The iconic brute Conan the Barbarian is given a reboot, and while performances and set design impress, current filmmaking trends and Marcus Nispel’s off putting direction ruin the final product.
Of course, many associate Conan with the Arnold Schwarzenegger / John Milius action adventure released in 1982, with its talk of lamenting woman, snake cults and love of steel. So to its credit, this Conan reboot is an all together different monster. But it’s also one hell of a missed opportunity.
Filling the loin cloth and fur skin boots is Jason Momoa, the Hawaiian born star of Stargate: Atlantis and Game of Thrones who makes the role of Conan his own: snorting, barking, decapitating, and complete with a torso that would make Uncle Arnie proud and charm that would make Dwayne Johnson envious.
The film opens with a Morgan Freeman voice over (yep, the one and only) introducing young, feral Conan running rampant in the woods of his village, Cimmeria. Before Ritalin there was the sword, and papa Barbarian Corin (Ron Perlman looking like sasquatch) teaches Conan about the ways of steel to calm his inner slayer.
This touching father/son moment is ruined by the arrival of supreme baddie Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his evil witch daughter Monique (Rose McGowan), who destroy the town, kill Corin (in a rather brutal fashion) and take off with the last remaining piece of a mysterious object set to bring Hell on Earth.
A fuming Conan swears revenge and travels the globe for Zym, in the process becoming a beast of a man and warrior supreme. The film in turn jumps between different set pieces, which all look great with its mix of CGI and practical set design, transporting the viewer to this would of ancient fantasy.
Contemplating its look are the performances. Momoa is simply a blast as Conan, bringing a sense of fun, physicality and emotion to a nomad warrior whose first purpose in life is revenge, and second is love for a woman monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols), whose pure blood Zym lusts after to make his quest for a dark world complete.
Stephen Lang is at his scene stealing best in his role of evil with muscles. McGowan is also good value and quite scary looking in her with garb.
As expected, Conan is a film that takes pleasure in its violence. Indeed it is violence which is the main selling point, and director Marcus Nispel lets the blood run free, as he has done with his other reboots The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th.
Yet it is the action scenes where Nispel fails, with action sequences in Conan filmed way too close and edited way too fast. Add the at times dark photography and the use of post conversion 3D, and Conan can resemble a murky mess.
Nispel’s troublesome approach is vindictive of today’s current crop of genre filmmakers, the majority of which cannot film action. Gone are the days of enjoying a well choreographed scene, replaced with “experience” filmmaking which is supposed to involve the viewer, but instead complicates and nauseates.
Somewhere, there is a good action film in Conan the Barbarian. Momoa definitely deserved a better film to suit his performance as a warrior who “lives, loves, slays and is content”. Yet under Nispel’s direction, Conan makes an impression but will leave viewers far from content.