Midweek Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian 2011 (3D)

It’s been a few days since I watched it but I still have little in the way of feelings for the new Conan the Barbarian movie. I didn’t like or massively dislike this big screen adaptation of Robert E Howard’s fantasy tales, although my viewing companion considered it the worst fantasy adventure since Dungeons & Dragons, and wanted to walk out after the first 5 minutes. I just found the whole project to be as pointless and flavourless as its 3D conversion.

I would never say that the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a masterpiece, but it had enough flavour; enough distinctiveness to stand as an entertaining example of how to do sword-and-sorcery movies properly for adults – its huge tracts of silence, its physically imposing leads, its copious amounts of bare flesh, and its general solemnity... punctuated by moments like drunk Conan punching a camel, and cannibal orgies in the villain’s palace.

By contrast, there is nothing really distinct or memorable about the new Conan – which for the record shares only the name of the Arnie film. It is not a straight remake. Like the 1982 film though, Conan 2011 begins with the slaughter of Conan’s family and entire Cimmerian clan by a power-hungry warlord, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). This triggers a lifelong lust for revenge in the fierce but hot-tempered adolescent, who promptly morphs into Jason Momoa as an adult.

Frankly, the childhood scenes are the worst part of Conan the Barbarian. They’re dour, tedious, feature terrible dialogue, and once they’re over the film improves substantially. I’ll say at this point that Conan does have several positives in its favour. Despite coming from the same production company responsible for Nicolas Cage’s recent Z-grade action efforts, Conan the Barbarian certainly doesn’t look cheap. The CGI backdrops and settings are striking, as if they’ve been lifted straight from Frank Frazetta’s paintings and Howard’s stories.

Jason Momoa meanwhile makes for a surprisingly good Conan, and is far less obnoxious than he looks in the film stills. Momoa’s Conan may not be a colossal slab of muscle like Arnie’s version of the character, but without the extra bulk he’s more convincing in combat – combining strength, agility and cunning. The degree to which Momoa throws himself into the physicality of the role is admirable.

Speaking of performances, Rachel Nichols as the virginal, wide-eyed heroine has a certain charisma but unfortunately in the movie's final third has nothing to do but shriek ad nauseam. Rose McGowan is the most fun of the cast, playing a weirdly swaggering witch with a taste for blood, a receding hairline and a blatant lust for her warlord daddy. McGowan is waaaay over the top – apparently making up for being denied the title role in the planned Red Sonja remake. However, as much as McGowan adds zing to proceedings, she doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film.

In fact I’d go so far as to say a big problem with Conan the Barbarian is that it should have pushed boundaries further. Howard’s universe in painted in broad strokes of black and white; yet this film deals chiefly in greys. Lang’s Zym doesn’t even seem to be that bad, really. There’s no real sense of him as an extremely evil villain who needs to be deposed because of his despotic practices. Zym is power hungry, sure, but he seems primarily concerned with resurrecting his beloved wife, and instantly rebuffs his daughter’s sexual advances. That’s not the typical behaviour of a Robert E Howard bad guy.

Every time it feels like it’s about to let rip, Conan the Barbarian gets reigned back in. Time for a dark necromantic ritual that opens the door to the Afterlife? Blip, it’s all over in under a minute, without so much as a thunder peal or single physical effect on the sacrificial victim. In fact, the film isn’t even nearly as brutal as some have been saying. The makers of Conan 2011 should really have adopted the mindset of “Go extreme or go home.”

Conan also isn’t helped by its action scenes. Director Marcus Nispel has gone for that horrible, shaky, hyper-edited approach to shooting battles that makes them largely incomprehensible. As a result, only the carriage chase and sand men combats stand out because you can actually appreciate their choreography.

In the end, Conan the Barbarian is watchable (just) but it doesn’t leave much of an impression. There is nothing special or appealing about this film to see it emerge as a cult favourite in a few years, like The Spirit for example. And I can guarantee that Conan the Barbarian 2011 won’t be nearly as fondly remembered as its cinematic namesake.


Cloudgazer said…
Nice review, except you're wrong about one thing. The original Conan is a masterpiece. That movie was so ahead of it's time its crazy.

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