Conan The Barbarian Directed by Marcus Nispel Starring: Jason Momoa, Leo Howard, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman Release Date: August 19, 2011
Director Marcus Nispel has most undoubtedly taken on quite the challenge in the new Conan The Barbarian film. Consider to begin with, the original Robert E. Howard stories, followed by the additional work by subsequent authors over the years. Moreover, there’s the legend of Conan depicted in comics, perhaps most memorably in The Savage Sword Of Conan. But the biggest challenge facing Nispel is probably the unforgettable film version portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John Milius. The 1980’s Conan pervaded mainstream pop culture and left quite an impact, and the original film is still considered by some fans with reverence.
Having said all that, Nispel along with the writers of the latest Conan The Barbarian have released a film that will most likely please the fans of the Conan books and comics, but may disappoint those whose only experience with the Cimmerian warrior has been through Schwarzenegger’s depiction. The new movie, for all intents and purposes, is an origin tale and begins with narration from (believe it or not) Morgan Freeman. Conan is born on the battlefield, in a gruesome birth sequence that would easily be the fastest Caesarian procedure by sword captured on film. He is raised under the watchful eye of his father, Corin (Ron Perlman), learning the ways of the warrior and the tradition of the Cimmerian Barbarians.
In an incursion on Cimmeria by the armies of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), young Conan (portrayed by Leo Howard) witnesses the death of his father. His home destroyed, the story then tells the tale of Conan’s quest for revenge, and to reclaim the sword of his father; while antagonist Zym seeks the pure blood of Tamara (Rachel Nichols) to activate the power of a supernatural mask that will make him a “god” and resurrect his deceased wife.
Conan is truly personified in this film by Jason Momoa. He captures the savage nature depicted in Howard’s original novels, and maintains elements that were abandoned in Schwarzenegger’s reign, such as Conan actually having a sense of humor. Besides his excellent portrayal of the title character, Momoa also LOOKS like Conan. While the majority of people (since 1982 at least) may think of Conan as a massive muscular oaf, Momoa looks much more like earlier depictions of the timeless warrior – some of the artwork of Frank Frazetta comes to mind. After watching this film, I’m totally on “Team Momoa” as far as I am concerned – the actor truly embodied both the spirit and appearance of Conan from the early novels; but also solidly made the role his own.
Sadly, Momoa’s performance is the only notable one in Conan The Barbarian. While Rose McGowan does look impressively creepy as Marique, in an outfit that appears as if it was ripped off from some Evil Lyn designs from Masters Of The Universe, I found her performance underwhelming – relying typically on the costumed appearance and her (pointless) Freddy Krueger claws. Her father, Zym, is supposed to be the antagonist in the film, also puts in an underwhelming performance. He passes as the villain, that is for sure, but there is little depth to his character, and there’s not much weight given to his motivations of wanting to resurrect his evil sorceress wife – and if it was originally there, then it was surely cut from the movie.
Even Rachel Nichols as Tamara was disappointing, and I don’t mean in the sense that she wasn’t in her Star Trek green skin make-up this time around. She was just there, and very little meaning is added to her presence in the movie. There is some attempt to place her in the film as a love interest in the movie, and while there is a little morsel of nude hanky-panky happening in some weird cave at some point, for the most part her role in the film is little more of a fixture that the antagonist is trying to claim. It’s unfortunate that the writers did very little more with her than this.
But let us be fair here. If you’re seeing this film, you’re not in it for Zym, Marique, or Tamara. You’re there for Conan – and the action. And if action is what you’re after, you certainly get it in this movie. The choreography of the sword fighting sequences is astonishing, and keeps your attention to the screen. Despite the fact many fans know of Conan’s chronology and understand he has a future, there are numerous action sequences in the movie that will have you on the edge of your seat. They are masterfully constructed, and beautifully displayed on the big screen. What is also wonderful is the fact that the filmmakers seem to have been deliberately avoiding the motion-altered battle scenes that have been clichéd since Zack Snyder’s 300. The action is fast, deliberate, and bloody.
