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Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Reviewed by Mark Finn, © 2011

Format: Movie
By:   Marcus Nispel (director)
Genre:   Sword & sorcery
Review Date:   August 22, 2011

Let's get right to the heart of the matter: The new and improved Conan the Barbarian is not high art, not by any stretch of the imagination. That said, this movie gets far more right than the previous one. It's not perfect, but it's better than any other previous effort.

The regular folks are at home wondering, after having seen the hype, why on Earth anyone would want to remake Conan the Barbarian. The 1981 movie is a part of pop culture history, after all; it's the film that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world; it ushered in a veritable torrent of sword and sorcery movies, each worse than the last, and all with identical plots, badly-conceived monsters, and scantily-clad women.

And, of course, if you didn't know who Conan was before 1981, you sure as heck knew who he was afterward.

Thanks to the Governator portrayal, everyone's conception of Conan springs from that: a giant, beefy, long-haired foreigner, wearing a fur diaper, and ponderously swinging a ridiculous sword that the bad guys seem to willingly walk or ride into. It's not much different from Johnny Weissmuller's "Me Tarzan, you Jane" shtick in terms of character simplification.

Now the film is looked on fondly, and considered great campy fun by millions of disenfranchised hipsters. But if you're a fan of the character created by Robert E. Howard, you know that Arnold's Conan and the literary Conan are light years apart. They aren't even on the same page.

All of that has now changed. The new movie's tone is deadly serious, more as a reaction to the first film than anything else. Jason Momoa's Conan is no less beefy, but far more fast and agile. Gone is the furry diaper, and also the garbled Austrian-accented dialogue.

Momoa can actually act. There were a few times during the movie when I actually laughed with delight at Momoa's Conan. Whether it was a mirthless grin, or a particular bit of action, Momoa's Conan has a ruthless, cunning intelligence behind most of his actions.

There are even a few instances of gigantic mirths early in the film, before Conan locks in on that which he has searched for so long with a -- dare I say it? -- Howardian intensity.

I'm most happy about the online chuckleheads who are whining that there's no campy humor in the film. Not funny? Good. It's not supposed to be.

Not campy? Darn. Go watch Flash Gordon if you want some yuks. This is Conan the Cimmerian, born on a battlefield, thief, reaver, slayer, we're dealing with in this movie. And that's the Conan I've always wanted to see.

Speaking of visuals, there's another player on the field: the late Frank Frazetta. In particular, the Picts in the movie seem to be lifted straight out of the visually arresting train wreck Fire & Ice. Several times I found myself watching Frazetta paintings and drawings come to life -- no mean feat in a film.

There's something of the recent Dark Horse comics style sheet in some of the fight scenes, which isn't a bad thing, either. Momoa looks somewhat younger than Ah-nold, but no less capable.

There are a couple of fight scenes where Conan, sensing perhaps that he has the upper hand, toys with his assailants, taunting, or cavalierly showing off before brutally running them through. I found myself thinking, "Man, that was unnecessarily mean!" And again, I say to that, GOOD.

Conan was self-described by Robert E. Howard as "the damnedest bastard." At long last, the bastard has shown up.

There's also something to be said for the simplicity of the "I'm looking for the man who killed my Paw" plot. It requires no set-up, aside from the obvious intro, and everyone knows it by heart. After all, it was the exact same plot of the first Conan movie.

The script makes use of the fact that you don't want to see everyone meet for the first time, and so it wisely skips that stuff. More room for the images of wholesale slaughter, don'tcha know. Great big chunks of backstory are summarized with two or three lines of dialogue.

We join the movie with Conan literally near the end of his quest. There's not much else to do but strap in and start the body count.

If you have read any official reviews at all, then you know that this film is violent. There's not a sword swing in the movie that isn't followed by what looks like a quart-sized paint can full of blood. The movie earns its R-rating almost totally on sustained violence and gore.

If you like Quentin Tarantino movies (in particular Kill Bill), and if you thought the movie 300 was genius filmmaking, or if you're a fan of the original Conan stories that Robert E. Howard wrote, then you will most likely like the new Conan the Barbarian.

If this is your first outing into the world of sword and sorcery movies and you're at all squeamish, then this is not the movie for you.

I find it particularly interesting that the fan reaction will likely be split, just as it was so many years ago with Conan premiered in Weird Tales magazine.

Some of you will find him too brutal, too barbaric, and devoid of redeeming qualities. Others will think we need more stuff like this. Good ol' Conan, the ever-divisive Barbarian.

Overall, and given the amount of Hollywood hamstringgery that the filmmakers Paradox had to endure to get this film made, I think they did the one thing that they could do, and that's focus on the character of Conan.

This movie, for all of its flaws (and I'm not going do disagree with anything that's been written about Nispel's direction or editing), represents a course correction in popular culture, the likes of which haven't been seen in decades.

This film is to pop-culture Conan as Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was to pop-culture Batman. Just as the then-new dark and gothic, troubled Batman permanently wiped Adam West's smirk off of the map, so too does this fast and agile, smart and mean Conan eviscerate John Milius' samurai stand-in, and most especially, that Dungeons and Dragons module that was Conan the Destroyer.

Should this film ultimately do well money-wise, make no mistake, we want it to do well), there will be other Conan movies. These movies will have better directors, more Howardian content (we are told), and that will open the door for other Howardian characters and stories. King Kull, Dark Agnes, Bran Mak Morn, another Solomon Kane, El Borak, and others could easily find their way to the big screen, and with more of a Howardian sensibility.

How cool would it be to see Jason Momoa in four or five Conan movies, leading up to a King Conan movie that is equal parts "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Scarlet Citadel?"

Personally, I would lose my mind.

How about a King Kull movie that includes "The Shadow Kingdom?" Or, heck, any Solomon Kane film with some of the Howard stories in it? Vampires and pirates? Are you telling me that wouldn't sell?

The point is this: so many years ago, everything hinged on the Conan books selling well to see more Howard out there. For better or worse, like it or hate it (and I don't particularly like it, myself), but Conan leads the vanguard to the rest of Howard's work. The Del Rey books sold well enough to continue printing new ones.

Now the movies are hinging on whether or not this movie does well. Trust Paradox that they will be able to get more Howard, and better stuff, in the second movie. Hey, it's been done before. Trust Paradox to get a better director, someone who understands the character, for a sequel. Again, it's been done before.

Right now, the line in the sand is this: everything is riding on Conan the Barbarian doing well. You know what I'm asking for. Go to the theater with no expectations and let the violence and the visuals wash over you.

Marvel in Momoa's inspired turn, and think about how cool he'd be in something like "Rogues in the House" or "People of the Black Circle." That day is closer than you think.


Mark Finn wrote the Robert E. Howard biography Blood and Thunder. More from Mark is at his Finn's Wake site.

He explains how to pronounce Conan's name right here.


 
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