Let’s try and kick this review off with a positive word. Conan the Barbarian is Marcus Nispel’s best film to date. I know, when your pedigree includes the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and Pathfinder, that isn’t the highest of praise. However, you could argue that Marcus improves his craft with each film. See, that’s two positive things right out the gate! One of the biggest mistakes this Conan makes (that isn’t casting Rose McGowan) revolves around the very premise of the film. Conan seeks revenge against the slayer of his father, played wonderfully by Ron Perlman, and if he happens to save the world and bed a hot she-monk in the process. Fine. As explained by those that are far greater fans of Robert E Howard’s creation than I, Conan isn’t about revenge or what is right. He’s about what is right now. He’s about surviving in a very harsh and deadly world. If that means being a thief, a pirate, a killer, or an assassin so be it. Sure, if you skewer one of his few friends, he’s gonna’ come and bash the every loving Crom out of you. He’ll even take some pleasure in killing the man that took out daddy all those years ago. But, go out of his way and take the time to save the girl in the process? Nope. Not how the last Cimmerian rolls. Still, this is a film for American tastes and we need him to right wrongs and get justice. Just know, that right off the bat this movie misses the core being of Conan the Barbarian. But, so have all the other films and television shows about him. Whether or not we will ever get a true cinematic adaptation of Howard’s work is an argument for another time.
Jason Momoa. He isn’t bad. This is nowhere near the performance we saw from him as Khal Drogo, but the potential is there. I think maybe Jason does best when he doesn’t have to speak any English. His decrees in Dothraki carried far more emotional impact than when he gives a line or two in the common tongue. There are a few instances when we see the Conan we all want, but it has more to do with the tone of the moment and less so about the actor. I mean, when Conan commands “Woman. Come here.” it just works. Although I’m pretty sure anyone could grunt that out effectively when covered in the gore of your vanquished foes. He’s still a little too pretty for my taste, but I think that’s more attributed to modern filmmaking than the actor. Next time (and I think there will be a next time) let Jason get a little dirty and scruffy. He’s playing THE barbarian, not a runway model version.
Momoa and Perlman are really the only actors trying to sell their roles. Momoa, because his hungry and this is the perfect time for him to make a run at being an honest movie star. Perlman because, well, he’s freaking Ron Perlman and even when he phones it in, you love the guy. (Side note, after taking an informal post screener poll. Other Conan fans, fellow critics, and I would watch a King Conan flick starring an aged Perlman in a heartbeat. Get on that). Stephen Lang as the villainous Khalar “Don’t Call Me Thulsa” Zym is just your baddy of the week stuff. He’s still leaps and bounds better than his wanna-be incestuous daughter Marique played by Rose McGowan. I might get that tingly feeling when I see her in Charmed reruns, but to say she can act is a stretch. Rachel Nichols rounds out the main cast as the pure-chosen-holy-strong-victim-love-goal-monk chick that everyone wants to bed in one way or another. She’s just there to drive the plot and give Conan a reason to, well, I say kill or lay, but he doesn’t really need a reason for that. He’s Conan. I’ll give Rachel this, I didn’t want to poke out my ears every time she spoke. You listening Rose? If you can’t do an accent, don’t.
Okay, so I’m really harping on the flick. Truth be told, there were quite a few times when I found myself whopping and hollering at the screen. During the first half of the flick, Nispel really embraced the full-frontal carnage and violence inherent in Conan. He set the camera back a few extra feet, ramped up the gore, and let the fight scenes play. The first half of this movie has some really great moments. Hell, the damn thing opens with a sword literally birthing Conan from his mother’s womb… That we see from inside dear old mom! I mean, come on, when you set the stage with that bit of insanity, you better keep up the pace. Alas, something happens right about the time Conan launches a henchman with a Trebuchet into the battleship drawn by elephants that everything goes to cinematic hell.
Yes. You read that line correctly. Conan shoots a man into the sky with a Trebuchet to deliver a message. A message to a man riding inside a freaking wooden battleship carried by ever-loving’ elephants!
Baby sliced out of mom on the field of battle! Elephants carrying battleships!! Ron Perlman!!! Everything we’d ever want.
Until they ran out of money and realized they still had 40 minutes of movie to make. And that pesky end boss battle. From there the fun just goes away. Sure, there is still plenty of killing. Most of which isn’t even necessary for the story, other than watching Conan kill. (Which is a legitimate reason in a Conan flick, I’ll give you that). But, the fight scenes go from open and free-flowing to a couple of folks flaying about. All while the camera crew zooms in tight and shakes the crap out of the lens as if 5-Hour Energy flows through their veins instead of blood. The movie just gets lazy. Scenes you know where meant to involve massive beasts, turn into 2nd unit dueling shots from Pirates of the Caribbean.
In all honesty, this Conan the Barbarian really wants to be a good movie. Alas, wanting and doing are two wholly different things. The seed of potential is sitting there. It just got lost under a mountain of dismembered bodies and CGI blood.