When it comes to Sword and Sorcery flicks, John Milus’ Conan the Barbarian has long represented the high water mark of the genre. Now, that’s not saying a whole helluva lot, considering that its stable mates include such laughably bad cash-in flicks as Beastmaster, Krull, and The Sword and the Sorcerer, but, unlike those films, Milius’ Conan still holds up very well to this day, thanks mostly to a star-making performance by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. The success of Conan looked to be the start of something big for Robert E. Howard’s cranium crushing creation, but, sadly, the insipid Conan the Destroyer (featuring a woefully miscast Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain) derailed any hopes of a franchise. Over the next twenty years, Schwarzenegger and Milius tried (and failed) to bring Conan back to the silver screen. Just when it looked as though it would happen, with the then white-hot Wachowski Brothers signed on to produce, the much anticipated King Conan: Crown of Iron was once again put on the back burner when Schwarzenegger took on the role of Governor of California. As time passed, it became increasingly unlikely that the aging action star would be able to return to the role that made him a household name, but who could possibly replace him?
Enter Jason Momoa; a hunky Hawaiian beef slab whose most high profile role to date was on Baywatch as a…well…hunky Hawaiian beef slab. The announcement that he’d be donning the animal skins for director Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian re-boot was met mostly with shrugs, but, once fans saw the man in character, one thing was certain; at least he looked the part. The question was would he and Nispel be able to pull off a Conan movie that would make fans forget about the gap-toothed Austrian?
Of course, the answer turned out to be a big fat no. Conan the Barbarian failed to click with both critics and moviegoers, meaning we’ve probably seen the last of Momoa in a loincloth (at least on film), and, to me, that’s a damned shame as I felt that the actor really did shine in the role. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty much the only truly good thing about the film.
As is the way of the reboot, Conan the Barbarian starts at the very beginning, with a jarringly out-of-place piece of narration by Morgan Freeman, describing how our titular warrior was born. We watch as Conan’s father, Corin (Ron Perlman), carves his newborn out of the womb of his dying wife, holds the baby aloft amidst a clashing swords and a rain of arrows, and emits a feral cry to the gods. We next see Conan as a young boy (played by Leo Howard), taking part in a warrior’s test in which he and several older, much bigger competitors are meant to run the gauntlet of the surrounding woods with a small egg in their mouths. The first to return to camp with the egg intact will join their warrior brethren, thus symbolizing their ascent into manhood. The group is beset upon by a quartet of berserkers, however, but while the rest of the boys run screaming back to camp, Conan stands his ground, ultimately returning to the village with the heads of four berserkers in tow. He drops the heads at his father’s feet, and then spits out the egg, still intact, to the amazement of those around him.
Even in pre-adolescence, Conan is a total badass, but not even he can save his village when it is invaded by a power mad cultist named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his followers. Zym seeks the final piece of an ancient mask forged from the skulls of dead kings that had long ago been shattered by the tribes of Hyboria, with each piece scattered across the land. This final piece lay in Corin’s possession and, after retrieving it, Zym and his followers sets Corin’s foundry ablaze, leaving him chained to his smelter and Conan as the only thing standing between his father and a bath of molten steel. As the hut burns around them, Corin sacrifices himself to save his son, and Conan is left alone to wander the wilds, fueled by the knowledge that one day he will have his revenge.
When we next meet Conan (Momoa), he is in league with a group of spirited pirates, liberating the scantily clad servants from a slave camp, and returning with them to the city of Messianta for a rousing celebration that’s interrupted when the city guard barge in seeking the thief, Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui). Conan recognizes one of his pursuers – the guard captain Lucius, whose nose Conan lopped off during Zim’s attack on his village. Seeing Lucius as a way to get to Zym, Conan attacks the guards and then offers himself up for arrest, where he’s then taken to Lucius’ prison. Once inside, Conan kills Lucius’ men, and then beats the whereabouts of Zym out of him before sacrificing him to the prisoners. It’s here that Conan learns of Zym’s plans to capture a “pure blood” descendent of the sorcerers who created the mask, and use her blood to unlock its true power. Armed with this information, Conan ventures off to stop Zym, and avenge the death of his people.
Conan the Barbarian suffers from the very same issues that plagued Nispel’s much-maligned Pathfinder, with incomprehensibly filmed action sequences, clumsy editing, and a far too little by way of character development. It’s one of those movies where you constantly find yourself rewinding bits to try and get a handle on what it is you’ve just witnessed, and, even then, scenes are either blocked so poorly, murkily lit, or just so haphazardly staged that you can’t make fuck all out of it. Matters are made worse by an overly macho script that oozes more testosterone than Chaz Bono’s medicine cabinet, littered with Schwarzenegger-esque bon mots that feel shoehorned in to add levity to the dour proceedings, but, ultimately, fall flat. And that’s probably my biggest problem with Conan the Barbarian; that fact that it is just such a joyless affair. It looks exceptional, as Nispel certainly has a knack for creating some impressive images, but it lacks the spark and sense of mischievous humor – hell, it lacks the very soul that made the comparably “rough” Milius’ film such a blast to behold.
