If you go into a movie like Conan The Barbarian and then come out complaining about a shallow main character or too much bloodshed then, frankly, you bought yourself a ticket to the wrong movie. These things aren’t so much complaints as aspects virtually inherent in the DNA of the character and the world he inhabits.
But there are other things worth complaining about, things that I will list here later, and this latest film outing for the sword-swinging Conan proves to be a bit of a disappointment, especially coming from the director of the thematically similar Pathfinder (not a universally popular film but I really liked it).
We start off with a little story about a great mask of power and bad people wanting to use it while good people break it apart and hide it in separate areas of the world. Moving forward many years later, young Conan is born in the middle of battle. Blood is everywhere as the baby is delivered from his wounded mother by his father (Ron Perlman). Young Conan grows up to be teen Conan, a determined and plucky young lad who can win a fight against multiple foes but sometimes lets the fire of his anger overwhelm the necessary cool of reason. Teen Conan then gets to see more carnage as he loses his loved ones and begins his journey to becoming . . . . . . . . . . . . adult Conan. We first meet adult Conan (Jason Momoa) as he helps free a bunch of slaves and then gets drunk and rowdy with his friends. He can help people in need but he doesn’t count himself as any kind of leader or good Samaritan. No, he seems to be killing time until he can kill the villainous scum he has kept in his mind since that childhood trauma (mainly Stephen Lang and his wicked daughter, played by Rose McGowan). The opportunity comes along and Conan keeps his sword at the ready as he sets out to kill people who deserve their fate while also protecting a young girl (Rachel Nichols) he can use as bait to lure the villains closer to him. Basically, this all amounts to some impressive action sequences, more than a hint of the supernatural and a finale that really feels quite anticlimactic considering the build up beforehand.
Okay then, let’s start with the good. The cast here is, generally, excellent. Jason Momoa may not be the best actor in the world but he certainly has the physical presence and skills required to play the central character. He also does well in the way that he doesn’t need to be shown in a good light – Conan is savage and sometimes dastardly and will do whatever it takes to get his revenge. Stephen Lang is a fantastic villain, did you even suspect this wouldn’t be the case? As many others have mentioned, Rose McGowan almost steals the movie as Marique, a powerful witch who wants her father to gain power so that, viewers surely surmise, she can one day get it for herself. Ron Perlman can do this kind of thing in his sleep and is as excellent here as usual. The lovely Rachel Nichols is the big disappointment here. Her character is severely underused and poorly written and the actress can’t really elevate the material and therefore suffers in comparison to her usual, bright performances.
The script, by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, is pretty poor, it has to be said. Admittedly, sword ‘n’ sorcery films aren’t usually remembered for their great scripts but this one features so many aspects that could be built into something great, and then fails to do anything with them, that it’s an inevitable disappointment. Not to mention the fact that a character as savage and basic as Conan needs an interesting supporting cast around him, which this film lacks (the baddies are good fun but nobody in the small circle of Conan’s friends really stands out).
Marcus Nispel is capable of much better but he does okay in the big chair. At least he fits in some impressive action beats, which should please fans, and allows the blood to flow freely when the swords are drawn. A wagon/horse chase, a battle with some supernatural foes and the final swordfight are just three of the more enjoyable moments, fun and athletic and gritty and bloody. It’s a shame that he couldn’t spin all of the plates at the same time and, instead, allows a few to crash to the floor (perhaps it’s telling that he doesn’t actually mention Rachel Nichols by her name until near the very end of his commentary track – was he too busy planning fights and bloodshed to remember the actors and their performance needs?).
Conan The Barbarian doesn’t outstay it’s welcome and is diverting fun from beginning to end but it’s not the spectacular reboot that fans would have wanted (as shown by the poor critical and commercial reception). However, those low box office results and scathing reviews are a bit harsh considering that the movie does try hard to please fans of the character, and this subgenre, and includes plenty of fun in amongst the flaws.
Conan The Barbarian hits shiny disc format on 12th December and may well please fans of this type of film, coming with a decent package that includes the following: 2 commentary tracks (one an enjoyable chat from director Marcus Nispel and the other one a standard, inoffensive and complimentary chat from stars Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan), a 17 minute featurette entitled “The Conan Legacy”, a 10 minute featurette entitled “Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan”, nine and a half minutes of “Battle Royale: Engineering The Acton” and approximately 5 minutes worth of pre-vis material showing how the fights were planned and shot. A mixed bag, with plenty of stuff that just feels like filler, but the commentary from Nispel is worth a listen and the two featurettes focusing more on the character and his creator certainly try to go into the legacy and enduring appeal of the character, despite the limited runtimes.
DIRECTOR: MARCUS NISPEL
WRITER: THOMAS DEAN DONNELLY, JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER, SEAN HOOD, BASED ON THE CHARACTER BY ROBERT E. HOWARD
STARS: JASON MOMOA, STEPHEN LANG, RON PERLMAN, ROSE MCGOWAN, RACHEL NICHOLS, BOB SAPP
RUNTIME: 113 MINS APPROX