Conan the Barbarian (2011)
On a superficial level the 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian provides two hours of perfunctory blood and thunder. For those seeking a quick fix of such material, who aren’t burdened by a strong affection of Robert E. Howard’s source material, the film will prove adequate. I suspect that Marcus Nispel’s offering will find a home with a younger viewers. Sadly, with regard to purists or those who have fond memories of John Milius’s 1982 version, then this is not the film you are looking for. Move along. To be honest, considering the directors track record, does this really come as any surprise? For those with a long memory, cast you mind back to Nispel’s 2007 movie Pathfinder. That Vikings versus Native Americans high concept movie had a lot of potential but was sadly chronically mishandled.
This re-imagining of Conan loosely draws upon Robert E. Howard’s source material, as well as Schwarzenegger’s portrayal. The opening scenes focusing on Conan’s youth are by far the most engaging. They make an attempt at a narrative and character development. The brief insight into Cimmerian warrior culture makes for a strong start. But immediately after the death of Conan’s Father (Ron Perlman) it all lapses into by the numbers story telling. Evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) along with sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), seek ancient an relic to facilitate their fiendish (and formulaic) plans. Throw in a plucky warrior monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols) and the generic story is complete. Conan’s motivation is purely one of revenge but without the philosophical musings of the 1982 movie. Jason Momoa has sufficient charm and presence to hold an audience but the screenplay offers his character none of the depth you would hope.
Ultimately it is the script which lets the movie down. Jason Momoa’s mono-syllabic dialogue is purely reactive, serving as nothing more than an expositionary device. It is also delivered in a contemporary fashion. Nothing kills immersion for me more than period set dramas (be they based in fact or fantasy) utilising contemporary American parlance. Furthermore, potentially interesting characters are neglected and given little to do. Rachel Nichols is introduced as a strong female lead but is quickly sidelined as a damsel in distress. Both Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan fail to engage as antagonists. Both characters establish their evil nemesis credential simply by doing bad things. It’s a shame as their curious and dysfunctional relationship had scope to be far more interesting.
Overall Conan the Barbarian is totally the sum of its parts. And as those respective parts are bland, hollow and uninspired, that’s exactly the sort of movie that you get. For those just seeking some casual violence and bloodshed, then Conan the Barbarian may well prove sufficient. However, it is subject to an excess of CGI like so many films these days and the contemporary editing techniques rob the action scenes of any sense of wonder. The sequences with the sand spirits and under water creature, along with the films climax, fail to offer any real tension. Compared to the physical effects and sword play of the 1982 movie, this reboot simply can’t compete. When will those crafting action scenes learn that real threats, be they physical stunts or monsters that actually interact with actors, are infinitely superior to post production eye candy.
If Conan the Barbarian had simply been marketed under a different title and not linked to the franchise, perhaps critics would have been more forgiving. Had it just been “Wolgang Rippling Buttocks and the Sword of Kagnazax”, then it may well have been deemed acceptable. However, as it fails so notably to do any justice to Robert E. Howard’s work, it quite rightly merits harsher criticism. Furthermore, the points of failure are abundantly apparent. Director Nispel and the screen writers Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood are simply not up to the job. As a result, I think they may well have killed off any studio interest in this intellectual property for the immediate future