The one positive I can take away from the film is Momoa who truly does embody the Conan character, imbuing him with both a sense of danger and a palpable charisma. While Momoa certainly does his best with what he’s given, the rest of the cast either phone it in (Perlman), ham it up (Lang), or just downright suck (Criminal Minds’ Rachel Nichols who plays the “pure blood” Tamara). The only other actor in the cast who really seems to get the material is McGowan, who gleefully chews up scenery (in all the right ways) as Zym’s folically-challenged sorceress daughter, Marique. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, of course, seeing as how McGowan and her ex-beau, Robert Rodriguez, were developing a remake of Red Sonja, and it’s a shame, really, as, while I watched the film, all I could think was how much I’d have loved to see Momoa and McGowan in that movie – helmed by a director who really gets the material. I really loved Nispel’s work on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and am probably one of a handful of people who sort of enjoyed Pathfinder, but his style is just too somber for a Conan film. Yes, the barbarian’s world is a violent place, but it’s also a place of wonder, sex, and high adventure, and, while Nispel nailed the violent aspects, he completely left out everything else that makes the Conan stories such pure escapist fun to begin with.
Conan comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate and offers a really impressive 2.40:1 transfer that really does do Nispel’s images justice. The Blu-ray I received featured both the 3-D and 2-D versions of the film, and, to my eyes, both looked quite good. There’s a tremendous sense of depth to the 3-D image, even if the effect, itself, is handled like an afterthought. This isn’t one of those 3-D flicks that has a lot of stuff flying out at you, but some of the scenes, especially those rendered with CGI backgrounds (like Zym’s skull cave), really pop off of the screen. I liken watching movies like this to looking at those old Viewmaster slides, where the really good ones made it feel as though you could climb right in and be a part of the world you were viewing. It’s moments like these that make me appreciate the technology, even if its necessity is debatable. I do have to say that, like all 3-D/2-D comparisons I find myself making, the 2-D version of the film is a touch more vivid and fine detail a tad more evident, but this is actually one of the first times I can say that I actually prefer the 3-D version of the film.
Both versions share the same 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, and it’s a doozy. This is a thoroughly aggressive aural assault meant to be heard at high volume, so don’t sit down to watch this thing when the rest of the family’s in bed. This is a glass-shaking, window-rattling, full-on floorboard vibrating beast of a soundtrack, and, while it’s a fairly well-balanced mix, listening at too low a volume will have you straining to hear some of the quieter dialogue (although, in the case of Conan, that can be a good thing), as well as some of the really nicely implemented environmental effects.
Extras include a somewhat sparse and droll commentary by Nispel, whose lack of enthusiasm and persistent reminders of the difficulty he had bringing Conan’s world to life only further solidified my opinion that he was the wrong choice as a director for this film.
A second commentary by Momoa and McGowan, on the other hand, shows us two people who actually get the stylized, pulp novel/comic book world Conan comes from, and, as a result, shows us two people who were right for the job. Momoa, in particular, talks about the character with such passion that it’s impossible to not root for the guy to get another chance in the role. McGowan, meanwhile, proves why she’s every nerd’s fantasy girl, as she’s hot, smart as a pistol, and an authority on geek culture. This is one of the more enjoyable commentary tracks I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.
The Conan Legacy (HD) is a short but very informative featurette that offers up a succinct history of the character, from his origins in pulp short stories to present day, and is further complemented by a nice piece on creator, Robert E. Howard in The Man Who Would Be Conan (HD). We’re also given a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes - Staging the Fights (HD) and Battle Royale: Engineering the Action (HD) – that offer brief looks at the complicated art of fight choreography.
I really wish I liked Conan the film as much as I enjoyed Conan the Blu-ray, as Lionsgate really put together an excellent set that boasts tremendous picture and audio quality, as well as a nice selection of entertaining extras that will please hardcore Conan enthusiasts. Sadly, the film, itself, doesn’t live up to the quality of the package. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not terribly good, either, and, with the exception of the charismatic Momoa and McGowan, it seems that no one involved in the project really embraced what Conan is all about, resulting in a lifeless, by-the-numbers fantasy action flick that will surely bring on the wrath of Crom’s faithful. Hopefully, Momoa gets another chance in the role as I really do think this guy has what it takes to carry a successful Conan film; all he needs is a director who shares his enthusiasm.