[19 August 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It’s going to put me in leading man roles.
Conan the Barbarian opens on Conan’s mom. Or, she’s about to be Conan’s mom. As Fialla (Laila Rouass) stumbles and falls back on a hectic battlefield, you see that beneath her armor and tousled hair, she is very pregnant. It happens that the terrible Khalar Zym (Steven Lang) has chosen this moment to slaughter her tribe, which leaves her husband Corin (Ron Perlman) at least briefly distracted. Once he sees that she’s been injured and is, in fact, about to die, he stops cutting opponents’ arms off for a minute, and cradles her bloodied face in his gigantic hand.
Not to worry. Conan is not succumbing to a moment of tenderness or remorse or some other form of weakness. When Fialla tells her husband she wants only to see her baby before she dies, he gives her the chance, slicing her open with a single thrust and pulling the not-exactly-tiny homunculus from her and holds it up to her. “Name our baby,” he commands. “Conan,” she murmurs. And with that, her head rolls to the side, toward you, so you can can’t miss her dimming eyes and grody teeth as she gasps her last breath.
Again, don’t worry. Before you begin to feel bad for either parent, dad does the most clichéd thing he can manage, lifting his writhing animatronic child to the skies and roaring his pain.
It’s not that you’d expect anything more or less from an R-rated Conan. The violence is brutal, the story ridiculous, and the self-seriousness almost unbearable.
And so: cut to the boy Conan (mini martial arts champion Leo Howard), “born of battle” and now on the run, late for his father’s instruction to a line of boys, all planning to become awesome warriors. It’s only a matter of minutes before you see that Conan, even as a preteen, is the most awesome: he takes out a pack of bullies even more feral than he is: as they growl and grunt and leap, he flips and swings his blade and appears to outthink them. When he returns to the village, an assortment of gnarly bullies’ heads in hand, Corin can’t help but be proud.
Of course, this being a vengeful era, the bloodbath gets Zym’s attention, who shows up to incite another retaliation plot. That he brings along his own motherless child, a pale witch named Marique (Ivana Staneva) only underscores the story’s remarkably humorless gender dynamic: Conan (who grows up to be the very muscular (Jason Momoa) is soon enough doomed to multiple elaborately CGI-ed showdowns with Zym and Marique, and the father-daughter team will become increasingly perverse, a fate Conan and Corin can avoid, as Corin does the righteous dad thing, sacrificing himself—in yet another grim, loud, and very dark scene—for his beloved child.
Zym doesn’t have that sort of devotion to his spawn, but the film ensures you know why, demonizing Marique so she even worries her evil scum dad. Grown up to be Rose McGowan, she’s got a prominent ultra-white forehead, red leather boots, and provocatively netty outfits that recall the actress’ Marilyn Manson days. Lusty and vicious, she uses her Freddy Krueger-esque knife-nails to scrape along cave walls or to draw blood from the exposed necks of horrified virgin girls. Marique is up against it, no doubt: no one is beaming over her accomplishments, only expecting her to wreak mayhem on command.
Marique has a memorable mom too, whose grisly demise is also enshrined in her husband’s memory. But in the movie, this bad mother is a footnote by way of explaining how Zym became a nutcase who believes he’s going to be a god (owing to bad magic the dead woman was helping along) and Marique was raised to follow in her sorcerer mother’s footsteps. She’s not “born of battle” and destined for great barbaric things. She’s just desperate and dreadful, warped by her dad’s ambitions.
Its not like Marique has a lot of help either. Sure, she can conjure a band of assassins out of CGIed sand, but it’s not the same as Conan’s super-loyal Arabic little buddy Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui), black best friend Artus (Nonzo Anozie) or porcelain love interest Tamara (Rachel Nichols). Each tags along to provide convenient motivation or material support, and bows out when Conan’s exploits must take center stage. (Artus: “The gods are cruel.” Conan: “Blast the gods!) Conan’s got the homoerotic mojo, to be sure, not to mention the handmade swords, the martial arts-ish moves, and the slow-motion actionation.
True, he’s particularly slow when it comes to girls, and why wouldn’t he be, given his history, the dead mom, the whoring, and the repeated run-ins with Marique? Still, the film submits that beneath all this miserable experience, he’s a great lover, clear-thinking, and animal-magnetic. And so he wins over Tamara, the pure-blood, supremely educated monk raised to respect herself (and handle weapons rather deftly), with his plainspoken charms: “Woman! Come here!” Or again: “I live, I love, I slay. I am content.” How could any girl resist?