Wednesday 24 August 2011

Somehow, barbarism should be more fun

I'm not ashamed to call Conan the Barbarian (1982) one of my favourite films. Aside from Arnie's most iconic performance outside the Terminator franchise, Conan the Barbarian benefits from being a truly unique beast. It's not, I've realised, so bad it's good: rather, it is a great film and a terrible film rolled into one, and the result is glorious and dreadful to behold.

John Milius really did believe that to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women was to live fulfilled; and so he set about making a film embodying that philosophy as earnestly as he could. Conan the Barbarian absolutely would not work as camp; but because Milius wanted to make it good, he made sure he had fantastic production values and music, so that the film is so earnest and well-crafted in its total preposterousness that one cannot help loving it.

But enough of that; I was supposed to talk about the new Conan film,  starring Jason Momoa. While comparisons with the Milius film are inevitable, I regret to inform you that Conan the Barbarian (2011) bears rather more similarity to director Marcus Nispel's wretched 2007 effort Pathfinder, a picture against which I hold a particular grudge because it ruined Indians and Vikings, two of the things that are best in life, at once.

Anyway, the plot, which is unrelated to the Schwarzenegger Conan continuity: Conan (Jason Momoa) is born on the battlefield and taught the ways of the Cimmerian barbarians by his father (Ron Perlman). When Conan is still a child, his village is overrun by the evil warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his daughter, the witch Marique (Rose McGowan). Conan alone escapes and eventually becomes a mighty barbarian warrior adventuring with the pirate Artus (Nonso Anozie). Through a series of contrived events, Conan discovers that Khalar Zym is alive and attempting to become all-powerful through the ritual sacrifice of the nun (or 'monk', according to the film) Tamara (Rachel Nichols). Conan becomes Tamara's protector and pursues Khalar Zym, seeking vengeance.

Right, time for a head-on comparison between the old and the new film. Let the barbarian-off begin!

The lead. It's hard to better Schwarzenegger's brilliant-awful performance in the 1982 film, and Jason Momoa does not quite make it. He's hampered by his ability to speak English and, improbably, the fact that he's a better actor, as his excellent work as (you guessed it) a barbarian on Game of Thrones proves. So Momoa makes the mistake of trying to develop a take on a character that is not so much underwritten as just not written. That said, I still rather like his Conan, and he's certainly got the physique down: Momoa's body is a work of art, as I noted with considerable jealousy. Schwarzenegger is funnier, but Momoa is more human.

The supporting cast. I can't express how disappointed I am here, but the odds are firmly stacked against our ragtag bunch of actors. Their characters are either totally flat or screaming stereotypes. The 1982 film was made by James Earl Jones's riveting performance as Thulsa Doom, a warlord turned cult leader; Stephen Lang, though absurdly badass in Avatar (and hilarious in The Men Who Stare At Goats), does not know what to do with his boringly power-hungry baddie (neither does the script). Rachel Nichols is totally flat, Rose McGowan suffers from a poor character, and Ron Perlman is not given enough scenery to chew.

The script. The 1982 film had a charmingly absurd story. The new film makes no more sense, although at least one storyline is followed fairly consistently. Nonetheless, the script is full of bizarre choices, such as plenty of mini-bosses who are simply never established as characters, yet the audience is expected to care when Conan fights them. Ultimately the plot here is strictly formula. There are a few good, if clichéd lines: 'No man should live in chains' would be better if it was at a more meaningful point in the narrative, but 'I live. I love. I slay. I am content' (from the Howard stories) really pleased my inner barbarian.

The production design. Khalar Zym travels overland in a ship carried by eight elephants, which is precisely the sort of glorious-terrible idea Milius might have had. Apart from that, the production design is unfortunately strictly formula and, once again, many of the props seem to be leftovers from Pathfinder. The cinematography is nothing special.

Direction and style. Frankly, Marcus Nispel's hyperactive directorial style does not appeal to me at all; one sometimes wishes the stately action direction of the eighties would make a return. There's rather too much cutting, and while the fights are well-choreographed, they're hardly exciting. And I was distressed to see just how blatantly Nispel was stealing from the climactic battle of Jason and the Argonauts in one particular scene (I suppose it's a 'homage'.)

Barbarity. Ultimately it's not called Conan the Barbarian for nothing, and if you're anything like me you can appreciate some good barbarity. While the 1982 film was really quite violent, it's rather outdone by the sheer amount of blood here, and yet only some of the slaying is, strictly speaking, awesome. (Although one scene, in which Conan smeared his enemies' blood on his face, had me squealing in delight.) There's quite a bit of naked flesh on display, and in an early scene Conan is followed and, er, entertained by female slaves he has freed. As for the peaks of barbarity, the new film references the Milius picture's infamous camel-punching scene with a shot in which Conan hits a horse in the face with a chain (although the rat-kicking scene is unfortunately not revived). The mood of the moment, however - grim and gritty - , is quite different from the cheerful, drunken animal abuse of the original.

The verdict. Conan the Barbarian (2011) has its rewards, but they're buried beneath a tedious story and virtually non-existent characters. While the film is slicker than the original (not for it the earnest terribleness of parts of the 1982 picture), it is also much flatter and interchangeable with any other sword-and-sorcery film you might have seen recently - say, 2010's similarly uninspired Clash of the Titans remake. I wanted preposterous and barbaric, but Conan the Barbarian simply will not go over the top, condemning it to mediocrity. All I wanted was to find out how Conan became a king by his own hand; but I fear we will not see that story in our lifetime.

In this series: Conan the Barbarian (1982) | Conan the Destroyer (1984) | Red Sonja (1985) | Conan the Barbarian (2011)


  1. Awwww man, I was going to go and see that with you and Helpsy... oh well, I don't suppose you'd want to see it again?

  2. Actually I do - I wanted to see it with you guys too, but I wasn't sure we'd have time. It definitely has enough good bits to make a second viewing worth it.