To those outside its cult following, it would appear that 1982’s Conanthe Barbarian has earned a reverence seemingly leagues beyond its surface quality. Often credited as being the breakout role for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the swords and sandals epic follows the titular Cimmerian warrior from Robert E. Howard’s pulp novel series as he fights monsters, warlocks and a thick Austrian accent with equal measure. There’s a reason it’s a full twenty minutes into the film before we ever hear Conan speak. It’s unabashedly in love with Howard’s world, but dated visuals and an overabundance of camp make watching the film today an entirely different experience. Even James Earl Jones can only bring so much gravitas to a villain named Thulsa Doom.
What really endeared audiences and cemented Conan as one of the essential films of 1980’s, was director John Milius’ epic scope, which emphasized the larger than life aspects of the Conan character to make his story borderline legendary. Sure, watching Schwarzenegger and foes awkwardly throwing each other around like roided out Godzillas sans Tokyo is corny, but in the film’s mind these were battles of titanic proportions. The same sense of grandeur finds its way into the character’s sparse yet weighty dialogue, as though the struggle of Schwarzenegger to spit out his lines make them somehow more powerful. It’s what happens when a film masks budget constraints by distracting the audience with unbridled confidence and an infectious sense of adventure. Which might explains why a studio exec would look at the Conan franchise twenty years later and think it’s ripe for a reboot; if it’s a story and character that people love, why not repackage them for today’s audiences?
And a repackaging is exactly what horror-movie-rebooter Marcus Nispel has created in Conan the Barbarian, a film so focussed on aping the standards of modern action films that it completely abandons the spirit of the original film. While it maintains the major story beats of its namesake (child barbarian loses family, swears revenge, took his father’s sword etc.), the mythic aura of Conan’s tale is lost specifically because it’s been modernized. The update is so wedded to the idea of being a summer action flick that all traces of Milius’ grandiose scope are either buried or altogether absent from the film, as it instead adopts narrative practices that rely on kinetics over character and visuals over vision. Look no further than the sloppily applied 3D, a staple of recent popcorn films that try to substitute a narrative depth with a visual one in a wasted effort to add nuance and life to a world devoid of any. It’s telling when the commercial-baiting shot of an axe coming right at the camera gets more of a reaction out of the actors than it does the audience.
Considering his defining character trait is proficiency with a blade, it’s understandable why the screenwriters would throw a battle Conan’s way at every opportunity, but the direction is as chaotic and unfocused as every other contemporary take on swordplay, relying on quick cuts and CG blood to overemphasize the flashier aspects of combat. Say what you will of the original’s clumsy fight choreography, at least the sword swings of the ’82 version bore weight. Here, Conan’s battles with cannon-fodder baddies are nebulous affairs bereft of tension, no more so then when direct dagger slices from CG sand-monsters don’t draw so much as a pixel of fake blood. There are fleeting moments of inspiration mid-combat, usually in the form of a particularly gnarly death, but any built-up sense of grit or efficacy usually goes out the window when you realize that the villain’s weapon of choice are sword-chucks (you know, a sword that flips around, like nunchucks).
And despite having the good-sense to make Conan an R-rated adventure, the liberties granted to the filmmakers are largely squandered in juvenile fashion, mostly as an excuse for shots of dismemberment and boobs as opposed to exploring the darker amorality of Howard’s original stories. Schwarzenegger’s stoic portrayal had a moral ambiguity that was much closer to Howard’s vision of Conan as an anti-hero conqueror who was good by virtue of making enemies out of the bad guys. What we’re given instead is a carbon-copy of every milquetoast adventure hero from the last decade, complete with unfounded modern values and hints of light-hearted womanizing that’s supposed to endear the character, resulting in a Conan that is about as much of a barbarian as Jake Gyllenhaal was a Prince of Persia. If the character that your entire film is based around doesn’t live up to his title, what chance does your movie really have?
The shadow of Schwarzenegger’s original performance hangs heavy over Conan, which would make it easy to fault new star Jason Momoa had he not already demonstrated his charisma when playing a similarly savage war lord in HBO’s Game of Thrones. The real culprit here is a script that falls back heavily on tropes of the modern-day shoot ‘em up. Slo-mo projectiles, jumping off of sea-side cliffs, hell, even exploding barrels somehow find their way into a fantasy flick, which would stand-out more if the dialogue didn’t try so desperately to match the action cliché for cliché. When love interest/plot mechanic Tamara waxes philosophical about predestination and fate, the best response three screenwriters could come up with is “I live, I love, I slay and I am content,” a paraphrase of Howard that’s about as reductive a quote from Conan as you’ll find. And who’d have thought a film with so little plot would feel the need to give so much exposition, the nadir easily being villain Khalar Zym feeling the need to, out of nowhere, remind everyone that he’s trying to kill Conan using his own father’s sword, in case the twenty minutes used to establish this subplot had already escaped you.
The welcome upside of the film’s slavish adherence to modern convention is that it’s a mercifully quick affair, although fast pacing and modest runtime serve as yet another contrast to epic, sprawling scope of the original. And while it’s never offensively awful, everything about the film, from the flaccid script to the scatological editing, settles for the underwhelming bar set by the pantheon of bad action movies Conan seems so eager to join. Conan used to seek out the lamentations of his enemies, but now sadly, it’s his fans who will likely be the ones feeling crushed.
2 out of 5
Conan the Barbarian
Directed by Marcus Nispel