Conan The Barbarian

Conan of Cimmeria was created in December of 1932 by pulp writer Robert E. Howard.  He rose to some prominence in 1966 when L. Sprague de Camp & Lin Carter edited a series of paperbacks containing edited versions of the original stories (and some of their own material) with covers by the great Frank Frazetta. He also appeared in comics published by Marvel, starting in 1970 and continuing for over 20 years.

But for many people, their image of Conan was shaped by the 1982 film, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. One common thread of all the advance press for this movie is that it is not a remake of the Arnie film, but is instead is based on the original books.

Sadly, this is not the case. 

Pop quiz.  What film am I talking about?

Conan is raised by his father, a blacksmith, who teaches him about steel.  One day, his village is attacked by a warlord (with the assistance of some savage wildmen) who destroys his village, slays his father, and takes his father's sword.  Conan grows up, and spends all his time seeking the identity of his father's killer.  In the end, he slays the warlord in the hour of his final triumph.

Admittedly, the fine details are quite different (for one, young Conan is a complete badass), but the fact that the outline is so close is quite galling, particularly since with the exception of Conan's father's profession, none of those details are in the original stories.

And that's one of the three major problems I have with the film... it's a by-the-numbers revenge plot/origin story.  When I think of all the great stories they could have adapted (one of which, Tower of the Elephant, is actually referenced in the film) however loosely, I can't help but wonder why they chose such a cliched storyline.

Another problem is also plot-related.  The villain of the piece, Khalar Zym (who is an invader, but not an Invader) spends over 20 years searching for a way to empower an evil artifact called the "Mask of Acheron".  When he finally succeeds… it's a funny hat.  What little power it has is at best a minor plot twist, and at worst a complete anti-climax.  A little more flash would have gone a long way.

The third problem is the style of camerawork for many of the fight scenes.  A lot of quick-cuts and shifting cameras, which make it nigh-impossible to tell what happened.  One fight, against some sand warriors, is interrupted for some odd reaction shots by whichever villain happens to be on the sideline at the time.  Bizarre.

That being said, the original stories weren't the greatest plots either, so this is hardly a deal-breaker. What made the stories great was Howard's characters, and it's the acting that carries that in  a film.

Jason Momoa does a good job as Conan with what he's given by the script.  While he's forced to spend much of the film in growly obsessed vengeance-seeker mode (and no, the voice isn't as bad as Bale's Batman), he does get a few chances to show humor, introspection, and a fairly nasty imagination.  He's also a LOT more cunning than you'd might expect.  If this movie warrants a sequel, I hope he gets a chance to show off a bit more.

Tamara, as played by Rachel Nichols, has an unfortunate dichotomy in her role in the film.  For much of it, she's a fairly strong character, who not only stands up for herself but has a certain amount of combat skill.  But at the end of the movie, she's reduced to screaming for Conan to save her.  (Spoiler alert: he does).  While some of it does serve a plot point (calling back to an earlier scene in the film) it lessens the character considerably.

Stephen Lang's Khalar Zym was interesting.  Some scenes suggest he was also motivated by revenge, but others have him sliding into Evil Overlord mode.  Personally, I found the former scenes much more interesting, but in the end, the latter won out, unfortunately.

The fourth main character was Zym's daughter Marique, played by Rose McGowan in an unfortunate hairpiece that makes her look like a femal Larry Fine/Londo Mollari.  Her job was pretty much to be strange, and show off her finger claw rings.  That being said, she was probably the most fun to watch, as she nibbled the scenery.

Most of the remaining cast are forgettable, and serve to either deliver exposition, give Conan someone to talk to/rescue, or give Conan someone to kill in an amusing fashion (including, at one point, with a ballista).  There are three major exceptions, all at the beginning of the film.

The first is Morgan Freeman, who narrates the beginning & end of the prologue.  His voice was a pleasant surprise.

The second is Ron Perlman as Conan's father, Corin.  While buried under some heavy makeup (a situation the actor should be quite familiar with) his portrayal is very strong, showing courage, wisdom, exasperation, and surprising tenderness.

And the last is Leo Howard, who portrays young Conan as almost as big a badass as his adult counterpart.  Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised, as a previous role was as the young Snake Eyes in G.I. JOE.  Quite honestly, I could watch a movie with just those two actors (and Freeman can narrate :) ).

In the end, the biggest weakness in this movie isn't the acting, but the script.  And that's a real disappointment.  Hopefully, if there is a sequel, the script will be more up to the task.  But I can't say I feel confident about that.

(Note:  This movie is rated R, and rightly so.  The violence is fairly graphic, and there are brief scenes of nudity, including a somewhat gratuitous love scene)


Ms. Cats Meow said...

It sounds as if the movie was what I was afraid it might be. I think I might put this near the bottom of my rental list.


Mario Di Giacomo said...

Yeah, unless you are really into creatively violent deaths, I can't honestly call this a must see. It's certainly not worth the price of a 3D ticket (I saw it in 2D).

Anonymous said...

Especially in a movie like this, having visually comprehensible fight scenes is a make-or-break thing. I still plan to see this, but I'm wary.

About the original movies: I always maintained that they were less of an adaptation of the REH stories and more of an adaptation of the Marvel comics of that time. Look at Arnold and tell me he wasn't cast for his resemblance to John Buscema's Conan.

While, from what I've seen thus far, Jason Momoa is apparently a bit closer to Barry Windsor-Smith's version.

Mario Di Giacomo said...

Honestly, I was never a fan of the comics. I do know that Priest wrote a much *smarter* Conan than Arnie.