Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero gets a slick CGI-enhanced reboot that isn’t as bad as you might have heard, but is still a long way from what some of the barbarian’s fans wanted to see on screen.
Visually, the film matches the brutal feel and look of Howard’s stories as well as Conan’s latest adventures in the pages of Dark Horse Comics, but the CGI overload and vapor thin plot hamstring the film from being a complete successful return to the screen for the character.
Not based on a specific Howard story but drawing inspiration from them all (in the special features the filmmakers talk about how they wanted to show a complete look at the Conan character rather than focus on one story), the film was directed by Marcus Nispel (who seemed a good choice given the look and feel of his Pathfinder film in 2007) and written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood.
Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa steps into the role of Conan and is convincing enough as the character (except in scenes where he is required to do too much dialogue), and squares off against a scene-chewing Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym – the film’s bad guy bent on ruling the world with his dead wife.
The film opens with Conan being born on a battlefield (shades of a Dark Horse Comics storyline) as his father Corin (Ron Perlman) is forced to cut Conan out of his mother’s belly before she dies.
It then jumps to a young Conan who takes part in a race to earn the right to fight with the Cimmerian men in the next battle. The group of boys is attacked, but Conan finishes the race showing an early glimpse of how he was born for battle.
After this, Conan witnesses the death of his father as Zym attacks the village in search of the Cimmerians’ piece of a mask that will give him the power to bring his wife back from the dead and rule the world (groan and think of the one ring that could rule them all). Corin is tortured and Conan forced to watch his father die to save his life.
From there, the audience is introduced to the adult Conan as he attacks a group of slavers with his friend Artus (Nonso Anozie) and his band of mercenary pirates. The success of the attack shows off Conan’s fighting ability and leads to a celebration at the bar which shows off his drinking ability. It also sets him on the path of Zym and revenge thanks to a man from his past wandering into the bar.
Like I said, the plot is pretty much a “paint by numbers” formula as Conan tracks down Zym; meets and rescues Tamara (Rachel Nichols) – who also is the last of the bloodline needed to bring Zym’s wife back from the dead; and eventually squares off against Zym and his crazy witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan).
Once Tamara is introduced to the storyline, Conan is given a larger reason than revenge to go after Zym since the villain is hunting her for the ceremony.
Zym eventually succeeds in capturing her so Conan is forced to save the day in an epic showdown. At one point, the film even takes on a Sinbad feel as Conan and company fight Zym’s baddies in an attack on Conan’s boat.
Although Conan has several faults that drag the film down, Nispel and company do some things right with the movie and it isn’t a total waste of time to watch.
Nispel isn’t shy about showing the violence Conan’s world and puts the bloodletting right in the audience’s face from the very start of the movie. This is a gory world filled with body parts being cut off and lots of women missing their shirts.
However, the over use of CGI makes the bloodletting feel fake and takes all of the realism out of the movie. By the end of the film, it is CGI overload, and the violence just feels like a bad cartoon instead of real.
Nichols and McGowan do the best they can with their roles, but both parts could have been played by any other actress and the two women aren’t given enough to do or time to develop.
Nichols has some character development as she goes from innocent priestess to being a woman worthy of living in Conan’s world, but she is a long way from Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria. McGowan looks to be having fun as an evil witch, but pretty much just snarls at the camera and becomes comical by the time the end credits roll.
Although he is no Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was nothing like Howard’s description of the Conan character), Momoa actually does a decent job in the Conan role, and fans of Dark Horse Comics’ current Conan stories will see that he looks the part to some degree.
The actor has the snarls, grunts, and facial expressions needed for the barbarian role, but struggles when he is delivering normal dialogue (like the chats he has with Nichols’ Tamara or Anozie’s Artus). My wife even cracked up when Conan shouted “Hey you!” at someone he was running down on horseback and sounded like he was asking the guy if he wanted to go surfing.
Lang also does a decent job in the movie, but he could have been any other generic bad guy from a fantasy film. Also, the movie is extremely hurt by the run-of-the-mill villain out to take over the world with some magical device that will give him ultimate power.
The voice-over beginning describing the mask doesn’t help things since it will instantly remind many of that magical ring that gave the Hobbits so much trouble in that other fantasy trilogy.
Although the film may lack, the Blu-ray has some great special features that help make it worth the purchase price. They include a look at Conan’s creator and how the character has changed since his beginning days in the pages of pulp magazines.
The features include interviews with Conan’s comic creators and the filmmakers. It is clear from the interviews that the people making the film loved the Conan material. Nispel talks about how he demanded the film would have a hard R rating and not shy away from the violence in favor of a PG-13 rating. By the time I was finished watching the bonus material, I found that I enjoyed them more than the movie itself.
While Conan the Barbarian might not be as great a reboot as needed to help the character conquer the big screen, it is entertaining from start to finish. It does feel a little like a generic fantasy film more than a Conan film, but Nispel and company get some things right.
In my opinion, the film isn’t any worse than 1984’s Conan the Destroyer or even 1985’s Red Sonja – although that isn’t setting the bar too high.
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