Let me tell you a tale of the days of high unoriginality and tedium…
We should start out with what works in 2011’s Conan the Barbarian, as it’s not a total waste of time and energy. It’s mostly a waste of time and energy, but not a total one. First of all is the design: the original Howard stories were laced with horror not unlike that of his friend and contemporary HP Lovecraft, and the film brings that sensibility in every aspect of its design. In both look and feel, this is Howard’s vision of the Hyborian Age, filtered through the lens of Frazetta and heavy metal album covers. Even more so than the John Milius Conan (which seemed to keep the fantasy elements on the periphery, for the most part), the filmmakers here at least remain faithful to the Conan stories in that regard.
Also notable in the film is its lead, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Jason Momoa here. Much like Brandon Routh before him, Momoa perfectly portrays an iconic character, but is constantly undercut and misused by the film surrounding him. The Governator might be the definitive Conan in the public eye (and still arguably his greatest performance), but Howard’s original creation was a far cry from the silent and brooding bodybuilder Arnie played all those years ago. Momoa’s Conan hews closer to that original vision of a barbarian/mercenary/pirate/thief, and the actor sells the role with much gusto.
The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag, although it’s hard to hold that against many of the actors involved, as all their parts are underdeveloped and often given dialogue that feels written by an emotionally-stunted thirteen-year-old. Stephen Lang is a good bit of fun as the baddie sorcerer king Khalar Zym, and Rose McGowan brings a weird, incestuous quality as his witchy daughter Marique. Rachel Nichols is along for the ride as the requisite plot Macguffin/damsel-in-distress Tamara, an attempt on the filmmakers’ part to bring a love story into the plot, but of course it goes nowhere and ultimately adds nothing to the proceedings. Also falling flat is Ron Perlman as Conan’s father Corin; a role so memorable with the short appearance William Smith in the 1982 film, but here doubled in screen-time and ultimately reduced by Perlman’s bored and uninspired delivery. Look, I get it: Perlman knows it’s piece of crap and just wants to get paid and be done with it, but you could at least try to have a little fun with all the silliness, such as the aforementioned Lang.
But in spite of the rich look and a handful of decent performers, Conan the Barbarian falters at nearly every turn, thanks to a piss-poor script and some rather bafflingly incompetent direction. The film is satisfyingly wet and bloody, but the set-pieces are often hard to follow and defy just about any type of cinematic coherence. For example, during one horse-back chase, there’s a shot of Conan riding at least ten feet behind the warrior he’s chasing; cut to the very next shot, he’s riding alongside him to deliver an attack; cut to the next shot, where the warrior falls, and Conan is again trailing behind by ten feet. How does such a flagrant bit of incoherence like that make it into a major Hollywood film? I want to be on director Marcus Nispel’s side, as he seems to be a fan of the material and has made some decent horror flicks in the past, but with such baffling incompetence on display, it’s hard to mount any convincing evidence in his defense. The scenes of the movie don't flow together as a single story so much as they clash into each other, and several of the side characters drop in and out (sometimes literally) of the film at sch a rate you wonder why the screenwriters bothered to write them in in the first place.
For fans of Robert E. Howard, it’s worth a look for the production design and Momoa’s indelible performance, but I’m afraid the perfect Conan film still remains elusive.
* I realize I might be coming off a little harsh on the Milius original, so I feel I should clarify by saying that it’s definitely Top Ten material for me, even though it’s not a terribly accurate adaption of the Howard stories (which I’m also a great fan of).
** It’s also worth pointing out that Ron Perlman has played Conan before, in a rather forgettable video game and an animated adaptation of “Red Nails” that sadly looks like it’ll never see the light of day.
*** And, if you'll permit my indulgence of one more aside, while Morgan Freeman is an excellent narrator in his own right, he's a pretty poor substitute for Mako.