Sunday, August 28, 2011

Conan the Barbarian / **½ (R)

Conan: Jason Momoa
Tamara: Rachel Nichols
Khalar Zym: Stephen Lang
Marique: Rose McGowan
Artus: Nonso Anozie
Ela-Shan: Saïd Taghmaoui
Young Conan: Leo Howard
Corin: Ron Perlman

Lionsgate and Millennium Films present a movie directed by Marcus Nispel. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood. Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity).

“What is best in life?”
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
                        —“Conan the Barbarian”, 1982.

Before sitting down to write this review, I tried to find a good definition of the ‘fantasy’ genre. I couldn’t find one that satisfied me.  They all singled out the fact that fantasies were stories that couldn’t happen in real life, often involving magic or exotic creatures. None of them mentioned the sense of awe brought about by seeing a human having to navigate such a landscape. None spoke of the human lessons found in such genre material.

Fantasy is probably the most basic and direct of the genres to tackle the issues of the human condition. Robert E. Howard’s creation, Conan, is perhaps the ultimate male adolescent fantasy. His parents die when he’s a child, so he doesn’t have them to hold him back in that leap from child to man. He is a muscle bound warrior with a reputation of being the fiercest fighter in the land. He steals. He has sex. He vanquishes his foes. His ‘best in life’ characteristics from the original movie sums up his drive in life. There is not a fan of fantasy filmmaking who was an adolescent at the time of that movie’s release who does not know this line in their most buried core.

The reboot of “Conan the Barbarian”, dubbed with the same title, is a Conan fantasy. It has swords and sorcery. It has evil men with scarred faces. It has a sexy witch and an even sexier virgin. It has revenge and schemes of world domination. It has warriors birthed from the sand. And, it has barrels and barrels of blood.

It also has the muscle bound Jason Momoa (“Stargate: Atlantis”), who—dare I say—makes an even better Conan than Arnold Schwarzenegger did. He’s a better actor and you can understand him. This means Conan can express himself a little better in this movie, although he still prefers to let his steel do the talking.

Even before we get the new Conan, we’re treated to an extended introduction of Conan as a child. Birthed by his mother as she died of fatal wounds on a battlefield, young Conan (Leo Howard, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) is raised by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”) in the warrior tradition of his barbarian clan. We see that Conan, at the age of 12, is already a fierce warrior, capable of taking down four savage adults from a rival clan. Why is it that nameless enemy soldiers in a fantasy movie must forever more make growling noises like the orcs in “The Lord of the Rings”? These are humans. I don’t understand why they growl like monsters.

Anyway, the extended origin sequence for young Conan establishes the bloody brutality of Conan’s world. His new origin doesn’t strike me as quite as tragic as it was in the 1982 version, but it defines Conan’s world in rigid terms and works to define the brutal hero.

As an adult, Conan is at times crass, is always single-minded, but he works as a hero in the brutal world he inhabits. He learns the man responsible for his father’s death, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, “Avatar”) will be in a certain area of the continent of Hyboria, and journeys there to exact his revenge. Zym is after a woman of a pure bloodline. This woman is Tamara (Rachel Nichols, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”), whom Conan falls into protection of almost by random luck. As is necessary, their personalities clash, but they will eventually share a bed.

Zym needs Tamara’s pure blood so he and his witch daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan, “Planet Terror”), can bring his slain wife back to life and rule the world as gods. All of this is preposterous, yes; but it is exactly the kind of visceral fantasy storyline that a hero of Conan’s nature demands. I liked that the story, in nature, matches other Conan stories I know, yet is original to this particular movie. In the right hands, this story could’ve had the makings of an excellent Conan adventure.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe this story was placed in the right hands. Director Marcus Nispel is far too focused on the action elements, while displaying little, if any knowledge, of the genre elements required. Nispel has already helmed two other reboots before this one. They were the remakes of the horror classics “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th”. Both movies failed to realize the success of the originals. Nispel shows no understanding of the thematic element involved in genre filmmaking.

Every shot in this new “Conan” seems to exist to get to the next slice of the sword, the next creature jumping in the hero’s face. There is no sense of a thematic arc. The movie never stops to look at where it is. Production designer Chris August (“War”) creates a stunning world for these characters to inhabit, yet Nispel’s camera never stops for a moment to consider it. The movie never slows down. The characters never seem to understand their place in the scope of their own universe, and thus any theme that could be explored by this fantasy is lost.

Conan fans probably won’t find too much to criticize in this new version of a classic literary character, but the movie never finds its driving force. As far as Nispel is concerned, the foundation of this movie is a big muscle-bound man slicing his sword through his enemies. That may be what Conan is on the surface, but even the basest of fantasies is built upon more than just swords and sorcery. If Conan had been directed by an auteur daring enough to slow things down and immerse his audience in Conan’s fantasy world, this could’ve been an even better film than the original. As it is, the new “Conan the Barbarian” is a pale shadow of the original.

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