Movies: Conan the Barbarian

…written by Thomas Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood; directed by Marcus Nispel; starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, and Rose McGowan.

Pros:  In the title role, Momoa has some convincing movements, and Lang makes for an excellent arch-villain.  The set designers and artists have created a convincing Hyboria, and the action is full throttle.

Cons: The tired old revenge-cliche forms the spine of the plot, which is an opportunity lost, considering the breadth of Robert E. Howard’s source material.

Review:  The latest offering of Conan the Barbarian starts well enough, with none other than Morgan Freeman providing the voice-over narration – the classic introduction to Conan of Cimmeria as penned by Robert E. Howard in the very first short story so many years ago.  But then, about a paragraph in, the narration breaks from Howard’s prose and drifts into the tale of an ancient magical artifact, the Mask of Acheron, that was eventually sundered in scattered by tribes of men to prevent its evil use.

Standard fare.  And I’m sitting there in the theater thinking, Why?  Why go this route?  Just stay true to the source material!  Other fans of Robert E. Howard likely had similar reactions, and this is pretty much the theme of my review for this movie.  Why take this iconic character down the familiar, well-worn path?  Don’t want to lay blame on the writers (who nonetheless missed some hanging curve-balls with this script), but rather look at the producers, who most certainly squashed anything creative ideas they perceived as outside the realm of the standard Hollywood take on action/fantasy.  This is truly a shame, because the cast seemed capable of more, the set-designs – echoing Frank Frazetta and the old Marvel magazines – are evocative, and the action/stunt/fighting team is first-rate.  Much like the recent Wolverine film, I found myself lamenting a colossal missed opportunity for something more memorable and unique.  Dark Horse Comics got it right with their re-telling of some of those classic Howard stories.  They stayed close to the source material, their writers steeping themselves in the original prose.  The screenwriters and producers of this movie should have followed suit.

This isn’t to say this Conan is a poor film by any means – just overly familiar.  It echoes the 80’s Arnold version’s extended telling of Conan’s bloody youth, setting the stage for the young barbarian’s quest for vengeance against Khalar Zym (Lang).  Zym puts Conan’s Cimmerian village to the sword, along with his father, as he acquires the final piece of the magical mask.  But Conan survives to become the famous thief, warrior, and pirate, while Zym still seeks the final component of acquiring god-like power – the blood sacrifice from the daughter of the ancient monks who created the mask.

Blood is a theme here.  As one reviewer put it: now with 75% more gore.  Yes, this is a hard-R violent movie, with extra bonus points for blood and boobs.  Conan, portrayed by Jason Momoa looks every bit the hulking and deadly swordsman.  And the action set pieces come quick and often.  They are well done without being ridiculous, and the fight with the sand-wraiths is pretty cool.

But You can almost see the screenwriters grit their teeth and struggle when they have to come up with the obligatory love-interest angle.  Yes, the ancestor of those ancient monks, Tamara (Nichols).  Zym needs her.  Conan wants to get Zym, so he becomes her protector.  Soon, Conan and Tamara predictably decide they want each other.  The dialogue between the two could have been much better, and I far would have preferred a character similar to Red Sonja or Valeria from the Arnold version.  Momoa manages to inject some humor and gravitas into his Conan, however, which helps make some of those non-action scenes decent.

The movie could have used better monster CGI effects, and the final showdown between Conan and Zym seemed strangely subdued and anti-climatic.  And unlike the Arnold version (written by John Milius and Oliver Stoon, BTW), the finale lacked the thematic overtones and epic feel of the final raid on Thulsa Doom’s fortress.  Maybe that’s because the vengeance theme seems a little trite this time around.

Jason Momoa was effective in the role, and it would be nice to see him get another chance with the character.  As seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones, he can act and has some range.  But if they do give Conan another go, I’d like to see some different writers, and hopefully a little more attention to those original stories.  Maybe someone on the producer block can step and bravely declare that  it doesn’t have to mirror the classic action movie plot to function.

Bottom Line:  Good action/fantasy fare for grown-up barbarians, but lack or originality and devotion to the Hyborian source material equals a lost opportunity.

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4 thoughts on “Movies: Conan the Barbarian

  1. The film is dumb, hackneyed and, well, just plain bad – much like the 1982 original – but because it knows and makes fun of that, it plays for a smart and entertaining ride. Good Review! Check out my review when you can!

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