Conan the Barbarian Review
Oh, just hear the lamentation of the fans ...
With Arnie's two cult-cherished outings as the iconic Cimmerian warrior/bandit/king currently hacking and slashing with ferocious nostalgia on Blu-ray, it is time to take a look at how the mighty Conan The Barbarian, author Robert E. Howard's legendary ancient avenger and literary alter-ego, has been spruced-up, oiled-down and let loose upon modern audiences in the guise of the dark battling behemoth, Jason Momoa.
But this lavish new take on the genre's inaugural myth is a ham-fisted, witless sham of broken potential that makes things entertaining cheese like Season Of The Witch look like a masterpiece in comparison.
After being “born on the battlefield” and losing his mother in the process, young Conan strives to make his father, Corin (Ron Perlman), proud and to be allowed to join the tribe's warriors. Proving his instinctive prowess and ruthless savagery by taking out some scouts from a rival tribe, Conan begins to learn the riddle of steel from his Cro-magon-looking pops. But trouble looms on the horizon and before he can hold aloft the mighty sword that his father has forged, the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) and their nasty hordes attack the village, wasting everyone in sight in order to obtain some long lost bone-shard, a piece of a supernatural mask that, once complete, will grant immense, God-like power. Poor Conan is forced to not only witness his father's grim execution for withholding the piece but to participate in it in a sort of take on Harmonica's tragic complicity in his brother's death in Once Upon A Time In America. And, surviving the massacre, he vows revenge on Zym. When next we see him he has grown into a notorious thief, bandit and rebel in the form of the stone-hewn Momoa. A life of brigandage and opportunism suits the mercenary, but he has never forgotten his pledge to avenge his father, and when it appears that the dastardly Zym and his minions are now seeking to find the human catalyst – a virgin nun/priestess whose sacrifice will enable him to summon back from the dead his beloved witch-wife – Conan hatches a plan that will bring him closer to getting even. Purloining the nun, called Tamara (Rachel Nichols), he goes on the run, using her has his bait.
Or something like that.
Conan The Barbarian 2011-style does not exactly have one the most coherent or logical of narratives. It just wants to bombard you with action, fighting, CG backdrops and monsters, and that half-baked old chestnut of a final act ritual that must be averted before the world is plunged into darkness and everyone drowns in a sea of blood. I don't know why we're panicking … none of this stuff ever actually comes to pass does it? And, rest assured, it's not likely to happen this time around either … not with our Conan on the warpath. Over the course of this new introduction to the character and the quasi-ancient world he inhabits just after “the oceans drank Atlantis”, he will battles armies, free slaves, hurl human messages via catapults, bed wenches, grapple a many-tentacled beastie as well as skirmish with a squadron of sand-demons, and fulfil the first part of his oft-narrated destiny. It's all go, with nary a let-up in the smiting of legions of bad guys. But although this is surely what we wanted from a new Conan movie, post Gladiator, Troy, 300 and TV's Spartacus, the end result is crushingly unsatisfying.
Because this is basically a heroic action romp, with all the heroism and the romping removed. What we are left with is egged-on and exaggerated to the point of saturation. There is no depth or character or soul to the film. No emotional claim to anchor us. No hook that has us rooting for either Conan, the nun-on-the-run, the hate-filled evil overlord who misses his missus, or even the many tentacled beastie. In fact, we don't care about anybody – because there isn't one single character up there on the screen that has any semblance of originality, depth or charisma. They may as well be action-figures for all the emotional empathy that they demand.
