starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman
screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood
directed by Marcus Nispel
by Walter Chaw It's hard for me to hate on Marcus Nispel's unwell Conan the Barbarian too much, mainly because its failings are more a matter of incompetence than of real malice. There are few pleasures as gratifying as Robert E. Howard's testosterone-rich raving, and for a while there, the movie looks to have found the mad amplification that typified the Texan author's best work. But when the wheels come off--and they come off right around the time that Conan's dad, played by Ron Perlman (naturally), checks out--the whole mess goes careening off the proverbial cliff. If only the rest of the film were as mad as its opening, with a young Conan (Leo Howard) demonstrating his innate birthright to slay every single thing within arm's reach by presenting two handfuls of severed-head to his thunderstruck village after a brutal scuffle in the forest. The level of lawlessness in its first half-hour is as legendary as the brilliant prologue to John Milius's original, from Conan's birth-by-unplanned-Caesarean on a raging battlefield to the presence of none other than Morgan Freeman, lured into a payday to provide solemn narration.
Once Conan grows up to be Billy Zane's buff little brother, however, the picture becomes a series of slaughter sequences intercut with torture sequences and, by the end, desperate-feeling sorcery bits involving dust men of uncertain properties and an unseen, tentacled thing in an arbitrary pool. At least in Milius's film, Conan was fighting a snake god, thus explaining the giant snake. Here, the baddies are warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his whacked-out daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, typecast), engaged in a decades-long quest to find first the pieces of an evil bone-mask, then the "pure blood" descendant of an ancient race, Tamara (the perfect-looking Rachel Nichols), whose aforementioned blood will make the damned thing work. Honestly, even when it got going, I didn't have a clear idea of what it did, making it a particularly conspicuous and distracting MacGuffin.
Indeed, all of Conan the Barbarian could be described as conspicuous and distracting. It's scattered and without any kind of compass. It takes pains to intertitle its locations without similar pains to establish where they are in geographic relation to each other; it has Conan (sullen Jason Momoa) care enough about his girlfriend to refuse to drop her to her death but not enough to not abandon her repeatedly or carelessly leave her to her own devices. It's a frustrating film in a lot of ways, not the least because I really, really wanted to like it. Its troubles are perhaps encapsulated in the classic pulp motto "I live, I love, I slay, I am content" that Conan intones in the film. In the Howard text, it reads: "I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, I am content." This would seem a small thing, the elision of four words, except that Howard's eloquence (some would say grandiloquence) is lost in that simplification. Lacking the rough code of masculinity, the honour that Howard ascribed to his savages. Conan the Barbarian is a film of postures--Frank Frazetta's covers without Howard's prose to give them the "ape, roaring and red-handed" beneath civilization's clothes. Without that poetry, all it is is base. And stupid. And boring. Originally published: August 19, 2011.