– Summary –
Director : Marcus Nispel
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Bob Sapp, Steven O’Donnell, Ron Perlman, Nonso Anozie, Said Tahgmaoui, Raad Rawi, Morgan Freeman.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: After his family is slaughtered by a power hungry warrior, young Conan grows up to seek revenge.
What we think : Generic action beats mix it up with some gorgeous production design and a dispiriting narrative to bring Conan into the modern cinematic age. The end result is something that feels force-fed with old ideas, lacking in interest and ultimately, a disappointing mixture of modernism and old-school expectation.
I live, I love, I slay. And I am content.
Anybody growing up through the 80’s would be aware of the original film version of Conan The Barbarian, essayed by the utterly convincing Arnold Schwarzenegger, and its cultural legacy. Children of the 80’s should be shattered to learn that not only does Marcus Nispel’s reboot/remake/re-imagining of said franchise does little to commend itself as anything other than a standard, cookie-cutter Hollywood actioner, replete with blood, monsters and the hint of nudity which will no doubt earn it a higher censorship rating than the film might otherwise deserve. New Zealand native Jason Momoa is barely up to Schwarzenegger’s iconic portrayal, a comparison which, while uninvited, is almost certainly inevitable, and although Momoa has the look and physique the role requires, he’s let down by an equally wooden, badly handled script that fumbles the pulp aspects of the story where it should soar. Folks coming into Conan for the first time might ask themselves what all the fuss is about – the film never strives for anything subtle or fresh – and fans of the character might feel a little let down that, when all is said and done, this Conan is barbaric almost entirely in name only.
After his family is brutally slaughtered by Zym (Stephen Lang), a power-hungry warlord intent on capturing an ancient mask of power, Conan (Jason Momoa) grows up seeking revenge upon those who took his father (Ron Perlman) and mother away from him. Conan travels the lands looking for Zym, helped by his friend Artus (Nonso Anozie), when he stumbles upon Zym’s men chasing down an escaped female monk, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who happens to be the “chosen one” who is a direct descendent of the original Acheron sorcerers, and whose blood will allow Zym to rule the land with an iron fist. Rescuing Tamara, Conan uses her presence as a way to lure Zym to a fight – Conan loses the fight, but returns to Zym’s stronghold to finally defeat his nemesis, and save the world from tyranny.
Conan was a character created by author Robert E Howard back in the early part of the 20th Century – Howard was born in 1906 and would go on to commit suicide aged only 30. In this brief time of life, he gave us one of literature’s first modern heroes, alongside Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter, and Sherlock Holmes. The influence of Conan on the Sword and Sorcery genre of writing, both in traditional literature and the then burgeoning comic book form, cannot be understated, and it’s something of a testament to the power of the character that he has endured for nearly 100 years. Alongside Arnie’s foray into Conan, other film adaptations of Howard’s work have been produced – particularly Krull The Conqueror and 2009’s Solomon Kane – but none have provided the success of his most famous creation. Like Disney’s John Carter in 2012, Conan The Barbarian attempts to kickstart a franchise based on a famous property, and in the same way Disney’s attempt floundered through excessive budget and lack of audience attention, Conan was met with markedly poor critical reviews and yet another confusing marketing ploy, a ploy which obviously didn’t capture audiences like Lionsgate had probably hoped.
Conan The Barbarian suffers from a multitude of problems, most of which can be boiled down to the script; the film has characters who, aside from Conan himself, are largely uninteresting. Even the central Bad Guy, a snarling Stephen Lang (Avatar, Lawless), has a limited amount of development. The story rattles along without pause, throwing all manner of characters, locations and plot points at the screen, but the script’s higgledy-piggledy nature, and lop-sided attempts to interweave magic and supernatural into a story of reputed realism, doesn’t gel like it should. Instead, the “kitchen sink” approach to Conan results in a blanket of white noise throughout much of the films running time, a witheringly insipid romantic subplot and lack of dramatic tension drawing any semblance of audience involvement away from the screen and onto…. well, anything else, really. That’s not to say the film is utterly incompetent, but if you’re going to try and bring this franchise in for a modern audience, you really need to give it a more modern feel in terms of story, characters, and reason for existing. The trio of screenwriters attributed to this film, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, have crafted a screenplay which lacks a sense of purpose: I should mention that the opening fifteen to twenty minutes, with a young Conan (Leo Howard, appropriately enough) seeing his family butchered by Zym’s forces, are prototypically well crafted, leaving the film to flounder once Conan takes on the visage of Momoa and has to actually enact, rather than react.