Now, Momoa can act. Look at the power and intensity that he could summon up in the awesome Game Of Thrones as the Dothraki warlord, even with hardly any dialogue. In fact, it was his performance as the intimidating but noble tribal chieftain Khal Drogo in HBO's lavish adaptation of George R. R. Martin's cult fantasy that cemented him many peoples' minds, mine included, that he would possibly be the Conan that we had always longed to see. But there is very little of that brooding barbarianism on show here. Firstly, he is hugely stymied by that drivel of a script. Oh to have had the dialogue sparsity afforded Khal Drogo! But this is crammed full of lame one-liners and Californian-style rebukes and entreaties that, even if growled-out as Momoa is wont to do, lack any clarity of genuine character or depth. He looks right, very similar to the fabulous artwork of definitive Howard illustrator Frank Frazetta, but he doesn't sound right. Even taking into account the beach-babe vernacular of Sandahl Bergman and Jerry Lopez in Milius' film, this sounds too horribly modern and anachronistic. I don't doubt that, with a better script and a better director, he could have delivered the goods. He comes to this, as it stands now, like the real Conan showing up, sword and all, at the local pantomime and suddenly realising that it's all fake. People always claim that Arnie can't act. He's not got much range, of course, but he is magnificent at what he does. And even all the non-actors in the original – the sportsmen and women that came along with Arnie, like surfer Lopez and a slew of bodybuilders – could acquit themselves with more dignity and talent. But, even as committed as he is, Momoa doesn't come close to harnessing the brute sensibility and charm that Arnie was able to chiselled into the character.
And if we are going to talk about bad acting – wow, cop a load of Rachel Nichols. Jeez, she is more wooden than the stoutest oak in Woody Woods, Woodfordshire. She is simply staggeringly awful. Conan is hardly a small production, and it has had many fans salivating at the prospect of its unveiling – so what on earth made Nispel, when he played the film back, day after day, and then sat in the editing room, think that her performance was going to pass muster? The man's an idiot. I'm not going to blame Nichols for this at all. She can't act. Period. She's merely eye-candy to be draped across the hero and the screen and, really, should just be treated as such. But when she has to emote lines or convey any emotion, she is actually worse than Olivia D'abo was in Conan The Destroyer, though D'abo had the excuse of being very young and portraying someone younger still, and also having to be believably naïve. But a fool like Nispel tells Nichols that she can and just lets the cameras roll. I loved her in GI Joe, but that was entirely down to the figure-hugging black combat suit because she was still terrible in the role - though that was entirely understandable with Channing Tatum opposite her. Clash Of The Titans suffered from the charisma vacuum of Gemma Arterton … and now Conan falls foul of a similar lady-trap.
I love seeing Ron Perlman in anything, but even he can't bring much weight or poignancy to the introduction. Even with his scant screen time in the original, William Smith was able to convey more pride and honour and affection to the role of Conan's father. Thus, it is left to Leo Howard to drive along this prologue … which he is very able to do. If the story had remained in this period of Conan's life, I'm sure we would have had a better film. At least we have the great Stephen Lang chewing up the scenery with his threats and pseudo-Shakespearean pining for his dead wife, although he is sadly also handicapped with an over-abundance of risible, power-hungry speeches about ruling the world, and a rather naff look that makes him appear to have buck-teeth and Christopher Plummer's nose! Mind you, unlike Thulsa Doom, here is a baddie who is eager to engage his vengeance-fuelled nemesis in actual combat, although their big smackdown does seem to go on forever and ever. Kudos has to go to Rose McGowen for going with such a warped-out, bleached-skin cadaverish Goth vogue. For a while I thought she was trying to emulate Star Wars bounty hunter, Aurra Singh. She does, at least, appear to be enjoying herself, taking out false “true-bloods” with her wicked metal talons and summoning demons from the dust with relish. But the pair still aren't enough to provide a proper air of menace … and the guff about the mask and the ritual is incredibly poorly done when it all comes down to it. But then this is what you get when the scriptwriters forget what they've told us is supposed to happen.
