Conan the Barbarian: it earns the heck out of its R rating. More blood spilled in more thoughtfully creative ways than you're apt to see outside of a torture film, and topless women - oh! so many topless women! - there are no fewer than seven poor spear-carrying actresses all playing characters collectively named "Topless Wenches". Really, I could let that be the review, because whatever preconceptions you have about a movie that includes seven different Topless Wenches and doesn't see fit to give each of them a distinguishing number, are likely to be exactly the correct preconceptions about Conan the Barbarian, 2011 Edition, which does not play so much as a modern re-do of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, as a misanthrope's sour attempt to exaggerate everything he hated about that film as a way of showing his contempt for the whole project.
By no means do I actually think that this is what director Marcus Nispel, remake specialist, intended: his natural state has customarily been to ramp up the seriousness and nastiness of anything he touches, for that whatsit, edginess (I do not care to guess what the writers intended, particularly given that two-thirds of them also collaborated on A Sound of Thunder). At the same time, intentions aren't as important as results, and the new Conan rather comes across as though it has a vendetta against its own target audience. It is a dreary film, a film that is not half as much fun as it seems like it ought to be. Not in the same way that this summer's Cowboys & Aliens wasn't fun, where it's too damn serious; no, Conan isn't just absent joy, it feels like it is actively anti-joyful. Watching the film is, albeit in a small way, kind of like being punished for enjoying barbarian films.
It tells the story of, naturally, Conan of Cimmeria (Jason Momoa), a member of a warrior tribe who is specially warlike himself on account of having been "battle-born"; this means that his nine-months-pregnant mother was herself right in the middle of a brutal battlefield, and one of her opponents managed to gouge her in the womb, and she was able to deliver herself of the child before dying. We get to see this event from inside her uterus, incidentally, and so the film gets to prove right early that it's not going to be squeamish about things that it might, possibly, have been okay for it to be squeamish about.
Conan grows to boyhood (played by Leo Howard), and learns the ways of swordsmanship from his father (Ron Perlman, ideally cast in an extended cameo); when his village is decimated by a horribly evil bandit (Stephen Lang), the boy vows revenge and dedicates himself to a life of barbaric adventuring and thieving until the day that he is able to find and destroy his nemesis. Some 20 years later, that same bandit, Khalar Zym, finally makes his presence known; he has re-assembled an ancient mask of unmentionable wickedness and needs the blood of the last scion of a dead race to activate it; he and his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) track this scion to an ancient monastery; her name is Tamara (Rachel Nichols), and she has the good fortune to bump right into Our Conan immediately after escaping from the villains' clutches. Cue, on the one hand, her attempts to escape and prevent evil from taking over the land, and on the other, his attempts to use her as bait so that he can wreak sweet, sweet revenge all over Khalar Zym.
As plots go, that one is pretty functional, nothing special but not as bad as the movie it's attached to. For one thing, Nispel lets every moment - every single one - go on for too long, resulting in a movie that lags fiercely - at 113 minutes, it is a significant amount shorter than the original, but it feels far longer. That problem is compounded by a remarkably chatty script, for a barbarian picture; the best of the classic '80s vintage of that genre (and heck, even the terrible ones) were at least elegant in their simplicity: five lines to establish "go here and kill this guy for that prize", and then it's just a lot of bellowing and clanging swords. But it's the 21st Century now, and we have to have all kinds of context and characterisation, and that's only tolerable when the writing is good. Decent, at least.
Making matters even worse, the battle scenes - and those are, without question, the reason why we are here - are far too infrequent in the early, miserably boring part of the movie. That said, the fights themselves are well done: in this, at least, one gets the impression that Nispel understands directing and wants to do it well. Conan vs. an army of sand monsters is just good garbage popcorn cinema; Conan over a swinging bridge of death is chopped up a little bit too much in the editing, but the heart is right. A few good fight scenes, however, is not enough to keep the movie as a whole from running out of steam right about the same time that it starts.
The cast doesn't help: Momoa, while technically more competent that Schwarzenegger ever was in the same role, is so busy muttering and explaining and chatting that he doesn't have so many chances to be a bad-ass, and when he is, he doesn't look like an epic hero but like a rapist hiding in an alley. He's still better than either of the women: Nichols suffers from a fawn-like terror of her own dialogue, while McGowan is a sheer, unmitigated airplane crash of bad acting: never the finest thespian, she's usually capable of giving back something at all to her characters, even if it's just a sassy pout; she allows herself here to be trapped in a single expression, and a single way of moving her hands, and despite the fact that they both look ridiculous, she commits to it all for the whole movie. If she had ever once shown an inclination toward acting campy, I'd suppose that she was deliberately trying the throw the movie off its rails; instead, it's pretty obviously just atrocious acting. Leaving just Lang, who manages to at least understand that he's playing a broad stereotype straight out of silent melodrama, and gives us plenty of evil smirks and snarls. It's not terribly good work, but it has to do here.
None of this comes as a surprise: the original was, after all, not a good movie, it just had X-factors out its ass (Schwarzenegger, John Milius's extravagantly straitlaced direction, Basil Poledouris's exquisite score) to be a shitload of fun on the way. The new movie lacks any and all X-factors: it tries to coast by on nothing but a dark attitude and a brand name, and the result is at once tedious and unpleasant, and as much as that sounds like a perfect summer movie, it's actually kind of hard to make it through to the end.
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