For a good quarter of a century, since Arnie hung up his loincloth in 1984’s “Conan The Destroyer,” people have been trying to bring Robert E. Howard‘s pulp sword-and-sorcery hero back to the big screen, most notably in John Milius‘ unmade “King Conan,” while The Wachowskis, Robert Rodriguez and Brett Ratner have also made various attempts at the material. Finally, he’s returned for some rapin’ and pillagin’, thanks to Lionsgate and “Friday the 13th” director Marcus Nispel, with “Game of Thrones” star Jason Momoa as the Cimmerian. We caught the film’s European premiere at Empire Big Screen tonight: was it worth the wait?
Emphatically, no. But we’ll get to that in a moment. The film opens, after some scene-setting by the voice of Morgan Freeman, with l’il Conan being born in the heat of battle, removed via caesarean from his dying mother by his father (Ron Perlman, looking remarkably like an extra from “Battlefield Earth“). Soon he’s left fatherless too, thanks to the efforts of bandit Zim (Stephen Lang), who’s seeking to reunite the pieces of an evil mask, or something, in order to bring back his dead wife, a sorceress. A decade or so later, Conan has grown to Momoa-size, and is hunting Zim, now a feared warlord, who in turn is hunting a young monk (Rachel Nichols) who he believes holds the secret to his wife’s resurrection.
Almost all of the stuff that works about Nispel’s film is contained in that paragraph. Starting off your film with a shot of a womb being pierced by a sword from the inside is, at least, arresting. The villain is, at least, motivated by something other than wanting to rule the world (although he wants that too). And otherwise, Nonso Anozie (“Atonement“) emerges the best out of the cast as the barbarian’s best mate — indeed, he would have made a far better Conan than Momoa, had anyone had the balls to cast him. So that’s it. The small victories of “Conan the Barbarian,” the 2011 edition. Because everything else is truly, truly awful.
Let’s start with Momoa. We’d had some hope after his turn on “Game of Thrones” that the actor might at least stand out in the film, forgetting that he only spoke half-a-dozen words of English across ten episodes. He’s fine at the sword-slinging, but delivery of dialogue? Not so much. And the rest of the cast aren’t much better: Lang is on sneering villainous autopilot, reprising his “Avatar” turn with an unplaceable accent, while Rachel Nichols fails to give any personality to what is, in fairness, a role that’s not so much underwritten as never-written. Worst of all is Rose McGowan, made up to look like a cross between Christina Ricci and an IMAX screen, and horrendously overplaying her part as Lang’s sorceress daughter.
But it’s not like you go to a Conan movie for the acting: you go to watch some heads being cleaved. Even there it falls short, however. It’s not like there’s a lack of action — indeed, the film has little else, moving from battle to sword fight to battle to fight to battle to stagecoach chase to another sodding battle almost continuously, with little room to breathe inbetween, and with the end result being that you never care, because the stakes are never particularly high, and the wall to wall violence means that the pace feels glacial. Even the gore is disappointing, although it may be that we missed some of it thanks to the single worst, most impenetrably murky 3D conversion we’ve seen to date, resulting in much of the film’s third act looking more like a display of shadow puppets than an actual movie.
Some of the blame has to go to the writers: the world is thin, the stakes are never clear (the characters don’t change much from beginning to end), and what little dialogue there is (most of the film’s noises are grunts and roars) includes gems like the Pythonesque exchange “I have a claim to you.”/ “What?”/”Death!”. But really, it’s director Marcus Nispel who’s got to take the hit here, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows his previous work. We could have forgiven the cheapness of the whole endeavor: the TV-level production values, the terrible CGI, the fact that virtually every scene seems to have been shot in the same Bulgarian wood. But what’s really offensive is how anonymous it feels, and how entirely absent it is of anything approaching imagination or wit.
The director doesn’t bring any of his music video chops here: it’s thoroughly workmanlike stuff, and could have been made by anyone — at least the original came from the barking mad John Milius, making it feel like something close to a passion project, rather than the paycheck gig this so obviously is for Nispel. The worst of it is how much he steals from other movies, and not even classics, but blockbusters from the last decade. The prologue, filling in back story, about a magical object being broken into many pieces and scattered around the world? “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (films that Nispel presumably loves, as he lifts from them multiple times). A mentor/mentee training fight on an icy lake? “Batman Begins.” Fighting formless sand creatures? “Spider-Man 3.” Yes, this is a film that rips off “Spider-Man 3.” The fact that Nispel chose Morgan Freeman, of all people, to narrate is a good demonstration of the lack of imagination on hand.
There have been plenty of bad movies this year, but at least you feel that people were trying with, say, “Battle: Los Angeles” or “Sucker Punch” — they didn’t actually set out to make a bad movie. “Conan The Barbarian” just comes across as half-assed; a quick, cheap, cash-grab with nothing but contempt for its audience, something that would look shoddy even if it were the direct-to-DVD movie it so often resembles. And you should stay away from it like it was a horde of bandits coming to burn down your village. [F]