Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)


Jason Momoa in Conan the Barbarian
Photo: Lionsgate

I didn’t expect much from Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian. I’m not a fan of the Arnold Schwarzenegger original and Nispel may have impressed me with his Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in 2003, but the train wrecks that are Pathfinder and his remake of Friday the 13th show a lack of talent and imagination. On that note, while his Conan feature is at the very least watchable, frustration begins to mount as each new scene is redundant of the last, with sequences inserted merely to forward the plot rather than being organic of that plot. In short, it’s a mess, but some early blood splatter at least promises a decent feature, though it can’t deliver in the end.

You can almost see the minds of screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood working as the film plays out, Just how do we get them from here to there and how do we do it and still include a random, sex-filled version of Twister? Oh the challenges they faced. I’ve never read Robert E. Howard’s original stories, but I have a pretty good feeling there was more to them than this.

I don’t know and I don’t care what the pitch to Lionsgate was when this landed on their desk, but if they said they wanted to turn Howard’s barbarian character into a story built on a cheap Lord of the Rings setup, told with the dexterity of Clash of the Titans then I’d say they nailed it. Add to that parkour sand monsters and Rose McGowan’s Freddy Krueger fingernails and giant forehead and you’ve got yourself a remake. However, if they were looking for a quality franchise starter with stones, this one missed the mark.

My biggest curiosity going in was wondering to what degree would this film embrace the barbarous side of Conan? After all, the fact he’s a barbarian is right there in the title, and as the film opens to a goretastically medieval Caesarean section bringing our title character screaming into the world of the living, I thought Nispel was going to go full-bore. And he does, at least for the opening moments, which are the more interesting of the bunch before we get into the CG-filled landscapes of Hyboria and battle inserts whenever Nispel gets bored with telling an actual story.

After brief, early moments spent setting up the story thanks to narration provided by Morgan Freeman (yes, Morgan Freeman) the film jumps forward in time to Conan as a young boy, striving to prove to his father (Ron Perelman) he can fight just as well as those older than him, and he does in an impressive battle sequence against a band of rogue warriors. However, this band soon turns into an army as Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) invades their tiny village looking for the last shard of the Mask of Acheron, a mask that grants the owner unearthly powers.

Conan watches as his family is slaughtered, the bone mask is completed and the journey of revenge begins as the years pass and Conan (now played by Jason Momoa) searches for Zym who is attempting to find the last descendant of the Sorcerers of Acheron whose blood will awaken the power of the mask. Of course, this “pureblood” is a woman played by Rachel Nichols (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) therefore granting us a damsel in distress and a love interest in one fell swoop.

This story plays out in as random decisions are continuously made until the planets align and everyone ends up where they need to be for one final battle. Themes are dropped and replaced with expanded ideas far reaching (please recognize the sarcasm) as Conan’s motto, “I live. I love. I slay… I am content.” It’s funny when he says this, which is fine, but there is actually a character there hoping to get out but the lack of talent involved in this production was unable to find it.

What’s most frustrating is the way the story has been created. The main objective is supposed to be Conan exacting revenge for the brutal murder of his father. Yet, it becomes a story about a man in search of a mask to rule the world and resurrect his dead wife alongside his weird daughter played by McGowan. To that point, McGowan uses this film to prove, without a doubt, she cannot act. Her performance may be the worst I’ve seen all year and that’s saying a lot after Final Destination 5. She waves her metallic, Freddy Krueger fingers around and takes on what I presume she believes to be a sinister hiss for a voice, but it’s just laughable.

Ultimately the revenge story is pushed to the side and forgotten, just as this movie will be. Nispel is now one-for-three when it comes to remaking old school franchises for the modern age. Perhaps one day he will forget about directing movies as if they are extended commercials and show some restraint. Forget the silly inserts, camera swoops and epic hero shots and just tell a story, and if your story is too thin don’t try and beef it up with battles at sea that come out of nowhere or lazy post-coital walks in the forest. Don’t offend the audience’s intelligence to recognize hack filmmaking. Yes, you will need to try harder, but true quality doesn’t come easily.