In recent years, a lot of fans have been concerned with the tendency of some studios wanting to deaden down the violence and gore in action films in a profit-potential anticipation of achieving a PG-13 rating. In Conan The Barbarian, the violence and gore is at an all time high; and probably exceeds that shown in the Schwarzenegger films. Lovingly R-Rated, this movie is full of moments that will make you recoil in reaction to some of the depicted violence – and there is no holding back on blood either.
While some movies have a lower quality when they go over the top with violence and blood, Conan seems to be the exception to the rule. In truth, the manner in which it is included simultaneously adds to the experience of the movie, AND stays close to the way Conan is portrayed in the original Howard stories, subsequent books, and in the good old Savage Sword Of Conan comics. This facet of Conan The Barbarian will delight the long-term fans of Howard’s creation, while many of the movie critics out there will surely turn their nose up at it – which will prove a major point: this movie isn’t for them. This one was unquestionably made with the fans in mind.
Indeed, Nispel’s Conan stays close to Robert E. Howard’s original visions of the character, and the subsequent books. There are elements in there that will satisfy the Conan comic book fans too, but there’s not very much adapted from that media.
Most comparisons are going to be between this film and the ones featuring Schwarzenegger, and this movie is nothing like those. There are certainly homages to the 1980’s movies, including LOTS of severed heads, and a giant monster that resembles the giant snakes. There’s a lot of sorcery and magic as well, but what I noticed myself missing the most from the Arnold days was the character of Akiro played by Mako Iwamatsu. Granted, this character was never in the earliest conception of Conan, but he was a much welcome addition that gave great substance and guidance to the storylines – I felt that an updated Akiro, or a character fulfilling that function, would have aided the new Conan film immensely.
Some fans may be disappointed with the absence of the character of Valeria, who becomes Conan’s lover in the initial Schwarzenegger movie. However, I’d like to add, that version of Valeria was NOWHERE near the original Valeria from Robert E. Howard’s stories, and was actually based on another woman that the warrior comes across in his wanderings. To be honest, I didn’t miss her in this film, but as mentioned earlier, I found Nichol’s Tamara completely insignificant. It is possible that the filmmakers are hoping to bring Valeria into a future sequel, and grant the relationship between her and Conan to be more significant than the one night stand shown in this one.
The visual effects in this movie are exceptional and of high quality. The digital matte work blends in so credibly, and the creature effects are simply brilliant. The most remarkable work is seen when Conan and Tamara are attacked by the Sand Demons summoned by Marique. The battle is fantastic eye candy, and the demons are very compelling in their threatening advance on Conan. This scene steals the show in my opinion, and even eclipses the climactic moments of the film, even though the visual presentation is fabulous.
The key weaknesses of Conan The Barbarian stand in character development and plot. Conan, who justifiably stands out in the movie, is surrounded by characters that, in the end, lack the significance for the audience to either worry about or despise. Having said that though, this is no “Hero’s Journey” – this story is purely about vengeance, and the lack of emotional investment in the other characters reflects how Conan himself sees others in this stage of his life. Selflessness is not a characteristic embodied in Conan, and his quest is simply about vengeance. As a revenge movie, that’s brilliant, but if you’re looking for something deeper than that, you are going to be very dissatisfied.
The score of the film was also lacking, but then again, it is competing with the iconic themes used in the 1980’s Conan movies. The filmmakers would have benefited greatly if they’d been able to acquire the rights for the original music, and personally I think it would have enhanced the movie much more than the current soundtrack does.
In addition, 3D does NOT do this movie any favors. There are some nice effects thrown in for the benefit of 3D conversion, but there was not much in there that I felt justified its use. On top of that, with the predictable dimness of the projection in the theater, the film loses a great deal in its darker scenes.
Personally, I quite liked the new Conan The Barbarian, though it is by no means a complete epic. This is pure action, and a total escape from reality. Momoa steals the show as the title character and it is worth seeing this film just for his performance alone – he embodies the character of Conan. In several ways, looking back on it, it was the character of Conan that made Arnold Schwarzenegger (and his career). In comparison, it is Jason Momoa makes Conan a reality. Novel and comic fans of Conan The Barbarian are certain to love the film.