Starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman, Rose McGowan, Bob Sapp, Leo Howard, Steven O’Donnell, Nonso Anozie, Raad Rawi
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Expectations: Super low.
On the general scale:
On the B-movie scale:
Against all odds, Conan the Barbarian is not a gigantic failure. They sure try in a lot of ways to drive the film into the ground, but thankfully they aren’t completely successful as this re-imagining of Conan’s origin story is pretty damn entertaining. But a good film it is not, although I was pretty fooled for the first 30 minutes or so. This section is by far the best in the film, and as soon as it’s over and Conan is actually Conan, things start to turn south.
This isn’t really a remake, as the story is completely different from John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian. In broad strokes they are somewhat similar, though, as both films open with Conan’s family being brutally murdered by an evil villain and Conan wishing for revenge. The villains are nothing alike, but they share a foreboding, formidable screen presence, inspiring a young Conan on his quest for revenge. So I suppose in this way it is a remake, but a remake in basic premise alone.
The key difference is that the Arnold-led Conan is an adventure film, and the Momoa-led film is an action movie. Where Arnold’s Conan trained and slowly plotted his revenge, infiltrating his enemy’s fortresses and killing their massive snakes, Momoa’s Conan is all about the brutal violence and has no time for almost anything else. Characterization, dialogue, emotion — all of it falls by the wayside to make way for more brutal action. At first, I welcomed this. Momoa’s Conan is cunning and willing to go to any lengths necessary to get what he needs. It’s relatively brutal when the young Conan slices off a henchmen’s nose, but wait till you see how Conan later deals with the man when he eventually catches up with him as an adult.
But as time went on, with action scene after action scene piling up before me like the bodies in Conan’s wake, it was too much to take. The action isn’t especially well-shot, so following it can be a challenge at times, and there’s virtually nothing else to hang your engagement on. Thankfully the villains are colorfully drawn so it’s all got an element of fun that a lot of modern films lack, but it’s also frustrating because the villains are given more development than Conan, who feels at times like a secondary character in his own movie.
Take for instance the transition from young Conan to 20-something badass Conan. In Milius’s film it’s a slow transition on the Wheel of Pain, showing us how Conan has suffered over the years since childhood, but also how he has gained a remarkable amount of strength and resilience. It’s a brilliantly subtle montage that brings Arnold into the film. In the remake, there’s a very brief narration directly after the young Conan sequence and then BAM! Conan the Barbarian! At the time, I pushed this issue aside, but as the film wore on I realized it was a symptom of the film’s crippling disease.
The editing is atrocious. In this case, I’m specifically talking about the construction of the film in the broad sense, not the nuts and bolts of each individual scene. The film feels cut to hell, pared down to just the bare essentials and a load of action scenes. I’d like to think that there’s a boatload of cut footage laying around somewhere that could have filled in these strange gaps and fully realized the potential of this film. Instead, we jump from location to location, scene to scene, oftentimes before it feels necessary and correct to do so. The only time I didn’t feel this was the opening sequence, which shows that this version of Conan could have been something much more than it is. It’s unfortunate as Ron Perlman is outstanding as Conan’s father and I wish he’d kicked off a better film.
Jason Momoa certainly looks the part of Conan, although he does not look like the child of Ron Perlman and the woman who played Conan’s mother in a very brief, but highly memorable scene. Perhaps he was the mailman’s kid… or whatever the Hyborian equivalent of the mailman is. Whatever, they had to work with whoever they could get and Momoa does look good all dressed up like a barbarian warrior. Where he falters are all the dialogue scenes. There aren’t many of them, but I feel like he blundered just about every one. He’s not alone, though, as his female lead Rachel Nichols seemed to speak with the same fast-paced, hard-to-understand meter. Perhaps it was a directorial choice. But before you can think too much about dialogue and directorial choice, here’s comes another action scene. If nothing else, fans of barbarian action should definitely be able to get their fill with this one.
Conan the Barbarian is surprisingly entertaining, provided you can forget your issues with it long enough to enjoy it. I was somewhere in the middle, but if you were disappointed by the films that followed the original Conan film, this one definitely delivers a lot of good stuff amidst the bullshit. The last act is way too ridiculous to be believable, but I can’t discredit it as I thoroughly enjoyed the end of Conan the Destroyer, an equally unbelievable situation. So yeah, the Conan remake is much better than I had expected it to be. Unfortunately, it also shows enough genuine potential to also be highly disappointing.