From the fiery pits of sword-and-sandal epics comes Conan the Barbarian. He’s come riding in on his Blu-ray steed and he’s out for blood. Let’s see if he’s the stuff of legend or something less memorable.
Horror remake director Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian is a tough movie to discuss. It didn’t get a lot of love in the theaters, and when that happens to a genre movie like this I usually think something along the lines of “Ah, nuts, I guess people didn’t get it.” Now that it’s on Blu-ray and DVD, I was given the opportunity to put my “Ah, nuts” feelings to the test. And not to be too obvious, but all I can say is: "Ah, nuts."
It starts off with an amazing display of brutality as Conan is literally born of battle by means of a stab-wound cesarean. His baby barbarian self is raised to the heavens by his father (Ron Perlman), and you just know that it’s time to ready yourself for some epic action. Oh, and on top of that, there’s an introductory "This is the world we’re entering" narration by March of the Penguins' own Morgan Freeman. Then we jump into Conan’s teenage years, where he shows that he can outperform other warriors in a trial of skill, decapitation, and sword forging! This kid’s got all the right moves.
The plot progresses, as they do, and Conan is soon an adult with a long-term mission to take revenge on the evil man (Avatar's Stephen Lang) who destroyed his family and village. This villainous Khalar Zym seeks ultimate power with the help of a magical bone crown that his Alia Atreides-looking daughter (Rose McGowan) locates with her divining rod-like mystical talents. Not only does this baddie supreme want to take over the realm, he wants to bring his sorceress wife back from the dead. However, his sorceress daughter is not too keen to have to vie for her father’s affections with a reincarnated mommy. At this point the movie is a little less convoluted than this paragraph but there are still two more acts to go.
Conan is played by Jason Momoa, whom fantasy fans will know as Khal Drogo from HBO’s adaptation Game of Thrones. I’ll be honest here and admit that I never saw the 1982 Schwarzenegger film, except for a long enough portion to be amazed at how intensely freaky James Earl Jones looks in it. That said, I was expecting a speechless brute tearing through snakes and horses. What the 2011 Conan offers is more of a regular Joe type. He’s supposed to be charming and clever and an all-around good Barbarian, so it’s hard not to draw connections between this movie and another recent sword-centric adventure, Prince of Persia. And while this film is better, this good-natured Conan doesn’t fully command this suave demeanor and it detracts from his character more than the filmmakers probably intended. They try to make him a leading man, but unfortunately, despite their best efforts, you don’t really care about who or what he’s leading at any given time. This is not Momoa's fault, just the result of the film as a whole. There’s a delicate balance that would have to be walked for the audience to believe that such gore can come from the hands of a man with such a winning personality, and Conan the Barbarian doesn't quite succeed at it. The special features will reveal that this charismatic Conan is actually more true to the original stories, so I’m glad they went in that direction even if it wasn’t pitch perfect.
There is a healthy dose of supporting characters but none of them come off as anything other than generic helping hands. Even the love interest, while they attempt to make her seem tough and self-reliant, isn’t going to command much interest from the audience. However, Conan seems to like her enough to fight for her on top of his initial motivations to seek revenge and save the world, so that’s something.
When Conan brings on the violence, it does so with such cartoonish understandings of how skin works that it is at the same time unbelievable and squirm-inducing. Whereas the more recent film The Immortals manages to be ultra-violent but extremely engaging and artful, here the blood spurts are simply off-putting. If at any point an action would earn a sound effect -- head hitting rock, head hitting dirt, head hitting fist -- a blast of blood will spurt out of the pores of the victim. What the film does have is plenty of action that infuses many of the obstacles that we want from a Conan movie, such as serpents, magic sand-parkour warriors, and evil jailers.
Ultimately, this is a movie that fits a particular niche amongst its entertainment brethren, and it is this: Conan the Barbarian is perfect for catching on TV. It does everything right, in that it covers the globe, has great details, and sports a variety of action sequences, but it doesn’t always keep your attention. It would be great to stumble across on cable, no matter how many minutes you’re into it or how long it has before the next movie starts; it will provide a nice escapist experience and make you want to catch the rest later. I know this is a backwards compliment, but this review is already speaking to the home video market so I can’t really encourage you to run to theaters anyway. Sure, catch it on Blu-Ray if you’re really interested, but otherwise wait until you spot it in the "guide" menu of your cable.
In addition to the generous helping of formats (digital download, DVD, Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D), Conan has a nice side of bonus features, including two commentary tracks and about 50 minutes worth of standard featurette content. The highlights of these are "The Conan Legacy" (18 minutes) and "Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan" (11 minutes). The first one does a great job of introducing newcomers like myself to the character of Conan, and the passion that the filmmakers have for this project. The latter is a wonderful look at Conan’s creator and provides an engaging look at the man, his inspirations, and his tragic life. If you had to choose only one feature for your Conan outing, this is the one to watch.
The commentary with Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan is eye-opening in the way that you learn what it would be like to watch a movie with these two people. Jason is excited and extremely positive about most things. The only thing that gets to him is the fact that his horse on this movie seems to have been ill behaved. As a fan of Game of Thrones, I like to think that his horses on that show where just so cool that any other horse won’t do. Rose is funny in that she seems so detached and above it all, but whenever Jason compliments another actress she’ll bite back with a one-up of her own. If that vicarious hang-out is something you’d enjoy, go for the listen. Even though there isn’t a fully loaded set of features, the quality makes up for the quantity, and it’s a nice if not overwhelming about of content.