By his own admission, Conan the Barbarian is a simple character. He’s a dude that likes to go around killing bad men, sexing the ladies, and eating and drinking. You all saw that one line in the trailers where he basically says exactly that. As such, you’d think a new Conan the Barbarian wouldn’t be too hard to crack. However, in an age of crap CGI and bad 3D post conversions, it looked like this new Conan would wind up another summer stinker on Clash of the Titans levels.
Prepare for a shock, cats and kittens. Conan the Barbarian is a blessedly uncomplicated, fairly cool movie. If Rise of the Planet of the Apes hadn’t come out this year, it would have been my biggest surprise of the summer.
Our introduction to Conan (eventually played by Jason Momoa) ranks among one of my favorite “so WTF it’s freaking amazing” scenes in 2011. I won’t spoil the surprise, though it’s in the first two minutes of the movie, but it set things up fairly perfectly for the film to follow. As a youth (Leo Howard, aping Momoa’s later ferocity with a great deal of talent), Conan sees the destruction of his people by the ruthless warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his father (Ron Perlman) murdered. He, of course, vows revenge. Conan’s quest for revenge ends up getting tied into Zym’s mad quest for the Mask of Acheron, a magical tentacle-mask that does stuff. It’s a magic MacGuffin, and it requires the blood of Tamara (Rachel Nichols), as she’s the last pure blood descendant of the group of evil magicians that created the mask. Why does Zym want the mask? Mostly to bring his dead wife back from the dead and some various other generic evil dude stuff. Look, it’s a Conan movie. Don’t be a dick about it. The mask is bad, and Conan’s going to cut some parts off of folk in order to stop it.
I’ve been shouting this to anyone that would listen, but Jason Momoa deserves to blow up like nobody’s business. He was a revelation in Game of Thrones, and in Conan, he proves himself a worthy successor to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rippling biceps. He manages the growly, primal charm of Conan while being a force of murderous nature on the battlefield. Momoa’s passion for the character is fairly well documented, and it shows in his performance. He’s got just enough of Arnold’s classic performance while making the character wholly his own. Say what you will about remakes, but his performance is about as good as you can get, in terms of reinventing a character almost everyone is familiar with.
His supporting cast is merely OK. Rachel Nichols proves an ample match for Conan in terms of ferocity, and Stephen Lang doesn’t chew the scenery so much as swallow it whole and spit it back out at you, cackling angrily all the way. There’s not a lot of depth in either of them, other than Lang’s hang ups over his dead wife, but it’s not a very big deal. Rose McGowan also shows up as the quasi goth-ish witch Marique, Zym’s evil daughter trying to follow in her evil mother’s footsteps. Basically, she looks like Hot Topic exploded and shaved off its eyebrows. She’s got this bizarre, throaty energy, and some odd incest undertones when alone with Daddy, and is generally enjoyable enough to watch. She summons sand men to attack Conan. It’s cool, and uncomplicated.
The movie is a success because it does not follow the cardinal sin of Clash of the Titans; it doesn’t take itself terribly seriously. There’s a reasonably simple set up and a series of fight scenes that lead to the final confrontation. There’s a large set piece set in a mountain cave that’s shaped like a giant skull. Every character that doesn’t have a name is basically a Hefty bag full of fake blood, waiting to be burst at a moment’s notice. Every non-lead female is showing off at least one boob. Conan the Barbarian‘s greatest trait is the fact that it is completely unpretentious. Is it the best movie you’re going to see this year? Not by a country mile. It does what it does, however, and it does it relatively well.
The action works out thanks to some snappy editing and, surprisingly, some great production design. There’s a real effort being made here to make almost every frame look like a Frank Frazetta painting come to life, and it shows well, even in motion. A combination of solid CGI and practical effects work gives everything a much more visceral feel. My favorite sequence was the briefly-mentioned sequence where Marique summons an army of men to harass Conan. Obviously, as the sand men crumble and disintegrate, the CGI shows, but until then, we’ve got Conan fighting a real group of real people in makeup and costumes. You just don’t get the same level of violence when someone’s waving a sword around at what’s obviously nothing.
Now, the movie’s not perfect. As I mentioned, the characterization is basically nil. Every time there’s something on screen that isn’t people fighting each other, the pacing drops like a stone. Other than the creepy incest vibe I got between Zym and Marique, and the generally good banter between Conan and Tamara, there’s not a crazy amount to this picture when people aren’t getting stuck like pigs. The story is utilitarian, at best, serving to shuttle Conan and company to various battle scenes. The writing works for Conan, largely due to Momoa’s performance, but otherwise, it just kinda sits on the page. That said, it’s a bloody good time, and none of that’s necessarily going to detract from your enjoyment.
The strongest negative this movie gets is the 3D. It’s post-converted, which should toss up a red “save your money!” flag. It’s not the worst post-conversion I’ve ever seen, to be sure, but the 3D never quite gels properly with the level of quick motion on screen. I’m not one for headaches in a 3D movie, typically, but this one gave me a bad one. I’m reasonably sure it came from the 3D combined with the fast movements, as it subsided a bit during quieter moments, then came back with a vengeance in some of the shaky-cam stuff during the battle scenes. I strongly recommend you see the 2D version and save yourself the extra money.
Conan is imperfect, bloody, and badass. It’s a solid summer movie, and a great way to close out the season. Sometimes, you want a bad McDonalds burger instead of a steak, and that’s what Conan the Barbarian is: a sloppy, juicy Big Mac, stuffed with bacon. It’s by far not the best thing for you, but damn, do it taste good.
Matthew Razak – 5.8. While Conan’s blood, gore and breasts coat the screen enough to make it fun for any viewer who likes blood, gore and breasts it really falls flat as an overall movie. Smartly, the filmmakers decided that there shouldn’t be more than five minutes between each action sequence, but the pacing of the film is so off that instead of feeling like a rollercoaster of action it feels like a car wreck. Director Marcus Nispel seems to have absolutely no flare for directing action and butchers what could have been great battle sequences into choppy messes. He also can’t seem to hold together the entire film as a whole as it often feels like a bunch of disjointed pieces (which would be fine if they were pieces of awesome and not pieces of OK). Jason Mamoa handles the role decently, but he lacks the stupid and barbaric innocence that Schwarzenegger’s inability to act brought to the role.
The 3D is useless.