Conan the Barbarian: Film Review

Simon Varsano
Non-stop blood-and-guts action aimed at game boys and emotionally stunted lovers of adolescent fantasy.

The latest incarnation of Robert E. Howard's barbarian of prehistory stars Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang and Rose McGorwan.

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 a field of 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 back flip 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.

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Whether this version will attract gamers and young men of a generation 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 Nu Boyana Studios, is dramatic with sweeping landscapes improved digitally to resemble an angry, sensual time in pre-Christian Europe where dark magic rules and brutal warriors kill with impunity. 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 while Rose McGowan’s snakelike witch is pure villainy.

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Chiseled Nonso Anozie looks rocklike as Conan’s staunch compatriot while Ron Perlman, dressed and coiffed to resemble ancient statutes of the Greek god Zeus, plays Conan’s warrior father.

Alas, blunt-force acting rules the screen with everyone grunting, snarling and posturing to ludicrous effect. Dialogue is at a premium as this 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 actually make an impact is Nichols, who displays just enough nervy grit to stand out, and 13-year-old Leo Howard, a first-degree black belt who plays young Conan as a feral animal ever looking for prey.

The story? Oh, the screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood concerns something about a search for scattered pieces of the powerful Mask of Acheron and then a search for a “pure blood” descendant of sorcerers whose blood will awaken the mask. The movie wastes no more time explaining all this then it took you to read that sentence. These are mere excuses to get characters from point A to points B and C.

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To give the movie its due, those locations are astutely fabricated by production designer Chris August and cinematographer Thomas Kloss with a considerable assist from CGI artists. Indeed the movie’s best moments come in long shots or sweeping camera passes over each new location with an accompanying super identifying the name and purpose of this new site.

(The one labeled “City of Thieves” causes one to wonder if this means that an honest man would be an outlaw in this metropolis. Your mind does wander while watching this film.)

And again to give the film credit, 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. One involving sand warriors springing out of dust to bedevil Conan is particularly ingenious although it goes on too long. That’s true for all the fights though especially the extended battles between Conan and Lang’s Khalar Zym, where the filmmakers must invent obstacles to keep Conan from dispatching his foe too soon.

The choreographer of this controlled mayhem is German-born director Marcus Nispel, who seems to have developed a career as a remaker of other people’s movies, having directed new versions of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre andFrankenstein. His imposes no personal vision on Conan, however, no Milius-like perspective or visual design.

There is no purpose to the film other than random blood splattering amid scenes of bondage, primitive savagery and S&M eroticism. The film is numbing and dumb with its hero indistinguishable from its villains. Conan fights under no moral code nor stands for any principle. If the film were called Khalar Zym, he wouldn’t even be the good guy.

Opens: August 19 (Lionsgate)
Production companies: Millennium Films in association with EFF Independent Productions and Conan Properties International
Cast: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Saïd Taghmaoui, Leo Howard, Ron Perlman
Director: Marcus Nispel
Screenwriters: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Based on a character created by: Robert E. Howard
Producers: Fredrik Malmberg, Boaz Davidson, Joe Gatta, Danny Lerner, John Baldecchi, Les Weldon, Henry Winterstern
Executive producers: Samuel Hadida, Victor Hadida, Frederik Fierst, George Furla, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Eda Kowan, John Sacchi, Michael Paseornek, Jason Constantine
Director of photography: Thomas Kloss
Production designer: Chris August
Music: Tyler Bates
Costume designer: Wendy Partridge
Editor: Ken Blackwell
R rating, 102 minutes