Conan The Barbarian (2011)

OK, folks. It’s finally here. The movie I’ve been looking forward to the most this year — Marcus Nispel’s “Conan the Barbarian”. I recently wrote and published a long article on my relation to Robert E. Howards barbarian hero, you can read it HERE, so you all know what a big fan I am.

Of course I was a bit nervous. Just look at that other great hero I loved when I grew up in the 1970s and whom I still love; Western bounty hunter Jonah Hex. The movie they made about him was understandably one of the biggest bombs of 2010. But on the other hand, I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to Sword and Sorcery. All I ask for is a muscular, sword wielding hero, a big adventure, and some bloody action and a couple of hot wenches.

John Milius’ “Conan the Barbarian” from 1982, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is by far the best fantasy movie ever made. It’s also one of my all-time favorite movies. If I were to review it now, I’d give it five out of five. Sure, the sequel “Conan the Destroyer” is a dud, it’s pretty damn awful, but otherwise, I like heroic fantasy movies, even the cheap and cheerful ones. I like “The Sword and the Sorcerer”, “Deathstalker” and “Barbarian Queen” — hell, I’m pretty fond of “Kull the Conqueror” starring Kevin Sorbo of “Hercules” fame. This movie was once supposed to become “Conan 3”, but they eventually replaced the Cimmerian with another one of Robert E. Howard’s creations.

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You never really know what you can expect from German director Marcus Nispel. The guy directed the remake of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” — blasphemy, of course, but the movie turned out to be really good. He also made the remake of “Friday the 13th”, which unlike the chainsaw movie was pretty crappy. In between these two movies, Nispel directed the underrated “Pathfinder”; a rather odd tale about Native Americans (that’s Indians to my European readers, and Injuns to you guys in the Wild West) and Vikings. I thought “Pathfinder” was pretty fun; it’s good looking and entertaining, and parts of it look like something out of Conan.

Some people have wondered why Hollywood is remaking “Conan the Barbarian”. They seem to forget the fact that Milius’ movie is 29 years old. The vast majority of today’s young audiences weren’t even born in 1982. And remaking movies, or re-adapting novels, isn’t a new phenomenon. Just look at all of the movies based on, say, “The Three Musketeers” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” made in the childhood of cinema.

Marcus Nispel’s “Conan the Barbarian” differs quite a lot from John Milius’ version. Milius and his screenwriter Oliver Stone were inspired by Nordic mythology and Vikings, and their movie didn’t have that much to do with neither Howard’s original stories nor the comic books. The first Conan movie was a big, dark mood-piece that really felt that it took place in a forgotten historical era that had existed. Nispel’s movie, on the other hand, plays, looks and feels like a couple of issues of The Savage Sword of Conan slammed together.

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The opening is terrific. We get the usual, bombastic voice-over who tells us about the fantasy realms and something about a powerful, magical mask that was smashed and its pieces were hidden so that nobody could find them, fix the mask and rule the world. Or something like that. Yada yada yada. One fellow is looking for the last missing piece of the mask, the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) along with his wicked witch of a daughter; Marique (Yoana Petrova, who later grows up into Rose McGowan).

Enter little Conan. Who really is little when he’s introduced. He’s a fetus. Inside his mother’s womb. And yes, for the very first time, we get to see Conan being born on the battlefield! Literally. Conan’s mom dies after giving birth to him, so the little Cimmerian lad (Leo Howard) is raised by his big, bearded dad (Ron Perlman). The part about Conan’s childhood is surprisingly long and little Conan has quite a lot to do, before Khalar Zyn and his warriors attack the village and kills everybody except Conan. Khalar also finds the missing piece of the mask.

Little Conan grows up into Jason Momoa, and once again we get a handful of terrific scenes in which the barbarian and his gang of rogues free a bunch of slaves and bring the half-naked women to a town, where they party barbarian style. This is straight out of the classic old Conan comics; they drink and they fight and they fondle the wenches (as the girls were referred to in the comics).

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Then Conan spots a familiar man entering the tavern; one of the men who attacked the Cimmerian village. After a little inventive torture, Conan finds out where Khalar Zyn is and what he’s up to. It’s something about finding a girl who’s pure and who can be sacrificed in some ritual; Mr. Zyn is totally into Acheron sorcery.

… And from now on, it’s the same old story. Just like in the 1982 movie, Conan is after the man who killed his parents. On the way, he meets a pretty girl, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who’s the pure one, and it all leads to a climactic showdown in a mysterious mountain temple.

Quite a few fanboys have complained that the trailers for this movie makes it look like TV’s “Hercules” or a SyFy Channel movie. Well, the actual movie doesn’t look like that. It’s much, much bigger and features some really cool locations and visuals. This world looks like the world I read about growing up. And it doesn’t resemble the world in the 1982 movie.

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And I guess that’s the main problem with Nispel’s movie — the fact that it isn’t the Milius’ one. To be honest, Jason Momoa is a good Conan; he has a twinkle in the eye and some comic book qualities. He looks like Conan — after all, Schwarzenegger didn’t at all look like the character I knew. But Stephen Lang’s villain is a bore compared to the amazing James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in the original movie. OK, I like the fact that Khalar Zym kind of looks like Richard Lynch in “The Sword and the Sorcerer”. Rachel Nichols is a bore as Tamara. The love scenes between Conan and Tamara don’t work at all. The 1982 movie had Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, Queen of Thieves. Tamara is just some chick.

The Milius version also had this great, great musical score by the late Basil Poledouris. The score for Nispel’s version is composed by Tyler Bates. It’s bombastic, but much more anonymous than Poledouris’ masterpiece.

“Conan the Barbarian” is rated R for “Strong Bloody Violence, some sexuality and nudity.” Which of course is a good thing. Not that sex and violence automatically makes a movie better, but nobody wants a watered down, PG-13 Conan — like “Conan the Destroyer”. And Marcus Nispel’s movie is violent as hell. This is probably the most violent, action packed and goriest movie of the year. Buckets of blood spurts out of people when they’re slain, and characters die all the time.

Rather surprisingly, the non-stop action is also a problem. There’s too much of it. Too many sword-fights. There isn’t much story in between the fights, and it tends to get repetitive. The 3-D doesn’t make it any better. The editing during the fights is very fast, and this technique simply doesn’t work in 3-D. It’s hard enough to see what the hell happens in regular 2-D if the editing is too rapid.

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So: am I disappointed? Yes — and no. “Conan the Barbarian” is pretty much as I had expected it to be. I didn’t expect it to be as good as the 1982 movie, but it’s less involving than I had hoped for. I didn’t care about the characters. The story is unoriginal.

But still, this is slam bang, ultra-violent entertainment, had I been a kid, I would have loved it: there’s lots of big swords, blood, castles, temples, bizarre vehicles, nekkid women, and I really liked the Lovecraftian creature living in the waters under a temple. One character is called Remo, which I found a bit distracting.

I guess most critics will hate this movie. I don’t care. And despite its flaws, “Conan the Barbarian” is better than those damn, sleep-inducing “Lord of the Rings” movies. There! I said it!

And no, I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to this movie. Preferably with a better story.

By the way! For some unexplainable reason, Conan never exclaims “Crom!” in this movie. Weird…

Images copyright © Noble Entertainment

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