo. So starts Conan The Barbarian, and his life by the sword. Instantly, a pang of recognition crosses my mind. Who is the stylish and gory director that would begin a movie with such a ridiculous scene of savagery? Why Marcus Nispel, of course, whose stylish and ridiculously savage updates of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th have filled movie houses across the states in the last 10 years. Okay, filled at least on the first Friday, but that’s all that counts anymore.
Nispel is one of the go to guys for big budget, Michael Bay-type movies, where one can expect to see flesh chopped, skulls crushed and blood sprayed across the horizon. To his credit, Nispel took relatively modest budgets of the afore mentioned films and grossed about 10x more. To his further credit, he took both series reboots seriously and made them somewhat entertaining, compared to where each series had been.
This time around, is really no different, except the movie flopped. One can’t be sure that this is the fault of the director or the writers, or as much the fault of the material having a limited appeal. The crunch of bone under the weight of iron and steel, the primitive nature of man heading into a dark age and the comic book sensibility of noble honor and revenge can only go so far in today’s market. It does not diminish the effectiveness of the work, or how close it arrives to the source material.
Granted, it is a thin line that separates films like Conan… and something like, say, Gladiator. While one can be sure that Nispel hardly belongs in the same conversation as a director of Ridley Scott’s caliber, he isn’t all that far away from Scott’s brother, Tony.
To be fair, though, one can only so much patience for these kingdoms built on iron and sorcery. Add to that tiresome list names like Khalar, Artus, Marique and Tamara, places like Acheron, Argulon, Messantia and a time called the Hyborian Age, and you have a “is you is or is you ain’t” going to suspend your disbelief situation. Take it for what it is, and it is not bad. This is not the kind of friend you would introduce to your other friends.
As Conan, Jason Momoa gives very easily a more nuanced performance than Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his very first starring roles. This is not much to compete against, especially when you nuance is not one of the key components of Conan’s personality. Arnold was a stiff, though, until about half-way through his role on Predator. Momoa definitely seems to be less about the brooding and more about the joy of being unhinged. In this respect, the young Conan, played by Leo Howard, gives a very explicit example of one who is a product of a savage age.
In contrast, Ron Perlman, bad wig and all, gives a good counterbalance to the young savage. Showing Conan a metaphor for life by the blade created from fire and ice, he gives a core to what could have been a vacant vessel of rage. Indeed, it is the memory of a well-played character that lends gravitas to the proceeding that all of those silly names and weapons of steel give away.
On the plus side, the friends of Conan kind of what you expect for the time: honorable traitors and thieves. Everyone owes Conan one thing or another, and gladly regrets paying it back. I say this because, even while doing so, they whine in that traditional fashion that implies there will be danger, but not mortal for any of the good guys.
Stephen Lang has been around for so long, many people remember him, but until his excellent villain turn Avatar, they did not know from where they remembered him. Since then, he seems to be everywhere, usually flexing his muscles. Strange for an actor who was so graceful as Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals. In this movie, he is your typical bad guy who must explain everything before acting. His character is a good example of what a bad guy shouldn’t do if he wants to win.
Thinking back on Star Wars: A New Hope, we got to see the real destructive power of the weapon being touted; it blew up a planet. That works for most people. In Conan The Barbarian, we have no less an authority than God himself (Freeman) as the narrator, and we still don’t have clue one as to what this stupid hat / mask is supposed to be able to do to anyone. Sure, it’s a MaGuffin. It still needs to mean something, once in a while.
Rose McGowan is the princess of weird. Ever since her days as Marilyn Manson’s eye candy, she seems to be on a quest to out weird the gimmick goth rocker. With the right director, like Robert Rodriguez, she is as effective as she is beautiful. In this case, with her premature balding and Fred Kruger hands, she is just obnoxious.
Is this the end of Conan? It sure looks that way. Unless they can dredge up Arnold for another go around based on his name, the concept has run its course. The original movie was so horrible as to be almost unwatchable, despite the talents of James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow. It made a good enough chunk of change to call for a sequel. The second one was better, but even though Arnold was a major star by that point, made no headway financially. The third movie was dead on arrival, as Arnold’s contract ran out with the producers. Not wanting to waste the script, they decided to turn it into Kull the Conqueror. Yeah, that Kull.
The thing is, Conan The Barbarian is exactly the movie it is supposed to be. It’s not Rocket Science. It’s a movie and a genre for people who don’t like words. As you can tell, I like words. For that reason, even if this were the best Conan movie ever (which it probably is), it still doesn’t rate high with me.
(*** out of *****)