I had the pleasure of attending a late showing of Conan the Barbarian on Friday night. I went with a friend who, about a year ago sat down with me to watch the John Milius version starring the indomitable Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I freaking love Conan. One of my earliest Christmas memories, believe it or not, is of watching Conan the Destroyer with my Dad on Christmas Eve. Granted, most fans of film and Conan generally pan that flick as a rotting turd, but it sure beat the hell out watching Rudolph (sorry Mom!).
My love of the Barbarian would wane with time until I rediscovered the character back in college. I read all of Robert E. Howard’s original stories and bear the distinct pride of having written my English thesis, the supposed culmination of my academic endeavors, on Conan as an existentialist figure.
So yes, I walked into the new Conan the Barbarian (henceforth referred to as Conan 2011) with high hopes. I’d already read some mixed reviews and I knew from the get-go that it probably wouldn’t stand up to 1982 film (Conan 1982 from now on), but I still believed it could be good.
My reaction walking out of it was mixed.
I did enjoy it. Conan 2011 is in the least a fun romp, steeped in all the blood, guts, and machismo that a hardcore action fan could ever want. That said, it’s not anywhere near being as good as Conan 1982, and straddles the crap line too often for me to really call it a good film.
Some of its problems are technical. Like too many current day action movies, Conan 2011 employs that damned shaky cam. Whenever action breaks out (which averages out at about every ten minutes) the camera goes ballistic, trembling as if someone had set it up on a persistent low grade earthquake. As I noted in my Hard Candy review, shaky cam can be employed well. It just isn’t here. The camera work, more often then not, tends to accomplish nothing more then distorting the action so that we can’t clearly see what’s going on. We know Conan’s eviscerating someone, we just can’t see the fine details. It’s a shame because there are some cool sequences scattered throughout the movie.
The majority of Conan 2011 problems though come from a simple issue of poor pacing and poor writing. It’s a shame because, honestly, Conan 2011 paints a picture of its world, Hyboria, that is actually closer to Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s original vision. The taverns, the cities, the wilderness; there were so many details that could have come straight out of one of Howard’s own Conan stories. The problem is that none of these neat locales really come to mean anything. They’re treated as little more then pit stops on the way to the next bloodletting.
Conan 1982, while a little prone toward dragging in midsection, was almost contemplative in its contrast. While there are excellent, excellent sequences of action in the 1982 film, they tended to be broken up by long stretches of quiet. The filmmakers took more time to actually establish some meaning to the characters and their actions.
It was a far more focused and cohesive experience, guided by a desire to take us to a genuine destination. Conan 2011 is more of an amusement park. There are rides everywhere but they’re shorter and feel more insubstantial thanks to the sheer frequency of them.
The overly heavy focus on having action sequence after action sequence takes a sincere toll not just on the establishment of the film’s world, but also the people who inhabit it. I am writing this almost exactly a day after I walked out of the theater and I can’t remember anyone’s name except for Conan. Part of this may just be forgetfulness, but another is the simple fact that the writers opted to use caricatures rather than actual characters. You’d be hard-pressed to forget Conan, what with his name being in the title of the movie and all, but most every other character is more identifiable by their type than anything else.
You have the villain, his crazy witch daughter and his repulsive henchman. You have the hot girl that falls in love with Conan on account of the film needing a sex scene. You have Conan’s buddy who will follow him through thick and thin even though we never see anything of their friendship beyond a few establishing lines in a tavern. Conan 2011 makes the mistake of being utterly predictable.
Even Conan himself is portrayed as little more than a hodge podge of bad assery. Almost every line is barked, which is appropriate I suppose when most of them are just variations of “I really want you dead so I’m going to kill you.” His character is a simple brute, which is such a waste because the actual character of Conan, even as portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger is more complicated.
“For us, there is no spring. Just the wind that smells fresh before the storm.” Says Arnold’s Conan, musing on the fate of a warrior
Compare that to Conan as played by Jason Momoa. ““I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.”
The wasting of Jason Momoa too is a considerable tragedy. Arnold in Conan 1982 was perfect for the role he was playing. He embodied that vision of Conan. Momoa on the other hand, came across to me as absolutely perfect to play Conan as envisioned by Robert E. Howard. Conan in the books was sun-bronzed and dark haired, things that Arnold, the penultimate Aryan, was not. Watching Momoa in Conan 2011, I felt like I was watching the real Conan, right down to the way he moved. One of Howard’s favorite descriptors was to say that Conan moved like a panther. That’s how Momoa moves, giving off that important sense of both strength and grace.
Outside of killing things though he’s not give anything to do. His character might move with more complexity than Arnold’s brawler of a barbarian from the 1982 film, but Momoa’s Conan is far more the brute. There’s nothing going on outside of the shallow Mcguffins driving the plot, which is a shame because Momoa is an experienced actor and did a great job playing another barbarian warrior In HBO’s television adaptation of A Game of Thrones.
So is Conan 2011 a good movie? I’m hard-pressed to give a definite yay or nay, simply because I enjoyed it. It has more in line with flicks The Scorpion King than it does with Conan 1982, but honestly, that’s okay sometimes. Conan the Barbarian is a perfectly enjoyable film as long as you temper your expectations. It’s not the sort of movie that will change your life. It’s also not the sort that people will be quoting almost thirty years later. It’s a fun flick with a lot of violence, an abundance of gratuitous nudity and some narration by Morgan Freeman. It is what it is and that’s more than enough for a Friday night.