‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
The best thing you can do if you plan on seeing the spirited remake of Conan the Barbarian this weekend is wipe away any and all memories of the original film. Any comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1982 pulp-and-sorcery classic will only limit your ability to enjoy the Hyborian Age insanity unspooling at your friendly neighborhood multiplex.
The new Conan is a movie that’s good at being bad. It is what it is, a surprisingly straightforward revenge tale that’s also an exercise in cinematic savagery. Compassion is an endangered species here, as is subtlety. What’s that you say? You want a high body count? Bring a well-charged calculator to see this movie.
How many different ways can minions be impaled and dissected? By my count, at least a dozen. Watching this picture is the visual equivalent of listening to early Metallica; it's a Bombardment of the senses.
That's not to say there isn't anything to like about the film. Its streamlined nature actually works quite well in delivering a bloody good time. Conan the Barbarian is pulp action adventure that has no desire to do anything other than collect a bunch of "Wow, did he really just do that?" reactions from the audience.
Jason Momoa is better than advertised in the title role. He brings a completely different energy to the role than Schwarzenegger did. Instead of the lumbering beast Arnold portrayed, Rebooted Conan is more of a wild child. In HBO’s Game of Thrones, he had the swagger that comes with being King - or Khal. Here, he's the Angry Young Cimmerian, who will unsheathe his sword as quickly and as often as he flips his crazy long mane of hair.
Why is Conan carrying such a chip on his shoulder? Revenge, naturally. He’s hunting the warlord who massacred his village and killed his father.
All of this happens very quickly. We fast-forward many years ahead, and we find a fully-grown Conan as a sort of Robin Hood. He wanders from city to city, attacking the corrupt and freeing the weak.
"No one should be a slave," he says at one point, before attacking a slave trader and freeing the imprisoned. Of course, he then proceeds to take one of the slave girls away for his own 'amusement.'
But it's ok, because Momoa's got a twinkle in his eye in certain scenes designed to remind us not to take him, or the film, very seriously.
As for the rest of the story…Well, there's an ancient mask made up of bones of various tribal leaders that Khalar Zym wants to reassemble, because it promises its wearer unlimited power. More important to Zym, it will allow him the chance to bring his wife back from the dead. He’s traveled across many lands over many years to bring the pieces back together, killing anyone in his path, including Conan's village.
As Zym, Stephen Lang once again proves up to the challenge of bringing the bad.
He snarls his way through the movie. Saddled with ridiculous dialogue, Lang nonetheless makes Khalar Zym one of those memorable villains every guilty pleasure needs. Every time he spits out "barbarian" in Conan's direction, you half expect Ukla and Ariel to come riding by in the background.
For a film shot on location in Bulgaria, “Conan” is remarkably lacking in any sense of scope and expanse. People in this fictional era must be really good at traversing vast distances, because there isn't a single one of those transitional scenes we usually get in most films with swords and sandals, where the hero trudges across rugged terrain. It’s as if the entire film takes place within the five Boroughs of Cimmeria.
In Conan the Barbarian, ships sail across remarkably calm seas. Conan himself sprints to wherever he's going. That urgency is spread across the film. In a way, the relentless speed in which things move helps mask some of the film’s flaws. You know, minor things like incoherent plot points and dialogue exchanges.
Even the opening setup narration by Morgan Freeman (is he the only guy allowed to do voiceovers in Hollywood anymore?) seems rushed. Director Marcus Nispel, Hollywood’s resident remake expert (he’s helmed reboots of Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), apparently didn't want some pesky pacing issues to interrupt the flow of onscreen blood.
The production design blends straw and mud villages with CGI-enhanced landscapes that seem left over from Prince of Persia. That strange contrast also cripples the movie’s chance at giving off any sort of ‘epic adventure’ vibe that the original had.
The plot takes detours onto the supernatural highway as Conan hunts down Zym.
In one of the better fight sequences in the movie, he faces off against a squad of undead warriors made of dust, awakened by Zym's lunatic daughter, Marique.
Curiously, this is one of the very few scenes in which blood doesn't flow freely. The dust warriors just crumble.
In spirit and in costume design, Marique seems like a bizarro world ancestor of Helena Bonham Carter. Rose McGowan gives off a creepy vibe as the witch with an eye toward the future. She wants to help her dad get over her mom, a tad too much.
For a movie set in a time and place when women are treated like possessions, McGowan and Rachel Nichols actually get some quality screen time.
Nichols plays a monk named Tamara, whose pure blood makes her a very important player in the proceedings. Her character and Conan don't exactly hit it off at first. He gags her and ties her up at one point. Another time, he remarks that she "looks like a harlot."
Cimmerian women, Conan points out, wear body armor. Politically correct, our hero is not.
Nichols gets several chances to lighten the mood and delivers each time. And that’s one reason why it's easy to overlook some of the movie's shortcomings: the actors are likeable and extremely committed to their roles.
Ron Perlman especially nails his brief role; so what if he looks like a Hyborian homeless guy?
Momoa, as stated earlier, does his job and then some. Done no favors by the simplistic script, he’s forced to carry the picture like a backpack. It’s a good thing he’s ripped.
Whereas in Game of Thrones Momoa has to contain it beneath layers of grunts and wordless expression, here he gets to cut loose. The charisma that was on full display at Comic Con International: San Diego seeps through the camera lens. He also has the physique and the moves to pull off the movie’s challenging fight scenes.
With all the swordplay in the film, it’s surprising that it doesn’t get repetitive by the end. Credit to Nispel and his stunt coordinators for clever staging. The highlight is the climactic dual-sword faceoff between Conan and Zym.
Along the way, we’re treated to a buffet of violence. Noses are sliced off, chests cut open, heads removed from bodies -- an early scene featuring an adolescent Conan is particularly gruesome.
This is the mission statement for this new Conan.
He is the Punisher of his time, a Stone Age vigilante with no mercy. He makes no apologies for who and what he is, and neither does this movie. It’s solidly silly entertainment for those who like their thrills with a healthy splash of crimson.