If I was to be brutally honest about all the big proper Conan films that we've had, I would say that Arnie's original could have done with a bit more fighting, somewhat surprisingly Richard Fleischer's more light-hearted follow-up possibly got the amount of conflict just about right … and Nispel's ADD-pandering reboot has so much that we pass caring and begin to snooze. Well, can a sword and sorcery action flick really have too much action? Perhaps not … but when Nispel somehow manages the impossible task of making all of his fight sequences so yawn-inducingly repetitive and downright boring, it surely becomes a crime to hurl so many of them at us. I'd been looking forward to all the gore that had been promised, Red Band trailer and all, and that “15” certificate had given me cause for concern. But then I remembered that Braveheart had only been a “15” as well. And amazingly, as far as the claret goes, the film is a carnage-junkie's delight. Limbs are severed, heads are crushed, noses are sliced-off, someone is literally smelted, a decapitated noggin is used as a weapon, and blood is liberally sprayed about the place … yet all of this visceral chaos soon grates. If we have no investment in the characters or the situations, the violence has no clout or impact – just happening in front of us without any sense of importance. It even loses that comic-book appeal of flamboyant escapism after a while because the momentum has no pace or rhythm, with uninspired confrontations triggered-off without the benefit of suspense or build-up.
You can't keep making the excuse that this is “just an action movie”. That's not good enough any more, I'm afraid. Conan is far, far bigger than that. So if you are going to tackle someone of his seventy-six year old calibre, then you'd better take it seriously. And what is the point these days of setting out to simply make just another action movie, anyway? Surely it would be imperative to deliver something that isn't as disposable or forgettable, or downright contemptible, as the last action offering to have come along. John Milius found a great and brooding avenue to explore when he went Barbaric back in 1982. It wasn't specifically accurate to the source, but he captured the spirit of Conan's troubled mindset just the same. Fleischer found the fun in what Howard wrote and delivered a solid chunk of D & D adventuring. Today, you would have thought that we could combine all these elements together with better effects, better fight choreography and, most importantly, a better story. Even low budget fantasies like The Sword And The Sorcerer, The Beastmaster and, hell, even Hawk The Slayer made much more out of the meagre resources they had and had greater style and substance.
Oh, and who do you think they've got voicing the famous opening narration? Morgan Freeman, that's who. For Crom's sake, why didn't they just go the whole hog and have Liam Neeson playing Conan's dad?
The drudgery bleeds over into the score, too. When you consider that the two Schwarzenegger offerings were blessed with the magnificent music of Basil Poledouris, you are understandably expecting great things from a new Conan score. Whilst it is probably unfair to judge a new iteration against orchestral works that have become as legendary as the character of Conan, himself, no movie-maker is going to come to this project without paying enormous heed and credence to the cult and critical adoration that Poledouris' themes have attained. If you want to play in this particular arena, you are seriously going to have to do your homework. With this in mind, turning to modern action movie composer Tyler Bates may not have seemed like a bad direction in which to go. Bates did some great work on Zack Snyder's 300 and Watchmen, and he has provided some adrenally punishing themes for Sucker Punch and Dawn Of The Dead. Initially, I felt quite reassured that he'd landed the gig because he has been responsible for some of the most immediately galvanistic action cues and ominous musical portents that I've heard over the last few years. But I'm sorry to say that what he has churned out here is both generically bland and densely abhorrent. Without any signature themes at all, he just allows his colourless batteries of percussion to pound away without the simplest element of character, mood or atmosphere to intrude. His work isn't as odious as Ramin Djwadi's was on the remake of Clash Of The Titans (Djwadi has since reprieved himself with his music for Game Of Thrones, incidentally) but it isn't far off. Each and every action scene is hampered not only by the lame direction and the lamentable CG spurts of grue, but by its smothering with his synthetic and soulless textures. A few real players mixed-in with the keyboard-noodling cannot provide this furiously assembly-line exercise in thematic mush with anything organic, melodic or powerful. I'm not saying that a fabulous title theme would save this clunker … but it would go a long way to improving it and providing it with a much needed identity of its own.
