Mark Reviews Movies

Conan the Barbarian (2011)


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Marcus Nispel

Cast: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Saïd Taghmaoui, Nonso Anozie, Steve O'Donnell, Raad Rawi, Bob Sapp, Leo Howard, Ron Perlman

MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 8/19/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 18, 2011

There's nothing distinct about the world of Conan the Barbarian, and, worse, there's no sense of adventure. Even its 1982 forebear, which has issues of its own and from which this movie inherits only the title and the name of its hero, had a sense of wonderment about the material—no matter how misplaced that feeling might have been. This version of the Robert E. Howard pulp protagonist is low fantasy, fueled by testosterone and stained in digital blood.

There are ways to pull off this sort of machismo, either with a sense of humor, an indulgence in excessive violence to the point of the absurd (which this movie gets right just once), or plain, old craftsmanship, but Conan the Barbarian, under the direction of Marcus Nispel, is a humorless, half-hearted, and clunky affair. It wallows in misanthropy because that's all it knows.

After a wildly incoherent prologue about a magical mask that gives the wearer the ability to bring back the dead (At least I think that's the summation of the back story), we're thrust into a battle from the perspective of a fetus inside its mother's womb. In that single moment of ridiculous violence, a sword punctures the uterus, leading to an impromptu Caesarean section and the myth of the story's hero being "battle-born." The young Conan (Leo Howard) learns the ways of the sword under the guidance of his father (Ron Perlman) after the boy proves himself in battle by single-handedly killing off a group of barbarians from an enemy tribe that ambush him in the woods—bringing back their decapitated heads to rub his actions in the faces of those who doubted him.

Dad must die, of course, to give Conan a sense of purpose beyond random bloodshed, and it's at the hands of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a wannabe sorcerer searching for the scattered pieces of that mystical necromancer mask with the help of his "witch daughter" Marique (Rose McGowan). Years later, Conan (Jason Momoa), who has embarked on many adventures (all off-screen and summed up in an even vaguer narration by Morgan Freeman speaking from within an echo chamber), is now ready to avenge the death of his father and the decimation of his people.

Conan is not the type of hero we want. He is bloodthirsty, cruel, and remorseless—only displaying an ounce of personality in the brief glimpses of his face as he is in the process of swinging his sword toward a foe (Nispel's visual aesthetic of rapid cuts and handheld camera moves makes for disjointed action scenes, and it's close to intolerable watching through those worthless 3-D glasses). He sums up his philosophy of life as such: "I live. I love. I slay. I am content." "Love" is certainly debatable here, since his one of his few interactions with women consists of ogling a group of topless women he rescues from slavery. He's probably thinking of a different word.

He's also more than just content with his way of life. Momoa, with his Cro-Magnon physique certainly fitting the role, employs a sinister smile while slicing and dicing and hacking at limbs that suggests madness (An episode involving a prison warden, whose mouth Conan forces the jail key into before letting the prisoners have at him, only solidifies it). Otherwise, his Conan is roughly spoken and dull.

Worse, the screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood offers no substantive substitute to the off-putting Conan. His comrades Artus (Nonso Anozie) and Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui), who arrive to aid Conan at just the right time, are only there to, well, show up at the most opportune moment to help Conan. That only leaves Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a "pure-blood" monk whom Zym is hunting to complete his plan. Note the way Conan treats her as a servant to be ordered around until she proves herself in battle by killing a pair of enemies (Even the monks in the world of Hyboria seem to train in battle), and then note the way the screenwriters eliminate that hint of strength to further reduce her to a sexual object and the role of damsel in distress in the climactic showdown. Zym, with his longing to bring back his dead wife, actually starts to come across more sympathetically than any of the heroes, though Lang's growling and hissing grows comical rather quickly.

The production design is fine if a bit generic (village, island fortress, gloomy dungeons, etc.), and the special effects are competent  (A monster made up of a tentacles and a mouth, though, is lazy). Conan the Barbarian is mean and, yes, barbaric, to be sure, and it's a relatively primitive effort, too.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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