This 'Conan' Exists on a Likeable, Lunkheaded Lunatic Fringe

by Bill Gibron

19 August 2011

If all you are looking for is a solid action movie to end the Summer of 2011 on, Conan the Barbarian will serve your needs nicely. Insanely, but nicely.
cover art

Conan the Barbarian

Director: Marcus Nispel
Cast: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan

US theatrical: 19 Aug 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 24 Aug 2011 (General release)

There are two obvious Marcus Nispels. There’s the horror remake god, a man responsible for giving The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th a cruel, contemporary spin. This Nispel loves to lure audiences into a sense of false security, only to later leap out and hack away the precepts with power tools and machetes. While many in the fright film fanbase scoff at the suggestion, the German director should be the first name on every studio suits terror revamp list - he’s just that good. Then there is the other Marcus Nispel, the filmmaker who forgot his craft with the crappy Viking epic Pathfinder. Oh sure, as an example of deranged, over the top sword and sweat swashbuckling, it was acceptable. But when compared with his lean and mean macabre, it appeared arch and unnecessarily busy.

Now, after teaching the newest Jason Voorhees how to slice and dice his way directly into an irritating teen’s blood supply comes his take on the classic character Conan the Barbarian. Beloved by pulp fiction devotees as well as the Arnold Schwarzenegger cult, the muscular thief with a limited vocabulary and an infinite amount of rage is returning to the big screen in a splashy, splattery spectacle. Just don’t call it a remake and you’ll be just fine. Instead of using the campy original with all its memorable (and laughable) dialogue and John Milius made machismo, Nispel goes back to the source and struggles to stay faithful. Apparently, with cold, calculated contemporary killers, he’s more than capable. Turn things medieval and it’s filmmaker goes a bit…nutzoid?
Born in the midst of battle - via a more or less self-inflicted Caesarian - Conan (Leo Howard, then Jason Momoa) grows up to be one of the fiercest young warriors in his tribe. This makes his brooding blacksmith father (Ron Pearlman) very proud. Helping him forge a specific sword to maximize his strengths and skills, Dad comes to teach his talented son the ways of a barbarian. When a evil overlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) comes marauding through his village looking for the final piece of an enchanted headdress, he destroys everything that Conan knows and loves. Leaving the boy for dead, the villain rides off on a plan to resurrect his dead wife and earn the power of the Gods. Why? Well, to rule the world, of course. Naturally, Conan ages and seeks revenge on those who wronged him. He winds up defending a young monk (Rachel Nichols) who has the ‘pure blood’ Zym and his witch daughter (Rose McGowan) are looking for to complete their sinister sacrificial ceremony.

If all you are looking for is a solid action movie to end the Summer of 2011 on, Conan the Barbarian will serve your needs nicely. Insanely, but nicely. Nispel, working from a committee script long in development, takes a simple story - Conan’s family is killed, Conan goes after those who wronged him - adds in a necessary supernatural subplot - main baddies wants blood to make his magic mask work - and then goes from gory gonzo set-piece to gory gonzo set-piece piling on the violence. There are sword battles and fist fights, sand zombies and predatory pirates. From sinister sea monsters to a sharp toothed humanoid lizard man army, this is speculative fiction by way of perverse peplum. As veins are drained and heads role, we become transfixed by what Nispel is doing, and how he has chosen to magnify the mayhem.

Jason Momoa makes an excellent Conan. He’s more Hercules than homunculus with more going on behind his eyes than muscleman allure. This is a thinking warrior, a man with a plan that (usually) succeeds. We enjoy watching him one-up his foes, his victories the result of brain power as much as brute strength. Sure, he has to fall for Tamara and have a slinky sex scene with her, but for the most part, Conan is a loner and out to reap justice with the sharpened edge of a finally honed blade - and Momoa makes the most of this. Lang, on the other hand, is hidden for the first half of the movie, a far cry from his manic Marine myth in Avatar. Still, along with an oddly out of place McGowan, the evil end of the narrative is fleshed out in full scenery chewing mode.

Along with several intriguing ancillary characters that serve their purpose and then rightfully disappear (perhaps, to be used in later installments of the franchise?), we get a nice balance between the human and the heroic. Of course, the unnecessary use of 3D doesn’t help matters much and you can really tell that much of the backdrop scope here is greenscreened CG…and yet we really don’t mind. Nispel is such a nimble director, capable of such grand leaps of logistical logic and scaled sense that we smile at their utter ridiculousness. When it’s all over, we just can’t help by grin in goofy, guilty, delight. This is a filmmaker who languishes over a shot of our hunky hero thrusting his finger into the gaping nose hole of a defaced baddie and never once apologizes for the ballsy brutality. 

Of course, those who have based their entire affection for this character on Arnold’s limited linguistic take will be disappointed, By Crom! With Nispel, it’s the action that’s over the top, not the nutty nonsense mythos dialogue. Others will argue about the Lord of the Rings lite narrative (pieces of a missing evil talisman being sought by a despot desperate to rule the world…) and lack of legitimacy re: Robert E. Howard’s original. Whatever the issue, there are few filmmakers like Nispel, and few films like Conan the Barbarian. As a solid citizen of modern horror, the talented European auteur has few equals. Now, after conquering yet another substantive sub-genre, maybe he can stop being of two different minds and just be one Marcus Nispel - master of amazing movie mayhem.

Conan the Barbarian


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