Spoiler Level: Low
John Milius's Conan the Barbarian (1982) came out when I was thirteen years old. By all rights, it should have been right in my sweet spot—I was a pubescent white boy who read comics and played Dungeons and Dragons, after all—but I barely remember the movie, and what I remember most is not liking it at all. Part of the problem, certainly, was that Arnold Schwarzenegger looked, sounded, and acted nothing like the version of Conan I knew (which was the chiseled, stoic warrior in the comics by Roy Thomas and John Buscema). But the larger problem was that, even for my thirteen-year-old self, the movie just wasn't any fun.
Now—lest you think I'm claiming to have had any kind of taste at that age—the movie I really liked that year was a now-forgotten B-movie ripoff of Conan called The Sword and the Sorcerer, a low-budget epic about a mustachioed hero (Lee Horsley) who carried a sword that had not one, not two, but three blades. (Kind of like a Mach 3 razor turned on edge—except two of the blades could be shot out of the sword like giant metal bottle rockets, which came in surprisingly handy.) I saw The Sword and the Sorcerer in the theater, and then watched it with my friends on VHS many times over the next few years, and I remember it as an extremely gory, oddly sleazy epic with bare-breasted wenches and blood-soaked villains.
It was—make no mistake—shit. To my thin credit, I suspect I knew it was shit at the time, but it was fun shit, shit that knew it was shit, and shit that fulfilled all my adolescent requirements for gratuitous violence, gross-out effects, and non-threatening titillation.
Which brings us to the new Conan the Barbarian, directed by Marcus Nispel. It, too, is shit, of course, but the best thing I can say about it—and I intend it as sincere praise, however faint—is that the new movie reminded me far more of The Sword and the Sorcerer than of the original Conan the Barbarian. It has the barest bones of a story, it has not a single memorable line of dialogue, and it has been written as though the screenwriters are honestly unaware that characters are, in fact, supposed to develop. It is nauseatingly gory, it is shockingly misogynistic, it is laughably preposterous.
But it is also—shall I admit it?—kind of fun.
Not a remake of Milius's film, but a new, loose interpretation of Robert E. Howard's pulp fiction character, Conan the Barbarian opens with some ponderous narration (by a slumming and understandably uncredited Morgan Freeman), in which we are told that an evil warlord is collecting the broken pieces of a magical, power-granting mask that will grant him evil world domination. From there we jump to the story proper, which we begin, literally, in utero. Right from the start, Nispel is intent on separating the squeamish from the sadomasochistic: our first shot of Conan is from womb-cam, as a sword mortally wounds his Cimmerian mother (Laila Rouass) and grants our hero an impromptu, partial caesarean that his father (Ron Perlman) must finish right there on the battlefield.
So Conan, as we are told repeatedly, is "battle-born"—having been from his mother's womb untimely ripped—and this partially accounts for his rather violent and pragmatic view of the world. In one of the film's best sequences, young Conan (now played by the very likable Leo Howard) joins a warrior's test intended for older boys, and runs into some marauding bandits from another tribe. The other boys run, but young Conan, of course, is fearless. He takes the intruders on single-handedly, displaying the kind of combat prowess that only a 12-year old boy with massive womb trauma and a team of professional fight choreographers could muster.
But Conan's blissful, easy-going life in the bosom of his blood-soaked barbarian horde is sadly short-lived, as the aforementioned evil warlord, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), arrives with his evil forces in search of one of those missing shards of MacGuffin. In the process, Zym wipes out the Cimmerian tribe and adds dead daddy issues to Conan's already significant mommy trauma. Now Conan has a taste for revenge and blood, which—the film decides—is more than enough character development for this kind of film. Morgan Freeman earns the last of his paycheck with a few lines of narration that carry Conan into thieving/murdering/pillaging adulthood, where he is now played by Jason Momoa.
I must confess, I was predisposed to like Momoa's Conan, having loved his Khal Drogo on HBO's Game of Thrones. Furthermore, I'll go as far as to say that Momoa has the potential to be a real movie star—obscenely good-looking, ridiculously fit, and far, far more charming than Arnold Schwarzenegger ever was. I will not go as far as to say that he's a good actor, since there simply isn't enough information yet. His Game of Thrones role—though impressive—demanded little real acting, and Conan demands even less. Momoa is mostly called upon to glower menacingly and pose dramatically, at which he excels. There is also, however, a gleam of bemused self-awareness in his performance that suggests intelligence, undercuts the silliness, and, for me, elevates his Conan over the sluggish, bovine stupidity of Ahnold's.
(And my girlfriend—who refers to him as "Momoabutt"—would want me to provide a public service announcement about whether you see his naked, absurdly muscled ass in this film. You do, albeit briefly.)
Conan, it must be said, is not a particularly nice guy, which is consistent with the Robert E. Howard version but may trouble audiences looking for a more traditionally heroic hero. His only motivation is revenge, and he spends the film moving from fight sequence to fight sequence chasing after Zym and his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, whose face and accent are both troublingly unrecognizable here). When he learns they need the blood of a woman named Tamara (Rachel Nichols) to complete their ritual, Conan simply kidnaps the woman himself, treating her with such appalling and patronizing misogyny that she can't help but fall in love with him. (Tamara is actually fairly competent herself—does everyone in this world learn to fight from the womb?—but Nichols is unremarkable in a part that would require a much better actress to bring to life.)
But acting is beside the point in a film where there is absolutely nothing but scenery on the menu to chew. (Oddly—except for the always watchable Ron Perlman—Momoa probably gives the film's most restrained performance.) Characterization, too, is off the menu: Conan doesn't change, or grow, or learn anything, from the moment he's sword-born until the end of the film. What he does do is kill a whole lot of people and monsters, and he does it with aplomb. The movie is just an excuse for some impressively gory and well-staged set pieces, and on those terms—and those terms alone—it delivers. The camera work in the endless fight scenes borders on the nauseating in places, but there are one or two creative sequences that offer things we've never seen before, including a fight with sand creatures that look like men but dive in and out of the ground like dolphins. The climax of the film—including a sword-fight Conan and Zym have over the prostrate body of Tamara, who is strapped to a giant wheel that falls into a jagged chasm where it teeters precariously over a lava pit—reaches such heights of preposterousness that it becomes ridiculously fun.
Look, I try to review every movie more or less on its own terms, and—true to its pulp roots—Conan the Barbarian has no pretensions of being anything more than an R-rated movie for pubescent boys who are supposed to be too young to get into R-rated movies. There are copious amounts of blood, there are witty and exciting (if exhausting) fight scenes, and there are naked boobies in the background and one carefully lit, slow-motion music-video sex scene. It is indeed shit, but it's fun shit; I'm not sure I can recommend it, but I can say that—having gone in with the lowest of expectations—I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. I mean, it's no The Sword and the Sorcerer, but blood-thirsty 13-year old boys looking for a late-night movie rental to watch with their friends could do a lot worse.
Note: As I will do every single time I'm given the option, I elected for the 2D version of Conan the Barbarian. I can only imagine how much darker its already dark color palette would be—and how much more nauseating those fight sequences would be—in 3D.