So…you’ve heard things.
You’ve heard that Conan the Barbarian is “the worst movie ever made”. Or perhaps you’ve heard that Conan is some “mad genius’ insanity-filled thrillride”.
Well, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this….but both statements are true.
“But Cheetoh”, you say “How can both those opinions possibly be true?”
Well, my pretty little fleshlings, my answer can only be this: Conan is a work of mad genius…and it is also horrifically flawed. But, I can honestly say that those flaws won’t destroy the movie-going experience if you go in with the right mindset.
And that’s my job here…I’m not going to convince you why this is fine cinema. It isn’t. And I’m not going to talk about its subtle introspective merits. It has none. I’m just going to shake you like a fucking British Nanny and make sure you’re in the right mindset when you finally do see this. Cuz that’s my job here. I’m not a reviewer so much as a tour guide. And I won’t lead you astray (probably).
Fan of the original? So am I…but put that shit behind you. This movie has absolutely nothing in common with that one other than the name of the title character. This isn’t the same movie at all…hell, it’s not even the same Conan. So get over it. Or perhaps you’re a strident fan of Robert E. Howard’s masterworks of literature? In that case, you’ll be mildly tickled that this movie has references to a couple of stories (The Tower of the Elephant and The Scarlet Citadel) but still has nothing to do with his body of work (other than invoking his protagonists’ general disdain for sorcery).
This isn’t even a Conan movie, per se. It’s a Sinbad film. It’s an amoral Jason and the Argonauts….where Jason’s gone off the fucking reservation and decided that anyone sporting cooler armor than his is probably worth disemboweling. And I say that as a compliment. The most enjoyable aspect of this film is just how demented Conan really is. In the original (which also has Conan’s people murdered by a power-seeking Sorcerer), the brooding Cimmerian crosses the land in veritable silence; barely finding time between his land’s version of celebrity death matches to read pseudo-Mongol philosophy and breed with “the finest stock”. He’s an introvert; a beast of burden; a slave owner’s rippled machination of violence and gain. In this update, Conan’s a leaner, craftier and more loquacious brand of wrecking ball. Jason Mamoa’s Conan isn’t the blunt force trauma-beast that Arnie was. He’s cunning….reveling in the red delights of particularly macabre revenge. If this Conan can turn the tables (and the mob) on you, he’ll do it. Sure, he loves a good fight (and swings the fabled Atlantean sword in much more convincing fashion than his predecessor); but if he can sit back drinking his ass off while watching you be flayed by your former subordinates (or slaves), he’ll do it. This isn’t a man searching for the truth within himself; not in the slightest. This Conan simply likes to fight, fuck, scheme, party and paint the walls red with anyone willing to nut-up and take a swing at him.
And that’s the kind of mood you need to be in when you watch this: slightly shit-faced, generally surly and ready to head-butt your neighbors for letting their Pomeranian shit on your lawn.
This movie offers nothing of value. It’s pure junk food for the soul. It’s like a deep-fried Hostess Snowball. It’s colorful, tasty and soaked in fat…but you don’t give a shit. And that’s OK…because sometimes, everybody needs a break from their diet. That’s just what Conan the Barbarian is. It’s the trip to In-n-Out Burger that ends your ill-advised experiment with the South Beach Diet. It’s the exclamation point you stamp on your doctor’s forehead when you decide you’d rather die young while living a full, lustful life of experience rather than wasting it on treadmills and Acai smoothies.
Did I mention to not take this film seriously? You shouldn’t…because it never does. Marcus Nispel (the director behind the recent spate of horror remakes as well as the underrated viking-actioner Pathfinder) abandons all pretense and forges a movie hell-bent on offending everyone’s sensibilities just a little (though, to be fair, people are way over-stating the level of violence). Whether it’s Conan’s now-fabled birth scene (which is as ridiculous as it is gruesome and wholly inappropriate), his rite of passage that turns unexpectedly into the film’s finest sequence, or the Lovecraft-inspired creatures that he throws in Conan’s way (for no real reason at all…they don’t serve the story in any meaningful way other than to dispatch even more hapless bystanders while Conan grunts, flexes, tumbles and sweats). Nispel never set out to make a movie that anyone would give an award to….unless the cockgobblers at The Razzies try for an easy and altogether totally undeserved laugh. He just wanted to entertain…and for much of the film, he succeeds.
