Monday, August 22, 2011

Review - Conan the Barbarian

A Cimmerian warrior named Conan sets off on a quest of vengeance. Aiming to hunt down and kill Khalar Zym, a ruthless warlord who slaughtered Conan's people and enslaved the great nations of Hyboria, before he unleashes an ancient power capable of resurrecting the dead.

Marcus Nispel's adaptation of "Conan the Barbarian" is all sizzle and no substance. It is a slight step above straight-to-dvd material except with a $90 million dollar budget. This version of the Cimmerian warrior story created by Robert E. Howard strips away any and all of the artistry and cinematic quality your memory banks may remember from the 1982 film of the same name directed by John Milius. With the tone of the adventure jacked up to that of a teen suffering from ADHD and no real sense of telling a epic tale, the audience is left with nothing but rushed action, stale performances and a paint by the numbers script. Let me be clear, this "Conan the Barbarian" is not a remake of the 1982 film, but an adaptation of Howard's original character. Screenwriters and director Marcus Nispel go out of their way to make clear this film is an adaptation and not remake.

Let's talk about our new Conan. Comparing him to Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't really fair because Jason Momoa doesn't have one ounce of the charm, charisma or personality Schwarzenegger posses. Sure he's got the body but he has none of the prowess that Conan should display at all times. Momoa spends the entire film winking and smirking as if that is some form of personality, where he should have learned to just keep his mouth shut and chew up the scenery. I'm reminded of the pose Schwarzenegger would do as Conan where he would essentially flex his muscles while brandishing the sword in front of his chest. This moment was a huge intimidator for the audience as well as any of Conan's opponents. Even in the comics Conan thrived on a certain level of fear. Remember he is a thief and a mercenary of sorts. He is a anti-hero. That intimidation is completely absent in Momoa's portrayal. He is just not menacing in the slightest. Conan should be a bad ass that I am both afraid of and infatuated with, not be able to lampoon at any given moment. The hunky actor never gives the audience any real reason to latch on to the main character either. His performance is so generic and monotone it is hard not to walk away disappointed.

I have to give Jason Momoa some credit, he does know how to swing a sword. Momoa does a fine job with all of the action required. He does look great swinging and clinging the blade around. That said, much of the action feels too staged and rigid. None of the fighting in "Conan the Barbarian" comes across fluid but instead something that was rehearsed repeatedly. Despite having a very unnatural flow to the orchestrated action sequences, there is still is enough thrill within the 112 minute adventure that see's our hero born amidst a full fledged war. Oodles of blood, an abundance of appendages being sliced off their body and clusters of carnage throughout make the experience not a complete waste of time.

While the film does try to deliver on gore and hyper-violence it threw away any sense of quality by doing so. This film is fixated on action, where its predecessors had far more substance to them, "Conan the Barbarian" goes from point A to point B as quickly as possible and with as little plot development as necessary. Not to say that the original films were some rare form of prose, because they aren't, but they did hold a bit more structure and development than the 2011 version. A good example of this is the love interest to Conan, Tamara played by Rachel Nichols. Rachel Nichols is stale as Tamara but only because screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood gave her absolutely nothing to do. Not only is Tamara the worst damsel in distress character I've seen in a film in some time but she is a huge waste of space offering nothing important to the story other than a plot device for the villain. Conan falls for a nun. Yup, a nun. Sort of takes all the fury right out of the film just reading the word doesn't it?

Another aspect of "Conan the Barbarian" that ultimately upset me is the witchcraft or sorcery. In Marcus Nispel's update, sorcery or magic is the driving force behind our main villain and it could not be sillier. Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) keeps his knifed-fingered daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) right at his side because she is a powerful witch. Well at least she is suppose to be powerful, but I couldn't tell by watching on screen. Every single spell she throws Conan's way is fought off quickly and without breaking a sweat. There is never any fear from her sorcery. For instance, in one sequence Marique creates an army of what seems to be dust soldiers to kill Conan and capture Tamara yet these henchman never seem to pose a viable threat to Conan in any way. Instead we get a sequence that might as well been Jason Momoa doing kata with a sword. This complaint boils over to a much more larger problem with the 'Conan' adaptation, there is never any stakes that feel tangible. There is zero risk in this action adventure. Sure we are given stakes/risks to chew on, but the movie never creates a belief that those stakes are valid, instead it just chugs straight ahead to the obvious and tidy ending.

At the end of the day, "Conan the Barbarian" is a awful film that squandered all of its promise. There is so much potential within the character created by Robert E. Howard but it was all metaphorically burned down in Conan's village at the start of the film. This could have been an epic adventure but it ended up feeling like another made for cable movie cheesefest with a bloated budget. 'Conan' is ultimately painless to sit through due to some thrilling gore but left me with a mighty sour taste in my mouth.