CONAN THE BARBARIAN Review:
-I grew up a huge fan of all things CONAN. Back in the old days, as a kid in New England, I'd spend many a night transfixed to whatever sword and sorcery movie was playing late at night on USA, TNT, or TBS. Beastmaster, Krull, Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer - I loved 'em all. Even before I got into those films, my absolute favorite cartoon as a young kid was He-Man (clearly a slightly more high-tech riff on Conan's Hyborean Age). I loved all that stuff ... but when you look at the classic 80's sword and sorcery flicks, what I remember most fondly isn't necessarilly specifc plot points or individual scenes ... it's more just about atmosphere. You'd watch CONAN and be transported to this far-away time and place. A time of adventure and brutality. A time before technology. When there were still traces of magic in the world - mysterious beasts and dark sorcery. A time when men were men. A time when it was kill or be killed. Looking back at John Milius' original Conan The Barbarian - I know it's not something that everyone gets, but to me, it's a stone-cold classic. It's a movie that utterly succeeds at creating an epic world of heroes and villains. It's a film that artfully creates an immersive atmosphere - that whisks you away to the Hyborean Age. It's a grand, slow-burning, sweeping film - made all the more epic by the stunning score from Basil Poledouris. And back in the day - before Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Governator and tabloid fodder - the hulking actor gave the film's title character an exotic mystique. He was convincing as a barbarian from a long-ago era, and his overall presence in the film was nothing short of iconic. Writer Oliver Stone, drafting from the stories of original Conan creator Robert E. Howard, crafted a Conan whose ethos were straightforward but undeniably badass. In answer to the question "what is best in life?", Conan famously, emotionleslly replied: "to crush your enemies, seem them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women."
Conan the Barbarian remains one of my all-time favorite films. But since the 80's heyday of sword and sorcery, few new big-screen entries in the genre have emerged. For years, there were rumors of a new Conan film with Schwarzenegger reprising the role, but politics put that on the backburner. But here, now, we finally do have a new Robert E. Howard adaptation. And many were curious to see to what extent the movie would go back to the source material, and to what extent it'd be a retread of the classic 80's film. There was plenty of reason to be skeptical about the new movie, but as the summer's gone on, new reason for optimism also emerged. The biggest tide shift was the emergence of star Jason Mamoa as a legitimate fan-favorite, after he kicked all kinds of ass as Khal Drogo in HBO's Game of Thrones. Suddenly, it became less about this new guy not being as imposing as Ah-nold, and more about the excitement of seeing Drogo-as-Conan. I also think that this has been a summer of surprises. If a late-summer sci-fi oddity like Rise of the Planet of the Apes could be a sleeper smash, then perhaps this new Conan, too, would be able to surpass expectations and knock it out of the park?
As it turns out, the new CONAN THE BARBARIAN ends up being enjoyable, action-packed, but also something of a mixed bag. This is one of those movies where it feels like somewhere, buried underneath the movie we're actually watching, is a legitimately great film. The ingredients seem to be there. The cast is a lot of fun. And they ended up nailing the biggest hurdle of all - casting a great Conan. Jason Mamoa steps up to the plate and does a fantastic job. He's imposing, he's badass, he cuts a figure that at times helps make certain shots look like a Frank Frazetta painting transposed to the screen. He's a different sort of Conan than Schwarzenegger was - quicker, craftier, more jovial at times - but some of this Conan is indeed truer to the source material, so it's all good. So Mamoa is spot-on, the rest of the cast does a nice job, and there are enough bits and pieces of awesomeness - certain set-piece action scenes, certain lines of dialogue, certain moments - that again, the basic building blocks for a badass Conan movie are all here.
But where this new Conan ultimately falters is in the direction, editing, and overall pacing of the film. Director Marcus Nispel goes for a quick-cutting, frenzied style that aims to give the movie a videogame-like sense of chaos and energy. But what he ends up doing is undercutting the epic nature of the story, losing most of the required sense of size and scope in the process. The camera is almost constantly affixed close and tight on the lead actors, rarely panning out for the sort of wide, sweeping shots that made the original Conan The Barbarian so immersive. The story has Conan travelling the world, by land and sea, and yet there's almost no sense of geography. Everything is reigned-in, rapidly-edited, quick-cutting. Same goes for the action. It felt like there was some truly badass action going on throughout the movie, only we couldn't see it as it was meant to be seen. The cuts were so quick, and the editing so frenzied, that few of the movie's battles were able to sustain much dramatic momentum for more than a minute or so. The ADD directing style meant that a lot of the film's goriest, potentially coolest moments had much less impact than they might have otherwise. Similarly, there seem to be all kinds of interesting sets and locations in the film ... but we barely get any time to soak them in. We'll see a couple of frames of an establishing shot and then - boom! - cut. What this means is that the movie seems to *want* to have a sense of epicness and grandeur, but yet seems to be working at cross-purposes - too afraid to let the camera linger at all. To that end, watching the movie often feels less like going on an epic adventure and more like watching a "Conan's Greatest Kills" music video.
