This isn’t Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian and that’s a mixed blessing from the gods of Hyboria.
Back in 1982, Conan the Barbarian turned Robert E. Howard’s source material, created 50 years earlier, into a hot, titillating pulp adventure. It launched Schwarzenegger’s career as an action hero and the movie was lent an air of credibility thanks to the thespian heft of James Earl Jones as the bad guy.
That was John Milius’ muscular vision of the Hyborian Age’s most famous son. It was a straight-forward yarn about a barbarian thrown into slavery, tortured to near death, and then hell-bent on vengeance.
This new version follows a dramatically different storyline; it’s a completely new take on things that shuns all that’s gone on before, including Basil Poledouris’ enduring score. Taking a look back at other reboots and TV adaptations, like Superman Returns, the 2009 Star Trek, Green Hornet, and others, they all played off at least the immediately-recognizable theme music of their forebears, even if only during the end credits.
Striking out all on its own, this new Conan is in some ways more cluttered; in some ways it’s more faithful to Howard’s stories, in some ways it’s disappointing, in some ways it’s more fun. In short: It’s a mixed bag.
The clutter comes from a clunky storyline that revolves an evil mask that was shattered, with pieces parsed out to five tribes in order to prevent its reconstruction. But, years later, a madman wants that mask pieced back together so he can not only take over the world, but also resurrect his beloved dead wife.
Enter Conan, who was literally born on the battlefield, with his mother wearing battle armor and holding her own against a raiding party. Born and named during her last breath, Conan is raised up to the heavens by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman, Hellboy).
Conan the Avenger
In comparison to the other barbarian lads, Conan seems to be a runt, but he’s a brutal runt who slaughters a group of invaders during a routine endurance test and rite of passage. All things considered, though, this new Conan doesn’t suffer much; he certainly doesn’t suffer to the same messiah-like extent of Ahnuld’s barbarian. There’s no Wheel of Pain this time around, but there are plenty of orgies, or at the very least bevies of bare-breasted babes.
As presented in the Milius account, that suffering lent Conan a bit of pathos, which may or may not be necessary in a time and place where heads roll with wild abandon.
Even so, there isn’t all that much to relate to with this new Conan (Jason Momoa, TV’s Game of Thrones). His mother was dead moments after his birth and he witnesses his father’s death years later. Granted, Conan’s own actions play into that death. But Conan doesn’t live in Bruce Wayne’s world of vigilante justice; he lives in a brutal world where no self-respecting barbarian would shed a tear at the death of a loved one. There’s no time for that.
In place of a deeper sense of character, the story does offer a much bigger world for this Conan. He travels through a world that’s a mish-mash of times and places, a collage of architectural styles and engineering capabilities. And he’s given a broader skillset, as it’s told this barbarian spent a portion of his youth sailing the high seas with pirates among his globetrotting adventures.
That world allows for an exponentially more ambitious visual appeal compared to the 1982 flick. An argument could be made that at least in the respect of scope and environment creation, this Conan is the most fully-realized of the summer’s crop of comic book fare.
The Virgin and the Vulgar
As should be expected, Conan is loaded with action, but much of it falls flat amid a flurry of disengaging sword fights. All told, that makes for a rather lackluster, albeit visually slick, experience for the first half of the movie.
Then something pretty cool happens.
A virgin enters the picture.
That would be the pure blood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols, the 2009 Star Trek reboot), whom Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, Avatar) needs to resurrect his wife. Her full name is much longer and her introduction, which includes her questioning Conan’s singular name, fills the rest of the movie with a welcome energy and a vicious sense of humor. She’s loquacious, he’s monosyllabic. She’s pure in blood, he’s anything but. She’s a soulful monk, he’s a fleshly brute.
Together, they make for an interesting team. But the screenwriters don’t seem to have enough faith in the simple beauty of their unlikely pairing. Instead, the two trade verbal barbs, become a sword-fighting duo, make passionate love, then part ways in the very next scene with neither one feeling the slightest pang of emotional attachment. It’s abrupt, it’s clumsy, it’s kinda funny. But the funny in this case doesn’t seem to be intentional.
Thankfully, as circumstances would require, the two cross paths again and that leads to an entertaining climax that features the kind of action set pieces that would’ve benefited the first half.
Conan the Collage
It’s easy enough to dismiss a movie like Conan the Barbarian. At times it feels less like the setup for a series of big screen movies and more like the pilot for a syndicated TV series akin to Highlander or Xena: Warrior Princess.
And, although Conan’s stories date back to the early 1930s, there’s a whole world of cinematic imagery that this new movie seems to have plundered from, including David Lynch’s Dune, Ray Harryhausen’s classic mythological flicks, TV’s Rome, Gladiator, 300, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, heck, even the cheesy Flash Gordon of 1980.
So, once again, this Conan the Barbarian is a mixed bag.
Physically, Jason Momoa doesn’t carry the same formidable physique as Schwarzenegger, but he does offer very similar acting chops and he fills Schwarzenegger’s sandals sufficiently enough. He’s not a particularly bad actor, he’s simply one who is suited for a barbarian’s role. He’s charming in his own right and he does what he can with lines like, “I live, I love, I slay and I’m content.”