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‘Conan the Barbarian’: Great Characters In a Not So Great Movie [Review]

Here’s the thing about making a movie about Conan the Barbarian: his creator, Robert E. Howard, is such a definitive creator in the sword & sorcery genre that he’s influenced and been imitated in countless stories. As a result, when you set out to create a modern take on his creations, it’s easy to fall into the trap of recycling elements that have become standard fare for fantasy barbarians over the past eighty years, while completely missing what makes Conan himself such a unique character. And honestly, based on the trailers, that’s what I thought was going to happen in the new Conan the Barbarian movie, just like it’s happened before.

But then, about a half hour into it, Conan cut off a man’s head and then punched another man in the face with the severed head, and I knew that wasn’t going to be the problem. (SPOILERS FOLLOW)That’s the core strength of this movie. Well, two strengths really, but the fact that the violence in the movie was even more savage, brutal and over-the-top than I expected it to be after writing this article ought to tell you something. But really, the best thing you can say about Conan the Barbarian is that the character of Conan himself is almost perfect.

As much as I like John Milius’s 1982 Conan film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger — a movie and a performance that I think I’m contractually obligated to compare Jason Momoa’s Conan to — I really think it drops the ball in capturing what’s great about the character right at the start. We all remember Arnold capping off his prayer to Crom with a snarling “and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!“, and that’s awesome, but that’s a movie that opens with Conan spending a decade of his life as a slave.

That in itself is a huge departure from Howard’s Conan, who is both figuratively and literally unrestrained in his actions and his outlook, and that’s something that director Marcus Nispel and the screenwriters seem to latch onto for their version.

The movie spends a surprising amount of time on Conan’s youth, to the point where it actually opens on Conan as a fetus. It’s meant to show the brutality that surrounds Conan from even before he was actually born, but as a quick sidenote, I’ve recently gotten around to playing Assassin’s Creed 2 and Fallout 3 for the XBox, and both of those games also open with the protagonist being born. I have to wonder if this is just coincidence, of if there’s some new trend of fetus-based prologues in pop culture, and if there is, it can stop any time now.

Nispel’s version preserves the idea that Conan’s on a mission of revenge to kill the man who murdered his people, but by the time that scene happens, we’ve already seen Conan savagely killing four grown warriors at the age of twelve while he’s out in the woods alone and unarmed, bashing their heads in with rocks and decapitating them with their own axes. It’s genuinely thrilling, exciting stuff, establishing that this Conan a badass from day one, long before Momoa gets even a second of screentime.

And when we do finally see Momoa, the first act of the adult Conan is to take on a camp of slavers, thoroughly butchering them and freeing their mandatory lusty wenches. Taken together with the fact that Nispel’s Conan is already the implacable force of raw id when he’s a child, it’s hard not to see it as a rebuttal to Milius’s opening that strives to set things straight. It’s even part of his primary motivation, and while there were people who rolled their eyes at Momoa’s delivery of “no man should live in chains” when the trailer hit, that’s pretty much Conan’s philosophy delivered in the blunt, simple style that’s appropriate for the character.

To his credit, Momoa pulls it off really well. And as a guy who’s primarily a fan of the comics, it doesn’t hurt that Momoa pretty much looks like he just stepped out of a John Buscema drawing, especially when he starts hacking his enemies limbs off, which he does a lot.

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without at least touching on the sheer amount of insane violence they pack in to earn that R rating. It’s lurid to the point of comedy; no one in this movie dies without a huge, Zatoichi-esque gout of blood shooting out of their body, even when there’s no actual cutting involved. At one point, a guy gets thrown back-first against a rock while wearing armor, and when he falls away, the rock has this enormous bloodstain on it, indicating that he was thrown against it so hard that his blood exploded through his armor.

The only time I can think of that someone gets hit and there isn’t a geyser worthy of Evil Dead is when Conan knocks out a horse by smacking it with a chain.

And even that is hilarious!

But at the same time, I love it. After all, the images that we have of Conan in pop culture from guys like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo aren’t exactly what you’d refer to as “subtle” by any stretch of the imagination.

Transferring that kind of over-the-top aesthetic to the screen in the form of truly ludicrous levels of violend bloodshed isn’t just fun, it makes sense. Everything in the world of Conan is taken to the next level, and the gallons of blood that fly out of the bad guys as they’re slaughtered fits right in with that in a way that a more realistic take wouldn’t have. Again, it works with the character.

Unfortunately, Nispel drops his really well done version of Conan into a movie that, as a story, is not very good. The plot is pretty standard fare for Conan — and by extension, for sword and sorcery at large — to the point where it almost feels like they read a stack of Savage Sword comics and made a checklist of the most common elements.

There’s an evil wizard (check) after an ancient artifact (check) that will grant him the power of an evil god (check) through a ritual of darkest magic (check) that will involve killing a beautiful maiden (check) who has recently gained Conan’s affections (check), and will take place in his unassailable fortress (check) which is built within a rock shaped like a skull (check).

As much as it’s a familar setup, the characterization of Conan and even Tamara, the maiden/shaolin monk played in a pretty entertainnig fashion by Rachel Nichols, would be enough to make it a solid, entertaining flick — except for the part where the last 45 mintues or so go completely off the rails.

There’s a part where Conan has to go to the bad guy’s fortress, so he recruits his buddy the master thief to help him. They break in, and then get in this huge set piece fight with a tentacle monster referred to in a callback to Howard’s stories as “The Dweller,” which, incidentally, is introduced by a dude who made the most of his ten minutes of screentime by chewing scenery to an extreme that I can’t help but admire. It’s a perfectly in-character thing for Conan to do, but with the conflict that’s been building between Conan and the Evil Wizard, introducing a new monster out of nowhere and having them fight when we know full well that Conan is an unstoppable warrior is exactly what it shouldn’t be: It’s boring.

And to make matters even worse, when that fight’s over, Conan and his pal just look out the window and see that the Evil Wizard is going over to the skull-shaped rock, so they should probably just go there. And then they leave the castle, presumably because the wizard only had six guards for an entire fortress.

I think I get the why of it. The moving of the plot from one big set piece to the next seems to be a clear attempt at hearkening back to Conan’s roots in the pulps, a series of increasingly dire cliffhangers. In practice, though, it just doesn’t work. It feels like padding, or worse, like a really awful D&D session your DungeonMaster gives you to kill time while he or she writes the real adventure.

It doesn’t stop there, either. As I mentioned, the entire premise of the film centers on the evil wizard, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) trying to get this crown so that he can get god powers, and the fact that you can see him wearing it in the trailer means that it’s not much of a spoiler to say that he succeeds:

The problem is that these powers he’s supposed to get never show up, and this is never acknowledged. One would think that if you suddenly got evil god powers, you would probably use them to fight Conan, but no. They just slug it out with swords.

You could argue that he’s already using his powers to do what he said he was going to do for the whole movie, bringing his dead wife’s soul back to possess Tamara, but even that’s something the movie seems to completely forget about for about ten minutes. The possession eventually shows up, but only once it’s suddenly convenient for the script, as though The Late Mrs. Evil Wizard was taking her sweet time clawing herself out of the underworld. The whole sequence turns an obvious and pretty unnecessary McGuffin into a plot device that doesn’t even make sense based on its own rules, and almost tanks the whole movie.

Even with what I think is as good a take on Conan as Schwarzenegger’s, it’s going to suffer by comparison to the earlier film, and rightly so. That said, I have to say that I still enjoyed it, and if the intent was to restart the franchise, I genuinely hope it works. If we can get this Conan into a movie with a solid script, it’ll be well worth it.

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