One thing that I do like, however, is the sense of scope that the film has. Just like the books, we travel through various realms, encountering ruins and citadels, ports and towns with weird and exotic names, and a rich menagerie of peoples. Plus, we get to see Conan on-board a ship, evoking his time as a pirate and buccaneer. On the downside of this element, though, is the speed at which we are transported from one locale to another. There is a degree of alienation generated by this travelogue. I found myself wishing that we could just stop for a moment and admire the view – something that was afforded us in the two Arnie films. But this swiftly becomes a whistle-stop tour of old Hyboria, with a nary a pause to take snaps.
Conan The Barbarian, courtesy of Marcus Nispel and Jason Momoa, is a regrettable disappointment, horribly compounded by the fact that we had surely the best man for the job in the title role. I'm afraid this is a complete misfire and I lay all the fault at the feet of hack-master, Marcus Nispel, and his cretinous committee of writers. Seriously, if one man, Robert E. Howard, could come up with tremendous stories time and time again off his own bat, and even the novelists who carried on the faith in the decades after his untimely and tragic passing, then how come all of these highly paid scriptwriters, combined in a think-tank, with all of these former exploits readily to hand, can concoct such a shoddy mess as this.
Folks, after watching this spectacularly hollow barrel-scrape, I was compelled to wash the poisonous taste of such a travesty away with a viewing of the new BD of Conan The Destroyer (which had finally turned up after weeks of going astray in the tumultuous realm of the British postal system) … and my faith was restored. As silly as it is, Richard Fleischer's sequel is infinitely more enjoyable and entertaining than this thrown-together cesspool of unimaginative bilge. There was a sense of fun and magic to it, as well as the muscle-stretching derring-do. Nispel took the name and the look … and nothing more.
Sitting through this was like pushing around the Wheel Of Pain – a whole lot of hard work going nowhere and for absolutely nothing. I'm not saying for one second that some people won't be thrilled with this, because there will plenty who thrive on its fast-food instant thrills, of course. But, for the record, I saw this with another Conan devotee, like myself, and someone else who wasn't fussed about the character at all but just loves mindless action movies ... and they were both as massively underwhelmed as me. The 3D wasn't very good either. It didn't make the visuals an incoherent mess – although that phrase does sum the film up fairly well – but the extra dimension didn't add a great deal to the experience in any way, much of the film appearing too dark, as well. And I'd always thought that this was filmed with 3D totally in-mind from the get-go.
No, I'm afraid I'm not recommending Conan The Barbarian except as a disposable popcorn time-filler on a rainy night when nothing else is happening. Justifiably high-hopes have been unutterably dashed.
Don't make any more, Marcus.
More in-keeping with the slapdash nature of Albert Pyun's actually quite wonderful The Sword And The Sorcerer and Terry Marcel's daft but ambitious Hawk The Slayer (though not as good as either, I'm afraid), Marcus Nispel's dreary, dull and brain-dead attempt to reinvigorate Conan The Barbarian is nothing more than action-packed dross. All the basic ingredients are there, but they are shamefully mismanaged. A pretty much perfect casting choice for the Cimmerian warrior comes completely undone with a script that gives him absolutely no character to play with, leaving poor Jason Momoa lost in a turgid sea of sweltering CG and poor 3D gimmicks that work consistently to drown any and all of his attempts to become the character he once seemed born to play. Plus, he is surrounded by a supporting bevy of one-note caricatures and utter time-wasters.
There's plenty of bloodshed and more scraps than you can swing a sword at, yet none of it engages or excites. The evil maguffin plot is atrociously handled, the dialogue stunningly bad and the performances are tired and embarrassed at best, utterly wretched at worst. By far the best section is the very beginning when we are introduced to Conan and his cave-man-like Daddy and the quest for revenge is established. I wish that Nispel's film had ended just after that point and that we had a part 2, made by someone else entirely, to look forward to.
If you want to see a classic franchise reboot-cum-origin story, then my advice is to go and see Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes instead … and give this Cimmerian meat-head a wide berth.
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