That doesn't mean that some of the action isn't cool, even in spite of the choppy editing. A wickedly fun battle between Conan and an army of sand-creatures is particularly well-done, for example. And there are some really nice moments of brutally entertaining violence scattered throughout the flick. The film definitely earns its R-rating, and pulls no punches in the action department.
It's funny though, the opening to the movie is a perfect example of the what the film gets wrong and what it gets right. It's a potentially awesome prologue - as we see the bloody birth of our hero in the midst of battle. The infant Conan is extracted from his dying mother and held aloft by his barbarian father - his first sights and sounds of the world being violence and death. It should be epic and memorable - and it sort of is. But the direction just refuses to give the moment the grandeur it needed to 100% work - focusing so much on the grotesque sight of the writhing infant, that the enormity of the moment is almost lost. The direction is just too claustrophobic and uneven. That uneveness also comes into play in some key action scenes, where the logistics of the action at times feel a little off. Certain moments either feel rushed or just slightly incomprehensible - but the movie is so intent on zipping from one thing to another that it's all a bit hard to process.
Like I said though, the cast does do a nice job, and really help to make the movie as enjoyable as it is. Mamoa is a great Conan. Stephen Lang, in turn, makes for an excellent villain - would-be conqueror Khalar-Zym. He hams it up as he did in Avatar and is nicely over-the-top and sinister. Even better is Zym's warped, slightly incestuous relationship with his insane, sorcerous daughter, Marique. Played by Rose McGowan, Marique is a real scene-stealer and has a great, supremely weird look - with whacked-out hair and makeup and a super-cool claw-glove. It was great to see McGowan back in fine, camptastic form after a lengthy absence from the big screen. The downside is that Rachel Nichols - as a virtuous monk and love-interest for Conan - comes off as a bit bland in comparison. Her character's romance with Conan feels a bit half-baked, though by movie's end she does get to kick a decent amount of ass in her own right. Still, more interaction between Mamoa and McGowan would have been welcome, as there seemed to be some great potential there for some truly twisted chemistry. The early section of the movie - where we see Conan as a young boy - also benefits from some nice casting. Ron Pearlman as Conan's imposing father is a lot of fun as usual (though he looks nothing like Mamoa or the younger version of Conan). But Leo Howard (nice last name) does a pretty amazing job as the young Conan - so much so that it kind of makes you want to see a Lone Wolf and Cub-style story about boy Conan and his Dad kicking ass.
To that end, as fun as the first section of the movie is, I also wondered if perhaps it went on too long. It feels almost like a different movie than the rest of the film, and takes a lot of time away from fleshing out Mamoa-as-Conan. I also wondered if perhaps the backstory involving Zym and his quest for an ancient mask was a bit too convoluted for its own good. Somehow, even with an opening narration from Morgan Freeman (!) and a couple of evil monologues from Zym, it's still a little hard to grasp what, exactly, his master plan is. I also wished that Conan had some more badass companions. The supporting characters are mostly given the short shrift, and don't make much of an impression. As far as Conan's various travelling companions go, we don't get much of their backstories or a real sense of their relationships with Conan.
From an aesthetic point of view, the movie is definitely a mixed bag. As mentioned, certain sets look great, but we just don't get enough time to soak them in. I wish that the cool physical sets had been a bit more numerous and expansive - I am guessing that the filmmakers were, to some extent, limited in that regard. I also wish the movie had a better score. The original movie's was classic, and there's nothing here that's really memorable - no distinctive theme that you come away humming. It's interesting - there seemed to be a lot of push and pull going on behind the scenes as to the movie's aesthetic stylings. While the action tends to be more 300 and God of War than John Millius, there are also a couple of very 1980's-style visuals. One gratuitously long sex scene, for example, is right out of the 80's genre-movie playbook. If only other parts of the film could have been so epically shot!
Still, I ended up having a lot of fun with the new Conan, flaws and all. I think that Jason Mamoa's clear joy at playing the character shines through and proves infectious, and I would love to see a couple more Conan adventures with him in the lead. With Mamoa anchoring the movie, with Lang and McGowan doing a bang-up job as the villains, and with a plentiful amount of cool sets, locations, action scenes, and moments of badassery ... I think that CONAN THE BARBARIAN ends up being a decently-satisfying and ultimately entertaining update to the franchise. But, I'd also like to see any future Conan films take on a more serious, grim tone, and a more epic, sweeping feel. As is, the spotty direction and messy editing detracts from the movie and undermines the characters, story, and action.
It's a fun adventure, but not quite the epic quest of glory and awesomeness that I was hoping for.
My Grade: B