When you think of the fantasy genre, I’m struggling to think of any modern characters that stand as tall as Conan the Barbarian. The creation of fiction writer Robert E. Howard, Conan appeared in the fiction anthology series, “Weird Tales”, that also featured work from playwright Tennessee Williams and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. With Conan, Howard created many of the tropes and ideas that became standard for fantasy writers to emulate and copy until today. His stories were filled with action scenes and moved briskly. Conan often acted as much out of personal interest as he acted for a nobler purpose – an anti-hero. That said, he was capable of seeing a greater need for help when it arose. Sometimes Conan would rescue princesses and fight wizards and monsters. Other times Conan would be stealing from the princes of his world. He followed no star and no code of ethics but his own as he travelled across the many lands of Hyboria.
And a lot of what I just said can be seen in this latest adaptation of Conan the Barbarian. Jason Momoa’s take on Conan is different from the iconic performance Arnold Schwarzenegger gave in John Milius’ 1982 classic but it feels as much a Conan as Arnold’s. Momoa’s Conan is also a victim of warfare (born in battle and forced to see his tribe killed) and he’s as adept a fighter. He also likes to brood and think. But he’s someone capable of laughing and making friends and allies. He draws loyalty from all those he meets. He sees injustice and fights it – and then proceeds to enjoy a night of drinking and partying with the very slaves he saves. I would love to see another Conan movie with Jason Momoa leading it.
In fact, any problem that anyone can have with this movie cannot be laid at the feet of the actors as they all did admirably well. Stephen Lang acquits himself quite well as the villainous warlord Khalar Zym. Rose McGowan hams it up as Marique, Zym’s daughter and witch. Ron Perlman does his usual Ron Perlman to portray Conan’s father (I’m trying to remember if his name is said out loud). Everyone does the job required and manages to make the world of Conan come to life.
What they can’t do is save the story. There’s prophecies, ancient bloodlines, mythical items and whatnot – to the point that I started thinking this was the sword and sorcery version of The Da Vinci Code. (Actually, the closest comparison I can make is to The Chronicles of Riddick. And that’s not a good comparison). The difficulty in all of this is that none of the plot or story helps or makes sense. Conan is on a quest for vengeance. Fine. That should really be it. Khalar Zym and Marique are built as these dark magic worshippers who are desperate to bring back their sacrificed wife/mother – who we see in one flashback scene – and require an ancient mask that the Cimmerians smashed thousands of years ago as well as the blood of Rachel Nichols’ Tamarra and….
Go back to the ‘82 movie: Why does Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) raid Conan’s village? Why does he butcher the men and women and sell the children off into slavery? No one knows. It’s not explained by anyone. By the time the question is posed by Conan to Thulsa Doom, even he can’t remember. Nor does it matter. All it does is set Conan in his path for vengeance; forging him into the man he’s going to be.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about is the opening narration. In this current version, they have Morgan Freeman telling you the background of the Acheron necromancers and their war of conquest that was halted by the barbarian tribes of Cimmeria and how they smashed their mythical mask to pieces, as well of the prophecy of someone trying to put it back together. Some have said it feels off because Freeman’s smooth delivery really doesn’t fit the harsh, brutal story of Conan. I think it’s just too verbose. Here, compare it to the original narration by Mako (R.I.P.)
See? Simple. Elegant. Says nothing of what you’re going to see, but sets the table beautifully.
There’s too much going on for no apparent reason. The fight sequences are shot so that you can’t tell at times what is going on – a major peeve of mine. If you hired fight choreographers and stunt guys and trained the actors to prepare for these fights, let me see the artistry and the talent. The fight with the tentacle monster is weird because at no point is it established if it’s one monster with many tentacles, monsters with tentacles or just giant snake-like monsters. You’d think that be revealed at some point.
And the pacing is just weird because, with so much going on, this thing flies. It’s fight, grunt, fight, grunt, fight, talk, fight, talk, fight, talk, fight, end. When adult Conan finally comes face-to-face with Zym, I was beginning to think that the movie was about to finish. Then I checked my watch and saw we’d only seen an hour or so. How can things move so fast and yet not stick with you? Oh and I said “grunt” for a reason. In the first 20-30 minutes, I was certain that most of the dialogue was going to be variations of “GRRRR”.
So is Conan The Barbarian a good movie? No. Is it a fun movie? If you like sword and sorcery fantasy, perhaps. I think this is the kind of movie that would work well with an Alamo Drafthouse audience of Howard geeks and action-fantasy fans. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it found a cult audience of people who liked Momoa’s take and push for a sequel that can improve upon the flaws of this version. In fact, I hope it does. I’d love to see what a John Milius or a Walter Hill or Robert Rodriguez would do with this franchise and this lead. If nothing else, they’d give us more memorable Conan moments.