‘Conan the Barbarian’ – Review

"It’s got the blood. It’s got the boobs. It’s technically Conan the Barbarian, alright, but it’s just not much more than that."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The old John Milius Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger may not have been much more than that, but it had a serious, practically classical take on the Robert E. Howard source material that gave the film an implied significance. Conan was a being of such greatness that he could not be denied. The throaty bellows of Mako in the opening narration declared in no uncertain terms that Conan the Barbarian was f***ing beginning, and that we had better damn well pay attention. Marcus Nispel’s reboot begins instead with a merely dignified voice-over from Morgan Freeman, who speaks with a matter-of-factness more suited to a History Channel documentary. It is the first misplaced decision of many in this fairly entertaining but unfortunately forgettable attempt to recapture the magic of Conan.

Conan the Barbarian is such a scattershot movie that beyond a plot synopsis – bad guys kill Conan’s father, Conan grows up and tracks them down (that's about it) – it may actually be more effective to just list the things that worked and the things that didn’t. So let’s do that for a minute.

First, the good: Jason Momoa may appear more lithe than Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he successfully makes Conan his own with a snarling interpretation that makes him feel like a recently uncaged animal. Rose McGowan steals every scene as a campy witch with no eyebrows and metal talons who is apparently sleeping with her own father, in what is easily the creepiest subplot of the summer. Many of the locations are memorably Frazetta-esque, from a volcano shaped like a skull to an elaborate prison built atop a hungry leviathan. The film also isn’t shy about the blood, guts, and sexuality, although the latter feels a little more token than actually a part of the world Conan lives in.

Now, the bad: Conan the Barbarian relies on familiar plotlines like the snooty female type tagging along with the macho hero and falling in love with him, avenging the death of a father and so forth without doing anything new or clever with those concepts. Whenever the movie tries to be novel, like the bizarre Jigsaw-like death trap which kills Conan’s dad, it feels tacked on. Rachel Nichols is an excellent actress but has little to work with as the token love interest, and Marcus Nispel’s direction has never been accused of being “clean,” with many action sequences feeling a little mashed together. The main villain, played by Avatar’s Stephen Lang, has more interesting motives than actual actions. And finally, the film has an annoying tendency of elevating Conan to hero status when all that really matters is that he’s a total badass.

There’s a belief held by many storytellers that audiences respect any character who’s good at their job, even if they aren’t actually “likable.” When filmmakers lose faith in this rule of thumb, they tend to drop in scenes of a bloodthirsty thief saving a caravan of slaves on sheer principle, or to include lines about how the hero has “the heart of a lion” and so forth, both of which you will find here. Mako had similar speeches in Conan the Barbarian, but they were late in the film, after the character had already been defined by his actions. Conan’s actions in Conan the Barbarian aren’t those of a focused character, occasionally succumbing to pussycat status when by all rights he should be a man-eating tiger. The situation reeks of trying to make the character “more accessible,” and as a result the film feels a little confused, like not everybody was making the same Conan movie.

But it’s not a bad movie, really, just a muddled one. There’s enough swordplay and sorcery to entertain throughout the running time, but you might just be distracted by how disjointed the story and characters get, and how the movie awkwardly trundles from one set piece to the next. I suspect there will be some arguments about whether this Conan the Barbarian is better or worse than Conan the Destroyer (it certainly doesn’t come close to the original), which was PG-13 but at least had an assured direction. I’d go with the latter. For some, blood and boobs are enough to raise a star rating, but I’d rather be able to sit through an entire movie without questioning the characters than count how many decapitations or sex scenes there are.

Maybe I’m a snob… a snob who likes Conan the Destroyer. Wait, that doesn’t work…

Oh yes, and it was in 3D, but for large portions of the Conan the Barbarian I was able to take my glasses off and not notice any difference, so I wouldn’t recommend paying extra for the experience.