Conan the Barbarian * ½
Directed by: Marcus Nispel.
Written by: Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood based on the character created by Robert E. Howard.
Starring: Jason Momoa (Conan), Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym), Rachel Nichols (Tamara), Ron Perlman (Corin), Rose McGowan (Marique), Bob Sapp (Ukafa), Leo Howard (Young Conan), Steven O'Donnell (Lucius), Nonso Anozie (Artus), Raad Rawi (Fassir), Laila Rouass (Fialla), Saïd Taghmaoui (Ela-Shan), Milton Welsh (Remo), Morgan Freeman (Narrator).
Director Marcus Nispel is in the remake business. I’ve seen four of his films now, and all of them are remakes, and none of them very good. His version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wallowed in human filth (which is not necessarily a bad thing, given the original), but was undone by a cruddy screenplay, with a tacked on climax that felt wrong. His remake of the Danish film Pathfinder was borderline incoherent and unwatchable. His Friday the 13th remake was actually much better than the original – but then again, the original sucked, so that really isn’t saying much. Now comes Conan the Barbarian. It’s hard to like a film this far over the top and ridiculous, especially with such a blank actor in the lead role.
The story of Conan the Barbarian has been told before – by John Milius in 1982 (surprisingly, that film was co-written by Oliver Stone, which may explain how strange that film is, considering that Milius is one of the most well known conservatives in Hollywood, and Stone a loony, left winger). But whatever problems the original movie had, they at least knew how to tell a story - as silly as it was. This film focuses on the visuals – throwing a bunch of special effects (and 3-D, although since I saw it on DVD, I thankfully was not subjected to that) to cover up the fact that the story is lame, at times incoherent, and the actors boring.
Conan watches his village being burned to the ground, his people slaughtered, including his father (Ron Perelman), and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He wanders the earth for years, continuing to train, to become stronger, and always on the lookout for the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his demented daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), who are responsible for the crime. The reason is some ridiculousness about a crown that will give Khalar unlimited power. Now, it seems that Khalar is close to achieving his goal. But he needs someone with “pure blood”, and that appears to be Tamara (Rachel Nichols). Tamara is forced into an uneasy alliance with Conan, and together they must destroy Khalar, before he destroys them.
The movie has the same dark, dank visual look that Nispel’s other films had. It also contains as much blood and guts as they did. The film is full of beheadings, disembowelings, dismemberments and violence. Which is odd, because the story is so over the top and cartoonish, that had they eliminated all the pointless blood, they could have marketed this as a family movie in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean. But, I guess, they wanted all that blood. So the result is a movie that is too much like a cartoon for adults, and far too violent for kids. Who the hell this movie is supposedly made for, I have no idea.
A movie like this requires a certain kind of go for broke, over the top performers to make it work. Stephen Lang, who overacted his way through Avatar as the villain, goes far more over the top here, and it almost works. Had he been given something interesting to say, it may have well have worked. Rose McGowan tries really hard, but she remains a subpar actress – with even this level of cartoon buffoonery beyond her capabilities. Perhaps Momoa is good on TV’s Game of Thrones (I haven’t seen it), but here, he simply cannot make Conan the least bit compelling or interesting. Even less interesting is Rachel Nichols, who is stuck in the beautiful damsel in distress role, and does nothing with it other than look pretty. And yes, she is pretty. But shouldn’t there be something more there?
Some will probably say that Conan the Barbarian advances some none too flattering cultural stereotypes – and while that’s true to a certain extent, the film is far too silly to take seriously. It is a violent, incoherent mess.