Since the success of 300 there’s been something of a renewed interest in old fashioned swords and sandals fantasies; studios have thrown blockbusters such as Prince of Persia and the Clash of the Titans remake at us, and even TV networks have jumped on the bandwagon with numerous Spartacus series’; but there’s always been one character that’s been the true talisman of the genre, and now he’s back, in the latest remake of Conan.
Marcus Nispel (the man responsible for the Friday The 13th & Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes) brings us a “re-envisioning” of the Conan character; who last appeared on the big screen in Conan The Destroyer, back in 1984, with a blooming Arnold Schwarzenegger (so needless to say, it’s been a while since this property has been touched); and since Destroyer and the original Conan the Barbarian are still so fondly remembered there should be some decent interest in the Cimmerian warlord, however, after viewing this “modern day interpretation” of the Big C, You’re left with the feeling that Nispel wasted his opportunity.
With more than a few nods to the original Barbarian, the latest Conan follows our titular warlord (Jason Momoa, Game Of Thrones) on a quest for revenge against Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, Avatar); the man who, along with his army, wrecked Conan’s childhood (by massacring his people) in attempt to find the legendary evil Mask of Acheron; a quest which entangles an innocent temple maiden named Tamara (Rachel Nichols, G.I. joe: Rise Of Cobra), who Conan kidnaps when he realises she holds the key to Zym completing the mask.
At least The Barbarian has the feel of a fantasy film; everyone is suitably armoured for war, some scenes are set against impressive backdrops (they’ve even got elephants pulling mammoth land ships – the likes of which make it really stand out as a fantasy film), and even the idea of the Mask of Acheron is fitting (a skull helmet that resurrects the dead and is capable of pure evil deeds; making it an original piece that we should have seen much more of to convey its importance); but the action is very lacking, and it contains no real innovation whatsoever; it was well done but, the trouble is, we’ve seen it all before.
One of my gripes with the Arnold version was the slightly boring, but short and to the point, childhood sequence; which leads to the death of Conan’s parents and seals his hatred for the big bad. This time around however, a good quarter of the film is devoted to this, and it’s truly painful to sit through; it goes on for about 25 minutes, and even though it does contain some unintentional humour (with the graphic depiction of Conan being born on a battlefield, and his tribe chief father (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) lifting him overhead and unleashing a war cry whilst Conan is still attached to his umbilical cord), you’ll easily guess what’s going to happen in every next scene.
The depiction of young Conan also sends out very mixed messages, as you first see him running late for a tribe meeting with the older warrior kids in his village (suggesting he’s a runt-of-the-litter type who’ll man-up when he gets older), before he shifts and totally annihilates a bunch of raiders in horrifyingly gory detail (as seen in the following clip). Clashes continue when his dad deems him ready for sword training but completely derides him, and it’s not only confusing but glaringly obvious, and this isn’t just picking faults, because when it’s the first 25% of the film, and it’s meant to draw you in, it matters.
Speaking of inconsistency, when Conan meets Zym for the first time as an adult (about half way through) he gets absolutely belted about by the evil lord and is lucky to escape with his life, but the next time they meet in battle (after Zym has acquired the mask and so supposedly has powered up a level or two) it’s alot more equal, despite the fact Conan hasn’t been through any great trials or battles since to train himself up. He also finishes Zym, rather uncharacteristically, by using tricks, and not the pure barbarianism he’s famous for; proving Nispel obviously wasn’t too sure how clever Conan should be, because he should be smarter than your average big dumb brute, and treated like a human wrecking ball who can turned it on or off when needed.
Momoa delivers a good portrayal of the barbarian; he looks impressive and (perhaps speaking a bit too much) sounds gravelly enough to get away with being our favourite warlord; a lot of his actions are taken from the Arnold films, but there’s also a lot of cues from the original Robert E. Howard stories as well; Conan frees slave girls, stabs evildoers and isn’t afraid to pillage. To a point, Nispel’s Conan is truer to Howard’s original character, but what this Conan (and the film) is missing, is humour; there’s not really any light moments here; it’s not dark, there’s just nothing to deter from the action or plot scenes.
In the film’s favour, the rest of the cast is quite strong and most seem to be enjoying themselves in the roles they’re given; Rose McGowan (Charmed) is a riot as Zym’s daughter and seems to be having a lot of fun as the evil witch role (complete with God Of War style facepaint and talons), Lang isn’t wasted as Zym and turns in another memorable villain role like the badass general he portrayed in Avatar. Colourful MMA fighter Bob Sapp is also pretty memorable as Zym’s huge mammoth minion and in fact it’s genuinely enjoyable to watch Conan working his way up through Zym’s colourful and recognisable henchmen (even if he wipes out the last couple a bit too easy); it’s almost like a video game, building up to the final boss fight; but there are a couple of misfires, as the usually reliable Perlman phones it in the early part of the film, failing to inject the humour he usually adds to his macho roles, and playing Conan’s dad just a bit too straight, and even Nichols didn’t do anything special to really set her apart from a stereotypical ‘woman-in-peril.’
Conan The Barbarian isn’t terrible, it’s just plain vanilla, and a lot more dull when compared to other showings from the swords and sandals genre. It’s a shame, since a decent cast has gone to waste and Conan, as a franchise, undoubtedly has a lot of potential which has been set back by this boring offering. Perhaps the market for this type of fantasy film has dried up, compared to the more slightly polished and perhaps topical Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones style? A different director would have helped (as they may have taken Conan in a different direction than the half-a-remake Nispel was going for), but as it stands the latest Conan The Barbarian is still worth a watch, even if just to compare it to the Arnold originals.
The special features make a point to go right into the history of Conan itself, yet it’s disappointing to see the creators gush all over the original pulp Conan comic books, yet produce such a flaccid final product. Nispel’s rules over magic are surprising; he wouldn’t let Conan fight a magic-using wizard because it would be too overpowering, which is a bit of a misfire because in the original stories Conan would use his wits to win, no matter the odds, no matter the opponent.
The bonus materials are worth watching solely to see the audition tape of Momoa in some random Californian bushland going mental with a sword at plants in full barbarian clobber, but Robert E. Howard also gets a small documentary to himself, there’s a feature on the sword fights & action sequences and two commentaries with Nispel, Momoa, and McGowan, as well as a fight scene rehearsal, to complete the decent extras package.