But, as your tour guide through the grim and blood-soaked land of Hyboria, I can’t say this flick is without its issues. It has ’em….at times, in abundance. Most of them are forgivable…and a few are downright infuriating (and unfortunately provided the retinue of talentless would-be film critics all the ammo they needed to dismiss Conan the Barbarian altogether). Sadly, most of the blame falls on Rachel Nichols.
She’s not just miscast…she’s downright god-awful. Almost supernaturally bad. She totally squanders every bit of good will she earned with her plucky turn in G.I. Joe (and her tour de force performance in P2). It’s hard to even recognize this is the same actress. I don’t know how they managed to drain her of all charm, charisma and talent…but they did. As the requisite heroine, she’s absolutely pointless and not worth saving. In fact, Conan leaving her with the shortest of goodbyes is one of the few times I actually believed the relationship between them. She doesn’t even elevate herself to the role of “passable fucktoy”. She’s just a drab bore….and if it wasn’t for her rather incidental connection to an ancient prophesy (which she’s apparently completely unaware of and is only connected to by blood), she wouldn’t be worth saving. After all, Hyboria’s riddled with more interesting tarts sporting bigger racks. Nichols delivers every line like she’s rehearsing for a junior high’s holiday Passion Play. Her accent fades in and out, she seems completely unsure what to do with her hands…and winds up standing and staring a lot (and yelling “CONAN!”) while everyone around her does something more interesting. She’s just part of the scenery. And that’s my other bitch…she’s clearly not worth saving – and if this were Robert E Howard’s Conan, he’d simply gut her like a fish and leave her to bleed out…problem solved; foe rendered impotent. She’s no use to anyone if she’s a lifeless husk (and in the great stories this movie’s loosely based on, Conan makes that ugly choice more than once). Nispel should have handled her fate differently (and cast someone who has more than a thimbles’ worth of talent). That would’ve improved the film immensely.
Who's your daddy?
But there’s more he could’ve done to make this truly epic fare. You see, the plot revolves around this demented warrior with a broken heart named Khalar Zym (richly portrayed by character actor Stephen Lang). And Khalar wants to collect the pieces of an ancient mask that imbue one with untold power. But his necromancer whore of a wife died some time back…and now he drags his balding and pissy-excuse of a daughter around (a sorceresss who spends her time trying to get daddy to fuck her – no, I’m not kidding). And therein lies two major issues (***SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN***): Rose McGowan plays his daughter…and she hams it up a bit too much. Rose is clearly having a blast…but she seems like a half-measure. She’s really only a threat to other women…her metal Freddy Kreuger claws are laughable weapons that just don’t have the range of a trusty sword. And, as for that mask? Once a person finally wields it, it grants them…well, apparently nothing. Lang is no more tough with it on…in fact, it probably only served to limit his peripheral vision some. The climax just feels rushed and tacked on….you’d expect Conan to have a bigger fight on his hands (and the climax is where the original succeeds entirely over this new entrant: the psychological gravitas Thulsa Doom wields as he challenges Conan’s entire life’s purpose is far more engaging…and dangerous….than anything displayed here).
But, alas, I’m a tour guide, not a critic. Like I said earlier, this is a movie you can enjoy. I did. And I’m not ashamed. But I recognize it’s a victim of its own hype to a large degree (and also due to the inevitable comparisons with the books and films). But that’s the rub: you have to take this as its own work. It’s a hyper-violent and over-stylized Sinbad flick. If Ray Harryhausen had a Power Mac, this is what he’d have created. You won’t believe a word of this movie…but you will dig it. And that’s all that matters in the end.
3.5 fists for a few great fight scenes, a fully-realized world totally alien from our own and a script unapologetically riddled with fantasy cliche.