Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian: Quite barbaric

Conan the Barbarian (2011) • View trailer for Conan the Barbarian
Two stars. Rating: R, for strong, bloody violence, gore, nudity and sensuality
By Derrick Bang

You sure didn't want to be a woman during the Hyborian Age.

Or a horse.
Conan (Jason Momoa, left) has just rescued Tamara (Rachel Nichols) from a
bad guy. Conan's now about to beat the stuffing out of said bad guy, while
Tamara cowers in terror. In fairness, Tamara soon will demonstrate quite a bit
more pluck: a good thing, because this gloomy flick needs all the personality
it can get.

The latter, apparently deemed of no value, routinely had their legs cut out from under them, in order to unseat the rider for easier dispatch on the ground.

The former, apparently deemed of minimal value, were enslaved or snatched as chattel, reflexively raped and passed among fellow mercenaries like biscuits at an afternoon tea. Which, from all appearances, seems not to have bothered these usually bare-breasted babes, who enthusiastically accepted their lustful lot in life. (I believe we call this a male-centric point of view.)

Exceptions existed, of course. Some women were lucky enough to train as sequestered monks; they lived a peaceful life until adversity forced them to demonstrate damn impressive fighting skills. (You never can tell about those monks!)

Alternatively, a growing young woman could become a witch, at which point she got to wear Freddy Krueger-style razored fingernails and summon sand demons. While remaining more or less fully clad, which I guess would have been a bonus.

These efforts at mocking levity represent the sole comedy relief you'll get from Conan the Barbarian, as humorless a thud-and-blunder bloodbath as I've seen in awhile. Yes, author Robert E. Howard's iconic warrior has been resurrected yet again: the most recent entry in a revival that began in the early 1970s, when Howard's 1930s Weird Tales novelettes were adapted into a popular Marvel Comics series, which in turn encouraged paperback reprints of the original stories and, a bit later, a 1982 film — and 1984 sequel — that boosted Arnold Schwarzenegger's nascent career.

While this new film's Jason Momoa certainly sports the necessary physique for all this hacking and slashing, he's at best only a marginally better actor than Schwarzenegger was. Young Leo Howard does a much better job as Conan's boyhood self, in this film's first act; for openers, he has a much better scowl.

Not that acting chops are of much significance. Momoa gets by on the sort of monosyllabic grunts and chopped-off sentences that Johnny Weissmuller made famous as the similarly heroic Tarzan, way back in the day. The so-called story here — stitched together by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood — is long on battlefield fury and eyebrow-raising coincidence, and short on plot logic or common sense.

Indeed, all this stuff and nonsense makes such little sense that the filmmakers found it necessary to hire Morgan Freeman for a couple of off-camera paragraphs of explanatory text, in order to set the stage. For which we should be grateful, because at least that way, we can put the key players on the proper side of the scorecard.

Actually, the advertising tag line, quoted directly from Conan's biggest speech in the entire film, pretty much says it all: "I live. I love. I slay. I am content."

Make that a lot of slaying, living by definition, and loving only once, in order to inject a token sex scene. And while Conan himself may be content with this, I suspect most viewers would beg to differ.

Director Marcus Nispel comes to us with a pedigree that includes the updated versions of Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Those sensibilities are on ample display here, courtesy of countless melees choreographed with numerous eviscerations, hacked-off limbs — and heads — and great gouts of blood. Not to mention novel methods of maiming, crushing, impaling and otherwise brutalizing eager stuntmen (and women).

Goodness, the film opens on the tasty image of Conan being "born of battle," as his father literally cuts the squalling infant from his mortally wounded mother's belly. Yum-yum.


The action takes place in the Hyborian Age, an alternate prehistoric realm that appears to lack animal life of any kind, aside from the aforementioned horses. During a prologue stolen without so much as a by-your-leave from Lord of the Rings and several other superior fantasies, we learn that an octopoid-like mask, laced with bad juju, long ago was wrenched from an evil wizard, divided into pieces and concealed by numerous tribal leaders, in order to prevent such malevolent magic from ever rising again.

Flash-forward to the "present," as Conan is brought into this world during some sort of skirmish between warring clans. A brief period of peace ensues, allowing Conan to reach boyhood, at which point he impresses his father, Corin (Ron Perlman), enough to earn a lecture on the proper method of forging a sword ... although the boy doesn't yet gain possession of the sword itself.

This cozy father/son bonding time is interrupted by the arrival of the malevolent Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, spitting his dialogue just as he did in Avatar) and his spooky young daughter, Marique. Khalar Zym has come for Corin's piece of the mask. Havoc ensues, along with much loss of life.

Conan survives; years pass. Now blessed with Momoa's mighty pecs, our Hyborian hero has made a career of freeing slaves and assorted good deed-doing, while always seeking Khalar Zym and his equally vicious acolytes. Khalar Zym, in turn, still searches for the sole descendant of the sorcerers of Acheron, whose blood – when spilled – will activate the mask's power. He is further assisted in this quest by the now-grown Marique (Rose McGowan), who has matured into a truly nasty piece of work.

Conan has picked up some allies along the way, notably Artus (Nonso Anozie), a Zamorian pirate. We never learn how or why these two become best buds, nor does Artus' presence ever amount to much. One character too many for these scripters to keep track of, I guess.

Conan and Khalar Zym conveniently find the pureblood Tamara (Rachel Nichols) simultaneously, and then the chase is on. Or, more precisely, the most recent chase. Nispel is a remarkably unimaginative director, and his film is little more than an endless series of battlefield bouts, sword fights and running. Lots of running. There's little "down time" here, and the result becomes rather tedious.

To give credit where due, Momoa and Nichols dredge up some mildly droll energy during their early scenes, as Conan comes to realize that he's found a "real woman" here. Tamara displays plenty of spunk, and her presence is welcome.

Additionally, production designer Chris August really went to town with the many intriguing locales in this much-traveled story. Whether Tamara's monastery, a beachside slavers' market or Khalar Zym's skull-shaped cliffside caves of magical misdeeds, the settings are nicely realized, and the accompanying special-effects work is equally engaging.

Or they would be, if we could see everything better.

As was the case with last year's ill-advised remake of Clash of the Titans, this new Conan suffers the indignity of badly processed, after-the-fact 3D work. The result diminishes the viewing experience in all the worst ways: Everything becomes darker, many scenes are partially blurry and the 3D isn't even used well. In short, this Conan is another poster child for all the reasons why the current resurgence in 3D has become a bad, bad, bad idea.

I'd say it ruins the movie, but, frankly, the film isn't really good enough to be ruined.

The sound mix also is pretty dreadful, with Momoa's often guttural dialogue — and that from other characters — frequently obscured by sound effects and Tyler Bates' loud but otherwise monotonous score. Again, this might be an issue in a better film, but honestly, successfully hearing what little these various characters say wouldn't make much difference.

Taken on its overall merits, this re-booted "Conan" would earn a grudging three-star rating, and if you catch a 2D version, you'll probably be entertained about that much. But this puppy's being marketed with emphasis on its "Real-D 3D" effects, and that's a mistake ... and a message that Hollywood needs to get. Enough, enough, enough with the crap 3D, apparently inserted solely to justify a premium on ticket prices.

And, sadly, enough of Conan. At least until better directors and writers can be persuaded to get involved.

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