I love fantasy films, especially those from the ‘70s and ‘80s, rife with violence, gore, nudity, magic, swords, and far-away lands. In these films, men were men, and they lived and died by the sword. When I heard there was going to be a new attempt to bring Robert E. Howard’s iconic barbarian to the big screen, I was excited and apprehensive at the same time. Everything is being re-made these days, and about two years ago I stopped being surprised. It’s rare that I’m excited by a remake, but the idea of discounting the original two Conan films (which I love) and starting fresh was appealing. A new story of a familiar character has a better chance of success than to try to continue a story that trailed off over twenty years ago. As the project went on, things really started coming together and it sounded more and more interesting. The most important development, for me anyway, was the casting of Jason Momoa as Conan.
My first introduction to Jason Momoa as a barbarian was in HBO’s Game of Thrones series, where he plays Khal Drogo (one of my favorite characters from the series of books). I thought he put forth a perfect portrayal of the fierce Dothraki leader, so when I learned he was to play another barbarian, Conan, I expected greatness. I’m not sure if it was Momoa’s fault, or the director’s, or maybe even the writer’s, but I was disappointed. As Conan the Barbarian, Momoa was more sympathetic, and his actions stemmed from a sickening morality that doesn’t belong in a true barbarian. Yes, barbarians are loyal, and yes, barbarians can do good things. But a great barbarian, and Conan the Barbarian as brought to life originally by Howard, doesn’t do things out of the kindness of his heart. He is an anti-hero, he often cares about nothing, and his motivation is personal gain or survival. This is the kind of barbaric code of conduct that I want to see.
In this latest attempt to bring the barbarian to the big screen, Conan had too much heart. Yes, Jason Momoa is an amazing specimen of man-meat, but there was something too kind in his face. I don’t understand it because in Game of Thrones he absolutely looked the part, and his face was the face of an animal, a warrior, a leader of brutes. I’d like to offer up a comparison of their sexual styles to enunciate the difference. Conan made love, sweetly, and only when Tamara basically asked for it. Khal Drogo took his new wife, bent her over, and rammed her like a true barbarian, even though Daenerys did not want it. Yeah, society can be somewhat sensitive when it comes to rape and violent sex, but for crying out loud keep your sensitivities away from my barbarians. It’s almost akin to the romanticizing of werewolves. I weep to think of Conan the Conqueror in a “Team Jacob” loincloth.
Despite the weakening of Conan’s sensibilities in this new film, I do believe he was appropriately bad-ass when fighting. I’ll try not to give away anything that the previews didn’t already, but we all know that Conan was born in battle. The depiction of pre-teen Conan lived up to the lore and was one of my favorite parts of the movie. The film skipped quite a bit of his growing up, and the whole “Conan spent his early years freeing slaves” explanation was a tad bit annoying and out-of-place, but otherwise you could see the attempt to stick to Howard’s idea of, and the genre standard of, an amoral swordsman. The one character I didn’t get enough of was Bob Sapp as Conan’s friend Ukafa. He had such a great presence on the screen, and as a natural badass, I wish I could have seen him involved in more fights. On the other side of the coin, I thought the attempt at humor with Saïd Taghmaoui’s portrayal of self-proclaimed legendary thief Ela-Shan fell flat. He tried too hard, and ended up being more annoying than funny. Ron Perlman was a delight, as usual, and helped to connect me to the film early on. His performance was a little cheesy, but in a good way, and he was an endearing barbarian father.
The rest of the cast did a great job of getting into character. Stephen Lang was a powerhouse as Khalar Zym, essentially the villain of this story. Zym’s and Conan’s motivations were very similar, which made the good vs. evil aspect not so clear-cut. The difference is Zym used his past as an excuse to gain power and dominion, whereas Conan was just out for blood. Lang was a believable equal for Momoa, and it was nice to see such a level pairing. Rose McGowan as Zym’s sorcerer daughter Marique was a delightful surprise as well. I’ve always liked McGowan, but I never really considered her a great actress. Something about this role clicked with her though, and at times I forgot it was her. She and Lang worked well together and were a joy to watch. I tend to find myself annoyed by most “damsel in distress” characters, but Rachel Nichols did a good job of balancing the weak “oh save me then kiss me!” innocent girl with the “oh snap people are trying to kill me I better learn how to fight” tough girl.
The plot of the movie is simple: Conan seeks revenge on one man for the deaths of his father and his tribe. This is a return to what I love about older fantasy films. A simple plot, embellished with epic fight scenes, elaborate landscapes, fantastic cultures, and blood. The film lived up to my expectations and desires with the fight choreography. I was most impressed by the final battle in the movie; it was very inventive and exciting, the kind of final battle you would expect in a land of barbarians and sorcery. The scenery in the film was splendid. From expanses of mystical mountains to tiny trinkets in a thieves’ tavern, everything looked real. As real as anything from a fantasy realm can look, that is. I have to put a caveat in here that seeing the film in 3-D (not by choice) ruined some of the good bits for me. It was hard to see the blood and gore, and the film was so dark that it was difficult to really appreciate the details. The action scenes looked so chaotic at times that I couldn’t tell what was happening, and ended up concentrating more on holding in my vomit from being motion sick. I tried not to fault the film itself for this, because only certain directors can escape from the crushing bandwagon that is the third dimension. I would simply recommend that this film be viewed in 2-D.
The one thing I’m torn about in this film is some of the dialogue. On the one hand, the hokey-ness of certain conversations/speeches added to the charm of the film. On the other hand, this is supposed to be a rich fantasy world set in Howard’s Hyborian Age. If I come busting into some village looking for the final piece of some artifact to give me ultimate power and allow me to dominate the entire realm, I’m not simply going to say, “Where is the piece?” I’m going to make grandiose speeches and use complicated words and magic-y metaphors. But like I said, it was somewhat endearing, and made me giggle, so I suppose I accepted it. All-in-all I would recommend this film for fans of the fantasy genre, fans of action, fans of good special effects and elaborate scenery, and fans of entertainment. I give Conan the Barbarian 3.5 out of 5 nerdskulls which I ripped off nerdy spines myself in honor of barbarians everywhere. How would you rate the film?