Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Conan the Barbarian
Aside from the Terminator, Conan the Barbarian is arguably one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most iconic roles. The original Conan was a campy (and bloody) swords and sorcery adventure – which, thanks to a strong dedication to the various iterations of the source material, has endured the test of time and remains a guilty pleasure for many movie-lovers who caught the film on the big screen.
Given the character’s lasting name recognition, it’s no surprise that Hollywood had an interest in a new Conan film. But with Schwarzenegger now in his sixties, Nu Image/Millennium Films had the option of either a geriatric Conan story – or rebooting the film with a new up and coming slayer-hero. Director Marcus Nispel found his Conan in Jason Momoa (Game of the Thrones) – but has the pair produced an exciting new take on the iconic franchise, or simply imported all the blood without any of the original’s charm?
Unfortunately, despite some entertaining moments, Conan the Barbarian is a hollow beat ‘em up film with very little brains. No doubt some moviegoers who were especially excited by the film’s trailers or TV spots will enjoy the constant parade of bloody swordplay and brutish dialogue, but anyone else looking for an exciting adventure film will probably be let down. It’s not really Momoa’s fault – the actor manages to add a dash of charm and wit to the otherwise singular-focused Conan. In the end, it’s a flimsy story and flat supporting characters that prove to be the barbarian’s true enemy.
Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian is a re-imagining that loosely borrows from Robert E. Howard’s source material, as well as Schwarzenegger’s Conan (which was directed by John Milius from a screenplay he penned with Oliver Stone). The set up is somewhat familiar: Conan’s village comes under attack – in this case from the combined forces of a group of neighboring clans who have sworn allegiance to Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a mortal who seeks to resurrect his sorceress wife using an ancient relic. When Conan’s father refuses to give up the final piece of the relic, Zym’s daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) manages to uncover the hidden artifact, and Zym leaves Conan’s father for dead. However, unlike other versions of the character, Conan isn’t enslaved – instead, he spends his time thieving, pirating, as well as freeing slaves, with no larger motivation than to hunt down the man responsible for his people’s death. After a chance encounter with a warrior monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols), Conan lands on the trail of Zym – who is now dangerously close to collecting the final element he needs to release an unimaginable evil.
The opening act of the film presents a surprisingly interesting peek at Cimmerian warrior culture, as well as a disturbing look at Conan as a butt-kicking adolescent. Ron Perlman has a solid supporting spot as Conan’s father – before Zym’s army destroys everything and subsequently sends the film on a linear action track with little character development or “story” for audiences to enjoy.
The characters (and subsequently the performances) in the film are mostly one-note and serve to ratchet up the machismo that dominates the various set-pieces. Jason Momoa will successfully rally audiences to his character’s side with heavy-hitting physicality and charming but subtle facial expressions that give insight into Conan – which are especially important, since most of the barbarian’s dialogue is reduced to one-line reactions to the things happening around him. For all of Momoa’s charm, there’s nowhere for him to take Conan, since every single relationship is flat and simply serves the purpose of moving the story from point A to point B – instead of attempting to develop anything interesting along the way. As a result, we root for the good guys because they aren’t bad guys – not because the film successfully develops a meaningful connection between the audience and the characters.
Similarly, Rachel Nichols is competent as Conan’s warrior-monk (and love-interest) Tamara; however, the actual plot of the film reduces the seemingly tough-as-nails character to little more than a damsel in distress. Both Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan give perplexingly odd performances as Zym and Marique, respectively – and serve as a good example of how Conan the Barbarian routinely touches on complicated, albeit messed up, relationships and potential plot twists, and then does nothing with them.
As a result, Conan the Barbarian is rarely elevated above a basic fantasy adventure – unless you measure the quality of a film by the amount of blood on the screen. The movie excels in a few hand-to-hand combat sequences, but even the better set-pieces are mostly familiar and lack any real surprises or tension. Even the CGI-heavy moments – such as the sand spirits and subterranean water creature – fall short of being memorable, and, moment to moment, aren’t especially exciting, either.
The 3D add-on option for Conan the Barbarian is equally unexciting and entirely unnecessary. There is only one moment, near the end of the film, that capitalizes on the additional depth in a compelling way – otherwise, aside from a lot of three-dimensional blood splattering at the screen, the format goes mostly unnoticed – that is, when it’s not distractingly bad. At some points during my screening (especially in panning CGI shots of the countryside) buildings seemed to almost fold into one-another where they met – instead of maintaining the illusion that the viewer was circling the structures in a 3D space. It was a bizarre glitch, and may actually have to do with the CGI modeling of the landscape (not the 3D itself), but it was distracting no matter who is to blame.
In the end, it’s hard to recommend Conan the Barbarian to moviegoers who are looking for anything but a violent rough and tumble adventure movie. Despite the action-packed look of the trailer, most of the set-pieces are average at best – and combined with shallow characters and some flat performances, it should be easy for filmgoers to find a movie that succeeds in delivering a more exciting fantasy escape than Conan the Barbarian. Similarly, die-hard Conan fans tempted by this film will probably find more enjoyment in rewatching Schwarzenegger’s version of the character – even if it lacks the (now standard) “gritty realism” forced onto a lot of these Hollywood remakes.
If you’re still on the fence about Conan the Barbarian, check out the trailer below:
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Conan the Barbarian is now playing in theaters.