Saturday, 27 August 2011

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

In most of the reviews I've seen concerning the new Conan the Barbarian movie, it's been described as a remake of the John Milius classic. That's not exactly honest. If someone made Dracula today, it wouldn't be referred as a remake of the 1931 Tod Browning Dracula, or even the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola Dracula. Conan is first and foremost an adaptation of the classic pulp fiction character created by Robert E. Howard. Yet there are still some common elements, which are unique to the film adaptations.

In both, Conan is a barbarian whose Cimmerrian home village was destroyed and his parents murdered when he was but a boy. This is where the similarities between the film versions end, and is a solution which has been made to give Film Conans a motivation and an easy arc within the story. Allowing him to just wander around, stealin', killin' and lovin' would be a lot harder to sell audiences, yet it is all the motivation a real man needs.

In the new one, Conan's village is destroyed and his father murdered by the wizard Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who's seeking a piece of an ancient mask made from bones. This mask would give him power to resurrect the dead, and probably other things as well which are not clarified. At least he wishes to take over all of Hyboria, but already has huge troops and a daughter (Rose McGowan) that can create deadly sand monster so it's not quite clear why he would need the mask. At least he also pines for his dead wife, who has been burned as a witch. Probably because she was one. But anyway, Zym's visit leaves Conan and  his father (Ron Perlman) to their deaths, of which only young Conan survives and swears vengeance. The film then cuts to him being an adult.

In many ways, the new Jason Momoa Conan is actually a bit closer to Rober E. Howard's character than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is not an oaf, but a cunning, vengeful and innovative assassin and a warrior bent on getting to his goals. Yet he is also less intimidating, less masculine, and spurs less cool one-liners than Arnie. Momoa also seriously lacks the charisma or the acting talent that is essential to pull off such a murderous main character.

Khalar Zym is looking for a "pure-blooded" maiden to finish his spell, and has been searching for 20 years. Conan's adventures to kill Zym take him to various Hyborean cities, which are realized better than in any previous Conan films, and the world feels more vivid. Pity then, that the meat of the story is in the battles, which are so fast-cut as to be incomprehensible. The horrible 3D effects also ruin a lot of them. The ridiculous fight against sand monsters is more like the Prince of Persia video game than the Prince of Persia movie adaptation. Usually Conan is unbeatable in fights, so it's good that he actually has a worthwhile enemy this time with Lang's Zym. Stephen Lang has also saved below-avaerage action movies with his snarling villains before in Avatar.

Nispel's film is not the huge epic adventure John Milius' film was. It is a brutal revenge story set in a fantasy world. It is all business, serious an gloomy as can be. Fortunatelly, it goes well over-the-top to campy, and there are also plenty of coninuity errors, inconsistencies and just plain stupid ideas for fans of bad movies to enjoy. The best thing is that it such a huge masculine adrenaline trip. Women are treated as objects and all problems can be solved by punching through a wall or cutting someone's head off.

This is all well and good, but the box office records show, movie-goers weren't really intrigued by the idea. So Jason Momoa was left to write the sequel in his never-will-be-a-major-star oblivion. I just hope the Hollywood execs won't blame the film's R rating for its failure.


USA 2011
Director: Marcus Nispel
Screenwriters: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Cinematographer: Thomas Kloss
Starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman.

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