Watching the original 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian, I had the distinct impression it was forced into existence – a film made before the talent or the technology was available to do the story justice. Apart from the unconvincing special effects, the phony-looking sets, and the insistent, overblown, annoying score by Basil Poledouris, the casting was the cinematic equivalent of a hack job; Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sandahl Bergman, though physically of the right caliber, could not act their way out of a paper bag, and James Earl Jones, an accomplished actor if ever there was one, was so obviously wrong for the role of Thulsa Doom. Nothing about this movie worked, and yet it has earned legions of fans and widespread critical acclaim. Why this movie became a milestone of the sword and sorcery genre, I’ll never be able to figure out.
This is a fight I know I’m not going to win, but there’s really no way around it: Marcus Nispel’s 3D remake is the better movie. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It is, in fact, deeply flawed. Let’s begin with what doesn’t work. First and foremost, the film is violent. Overwhelmingly violent. More violent than most reasonable people would be willing to tolerate in a mainstream movie. In one sitting, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many stabbings, slashings, punches, body slams, and impalements. It’s also action heavy; with a few exceptions, the film is basically an extended stunt montage, which would be fine except that it’s edited so choppily that it all becomes an indecipherable blur of sword metal, body armor, and blood. And then, of course, there’s the post-production 3D conversion. Here’s a piece of advice: If the climax of your movie takes place in a dark cave, you would be wise to avoid a process that dims images.
Now let’s move on to what does work. It is, for one thing, truer in spirit to the original Robert E. Howard short stories, which appeared in pulp magazines throughout the 1930s. Furthermore, the technology is now available to achieve the correct visual style. The sets and locations don’t look entirely real, and yet they don’t look phony, either; they take on an appropriate heightened reality, aided in no small part by the use of computer generated imagery. The biggest improvement is that Nispel and his casting director found actors that could actually, you know, act. Leading the way is Jason Momoa as Conan, who, unlike Schwarzenegger, doesn’t sport the grotesque bodybuilder physique. He’s built, but appropriately so – he actually looks like the way barbarian should look. We also have Rachel Nichols as Conan’s love interest, Tamara, Stephen Lang as the evil Khalar Zym, and Rose McGowan as Zym’s daughter, Marique, a witch.
Taking place during a fictional ancient era known as the Hyborian Age, the film begins with an expository prologue sequence, narrated by none other than Morgan Freeman. We learn of a mask that was broken into pieces, which were then hidden in various kingdoms; should the mask ever be reconstructed, it would grant the wearer dangerous godlike powers. We then see a baby boy born in the middle of battle. This is deadly serious – while in utero, his mother was run through with a sword, and she lived just long enough to see her son being born. With her dying breath, she gave him a name: Conan. He then grows to be a young warrior, who’s forced to watch as Zym slaughters his entire village, including his father (Ron Pearlman). We finally see him as a man, at which point he learned to survive by becoming a thief, a pirate, and a brutal killing machine. Naturally, he wants his revenge against Zym, who’s on a savage mission to recover the pieces of the magical mask.
Into Conan’s life enters Tamara, who came from a monastery and is in training to be a servant to her queen. She’s a direct descendant from an ancient tribe, now long gone. According to Marique, who wields a clawed right hand with the same sly ferociousness of Freddy Kreuger, only Tamara’s pure blood can reawaken the magic lying dormant within the mask. Conan initially thinks of Tamara as little more than a way to find Zym, but she earns his respect through her bravery, and the two immediately fall in love. Before anything can be consummated, Conan must first destroy Zym, which will require numerous battles with evil henchmen, warriors made of sand, and a gigantic underwater beast with lots of tentacles. On a personal note, I thank the almighty Crom that this version of the story didn’t feature snakes. I’m like Indiana Jones – I hate snakes.
There are many locations, although I didn’t retain the names of any other them, despite the fact that they were provided via subtitles. In all honesty, I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of difference. Neither does the plot. All any potential audience will care about is the spectacle of it, namely the wall-to-wall action sequences that involve a lot of bloodshed. In that regard, this movie will deliver. Will it appeal to fans of the original film? My guess would be no. Although I can’t sit here and say that 2011’s Conan the Barbarian is good, I can say that it’s an improvement over the 1982 film, and that it has its moments of delightful pulp fiction absurdity. You were probably hoping that I would hate this movie and sing the praises of the original, as most critics have been doing. By now, you should know that I have neither the willingness nor the ability to go along with what everyone else says.
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