It’s officially blockbuster season, and forcible attempting to be this year’s biggest box office success is Conan the Barbarian 3D, swinging and punching its brand of ultra stylized violence into the subconscious of those un-familiar with the rich mythological history which accompanies the film. Conan is a no holds barred, action adventure whose purported brutal approach to entertainment has left many foaming at the mouth in anticipation.
With an estimated budget of $80 million, Conan certainly hasn’t scrimped on the fake blood and replica weaponry its fan’s have been demanding (although it appears the purse began to run dry when it came to costume design, with most of the cast half naked throughout). After a brief historical exposition, explaining the folklore behind this desolate foreign land and the black magic which has so far enslaved its civilisation, we’re thrust straight into the action. Comfortably positioned next to the unborn Conan, inside his mother’s womb, we’re rudely awoken by a blade piercing her flesh and barely missing our future hero. On the external battlefield we can see the extent of the damage to this warrior woman and Conan’s father is forced to perform a caesarean under the kind of unsterile conditions The Daily Mail columnists must conjure up the moment they think about NHS hospitals. Born on the battlefield and by the blade of his chieftain father, Conan was clearly never going to be anything other than a warrior, yet those worrying about the effects of a child born so prematurely need not worry as Jason Momoa, cast as the future version of our eponymous hero, shows no signs of stunted growth, unintentionally dominating the screen with his goliath presence and ridiculous muscles which instantly emasculate any male viewers in the cinema (no one close to his physical stature could possibly sit in an Odeon cinema chair).
The plot is simple enough. A stereotypical malevolent villain comes searching for the missing piece of an ancient artefact which will give him supreme power over all off the world. During his quest he kills a young boy’s father whilst sparing said boy, who, grows up into an all powerful fighting machine and seeks vengeance for the heinous crimes committed in his village and the death of his dutiful patriarch. Other than that there’s little else here other than a collection of meaningless scenes of extreme violence and a trail of collateral damage, slowly leading to an inevitably bloody ending. Despite this disparaging synopsis, you’d be ignorant to think that there isn’t a need for this form of escapist cinema and, if done correctly, can be just as rewarding as any highbrow thriller. However, Conan depends to heavily on its abundance of gore, with little emphasis on plot, ultimately resulting in these numerous, tense battles lacking any emotional resonance due to its two dimensional characters and their lack of any substantial development. Indeed when the film does attempt to inject some misguided sentiment it falters instantly due to a complete lack of interest in anything these characters accomplish which doesn’t involve some degree of physical exertion.
The supporting cast manage to make the most out of a bad hand. Ron Perlman, who despite his limited screen time, creates an earnest and surprisingly believable mentor in his role as the tribe’s leader and Conan’s father. In fact his scenes teaching young Conan the importance of patience over enthusiasm; “neither fear death, or rush needlessly to meet it” , carry the most interest, even if they’re mildly reminiscent of the Batman Begins training montage between Liam Neeson and Christian Bale. Stephen Lang perfectly displays a level of unequivocal evil, (whilst seemingly having a lot of fun) in the role of the film’s villain Khalar Zym, yet Rose McGowan as his exquisitely demonic daughter, Marique, undoubtedly steals the show. Jason Momoa, despite his physical resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan, comes across as an incredibly wooden affectation of this much loved character. Perhaps primarily due to the script he’s working with rather than any lack of talent, it remains an unfortunate tumbling block for a film with such a strong focus on one individual.
However, you don’t go to see Conan in search of a tour-de-force performance and well rounded characterisations, you go for the action – something the film prides itself on delivering by the bucket load. Yet, whilst the opening thirty minutes are certainly an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of sword fights and fisty cuffs (with more bloodshed than the floor of an overworked abattoir) the violence soon becomes stale which coupled with Marcus Nispel’s limp and meandering direction makes a relatively simple plot feel laboured. The stakes are never particularly high and with the audience quickly becoming desensitized to the constant onslaught of meaningless fight scenes, the only thing that remains worth get worked up about is the diabolically lacklustre dialogue that despite its monosyllabic grounding still manages to become overly chauvinistic and deeply bigoted. At just shy of two hours, Conan feels overly long, with the retrofitted 3D, implemented to amplify the film’s purported thrill a minute, action packed story, only adding to this disappointment, with the final act (set deep within a dark and damp lair) becoming impenetrably murky due to the inevitable loss of brightness from this stereoscopic projection. It all culminates in an underwhelming and forgettable ending that would be classed as an anticlimax if they’d been anything close to an ounce of interest in the narrative reaming by this point.
Conan’s mythological and fantastical world unfortunately fails to capitalise on the high levels of excitement its opening adrenaline fuelled set piece creates. However, the film’s biggest crime is how utterly anonymous and devoid of imagination it is, especially considering the source material it’s adapted from. This misguided combination of eighties nostalgia and raw brutality is sadly too heavily weighted towards its lust for high octane adventure than in appeasing fans of the original. Sadly Conan fails to entertain on even the most basic of cinematic levels, not even worthy of a hazy Saturday night viewing.
Conan the Barbarian is out in cinemas 24th August 2011.
Director: Marcus Nispel
Stars: Jason Momoa, Ron Perlman, Rose McGowan
Runtime: 112 min