The film’s action sequences, of which there are copious number, don’t quite manage to be as exciting as you’d expect. Carriage chases, crowd battles and a bravura moment of sand-people-monster-ghost things chasing Conan and Tamara around an abandoned outpost are well mounted and well filmed, but at times they’re edited incoherently and with a frequent desire to keep the camera too close to the action to determine what exactly is going on. Nispel’s direction wavers between overawed and flat-out derivative, almost as if he’s consciously aware of the legacy of Conan and trying desperately not to screw it up – in doing so, he’s unflattering to the material and almost too restrained. The violence of the film is borderline average – there’s blood, but zero gore, and the use of spurting arterial fluid seems too focused and desperate, as if the production knew it wouldn’t be thought of positively by fans if it didn’t provide some red goo here and there. The action sequences lack urgency (even though they might feel otherwise to the general viewer) and they come and go without really leaving a lasting impact. These are the scenes that should make their mark, make themselves felt in some way, but the deficit of emotion within each battle, sword-fight and pummeling eschews enthusiasm, and upmarkets vapidity.
Marcus Nispel comes to Conan with a resume that encumbers him to the style-over-substance genres. In this respect, perhaps his Conan is as good as it could have been. The man behind the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre entry, plus the 2009 Friday The 13th remake (getting a sense of his career trajectory yet?) does manage to bring a sense of pulp style to Conan’s world, with some terrific set design and production values to back him up. Monasatries, catacombs, palaces and all manner of high fantasy archetypes are delivered with stunning beauty by DP Thomas Kloss. There’s a fair amount of green-screen work here too, and while unfortunately a lot of it is quite obvious, by and large the film’s handsome design supports the scope of the story.
As far as the actors involved go, only Momoa fares really well here. Momoa, who appeared in Game Of Thrones in a similar kind of role, portrays Conan with an impeccably well trained sense of honor, and lacking any real “barbarism” whatsoever, except some tacit nods to his off-screen brutality (which isn’t shown). Momoa certainly cuts an appropriately muscular figure with all his furs and leather and swords. It’s a pity he lacks the gravitas and pure stature of Schwarzenegger’s portrayal, although what he misses in physicality he makes up for in performance. Momoa’s no Olivier, but he’s more than adequate to emote when required. Rachel Nichols, as the central love interest for Conan, and around whom much of the story pivots, is beautiful in that ethereal, elfish way Peter Jackson seems to find so alluring, but she’s never overburdened with anything approaching decent characterization. She exists purely as something for Conan to focus on when he’s not aiming for revenge. Sexism? Perhaps. Probably, actually. A love scene between Conan and Tamara is as provocative as slapping two fish together, and as narratively cogent as a Stephenie Meyer novel.
Stephen Lang once again brings his crazy bug-eyes villain, much like his Colonel Quaritch in Avatar, only without the military hardware to back him up. Lang’s a solid performer, and knows he’s in a big-budget B-movie (again, a lot like Avatar), and throws his considerable screen presence around a lot whenever he can. He’s abetted by a nearly unrecognizable Rose McGowan as Marique, the half-bald witch daughter Zym uses to obtain all he needs to achieve power. McGowan, who comes across like a bizarre mix of Freddie Krueger and one of the Cenobites from Hellraiser, is creepy and eerie – although this is largely a make-up driven effect than anything she brings to the role. Nonso Anozie plays the role of Artus (I had to look that name up, because I never quite picked it up while watching the actual film) like a poor man’s Michael Clarke Duncan (RIP), and while he’s hardly in the film, he brings a spark to it that’s missing when he’s not there. The rest of the cast are hidden behind some wonderful make-up, enormous costumes or Nispel’s jiddery camerawork – the white noise I spoke of earlier? That’s them.
Conan The Barbarian tries for pulp action, and somehow misses the mark. Perhaps it’s a film best described as “almost”, a near miss than feels more frustrating than accomplished. I had hoped Nispel’s normally assured horror direction might imbue this actioner with a sense of blood and violent style, and in many respects it almost attains that; generally, though, the film flatlines at various times and can’t recover enough to remain interesting. It’s a confusing, often befuddling mixture of action and magic, of brutality and beauty, layered with copious generic fight and battle scenes that obfuscate more than they entertain. Instead of being a barbarian, this Conan is a largely avoidable affair that generates neither excitement or energy, when it should be brimming over with both.