'Conan the Barbarian'

Simon Varsano

Nonstop blood-and-guts action is aimed at game boys and emotionally stunted lovers of adolescent fantasy.

The new Conan the Barbarian may be the first film -- and the first of many, one fears -- to be aimed entirely at video gamers. The filmmakers throw story and character to the wind to send an avatar into continual battle to slay enemies coming from all sides. Every rip of his sword sends a fountain of blood into the air, and every gouge, punch and backflip comes with amplified sound effects.

Say what you will about John Milius' 1982 version of Conan; that film at least had a concept. Milius, long a student of Japanese culture, brought pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard's homoerotic, misogynistic barbarian of prehistory to the screen with influences of the warrior code of bushido and cinematic overtones of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa to create a Nietzschian display of unfettered male virility. The new film is merely dedicated to unfettered carnage in 3D.

Whether this version will attract young men who think Conan is a skinny, redheaded late-night talk show host is open to question. Certainly, the look of the film, shot in locations throughout Bulgaria and in that nation's Nu Boyana Studios, is dramatic, with sweeping landscapes resembling an angry, sensual time in Europe where dark magic rules. But how long can you gaze at a landscape empty of story and character?

Replacing Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original Barbarian is Jason Momoa (HBO's Game of Thrones), a Hawaiian-born hulk with ripped muscles and absurd good looks. He certainly fits the part. For that matter, all the casting works in visual terms.

Rachel Nichols is lovely and feisty as a temple princess who fights by Conan's side. Stephen Lang personifies badass evil as Conan's chief opponent, and Rose McGowan's snakelike witch is pure villainy. Nonso Anozie looks rocklike as Conan's staunch compatriot, while Ron Perlman, dressed and coiffed to resemble ancient Greek statues, plays Conan's warrior father.

Alas, blunt-force acting rules the screen, with everyone grunting, snarling and posturing to ludicrous effect. Dialogue impedes the killing game -- indeed, at one point, when Nichols' character threatens to get chatty, Momoa stuffs a rag in her mouth.

The only actors who make an impact are Nichols, who displays enough nervy grit to stand out, and 13-year-old Leo Howard, a first-degree black belt who plays young Conan.

To give the movie its due, the locations are astutely fabricated by production designer Chris August and cinematographer Thomas Kloss with a considerable assist from CGI artists. And the action is cleverly designed so that Conan -- he of the "I live, I love, I slay, I am content" mantra -- performs his slash-and-gouge routine, which could grow tiresome, in dramatically different situations. The choreographer of this controlled mayhem is German-born director Marcus Nispel, who seems to have developed a career as a remaker of others' movies, having directed new versions of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Frankenstein. His imposes no personal vision on Conan, however.

There is no purpose to the film other than random blood splattering. The film is numbing and dumb, with its hero indistinguishable from its villains. Conan fights under no moral code, nor does he stand for any principle.

The story? Oh, the screenplay concerns something about a search for pieces of the powerful Mask of Acheron and then a quest for a descendant of sorcerers whose blood will awaken the mask. The movie wastes no more time explaining all this than it took you to read that sentence.

Release date Aug. 19 (Lionsgate)
Cast Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman
Director Marcus Nispel
Screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Director of photography Thomas Kloss
Rated R, 102 minutes

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