Title: Conan the Barbarian
Directed By: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman, Rose McGowan, Leo Howard
Conan the Barbarian is a tough film to review, as it’s not for everyone, but clearly has the power to satisfy those with a taste for gory action. If you’re looking for a surface value experience in which everyone looks the part, spending some time with this warrior could be well worth it. Then again, if you can’t survive on muscles, carnage and brutality alone and need even the slightest bit of heart or endearment, look elsewhere as Conan the Barbarian is as brash and coarse as its hero.
In the heat of battle, tribe leader Corin (Ron Perlman) is left with no choice, but to knife his own wife to pull out his newborn baby boy alive. That boy is Conan and, born in the midst of war and his mother’s blood, he’s born to fight. At a young age (played by Leo Howard), his battle skills far exceed those of any other boy in the tribe and he’s able to fulfill his father’s assignments with ease. However, even with his exemplary fighting skills, he’s no match for Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a warrior hell bent on reassembling a mask, which will supposedly make him all-powerful and allow him to resurrect his wife. As his men burn Corin’s village, even after finding the missing piece, Zym and his daughter, the powerful sorceress Marique, relish in torturing Conan, forcing him to watch his father perish.
Twenty years later, Conan (Jason Momoa) is a fierce and absolutely massive warrior determined to track down the man responsible for destroying his childhood. However, in the meantime, Conan takes pride in using his exemplary battle skills to free local slaves. When his side job puts him face-to-face with a man he recognizes from the village attack, Conan extracts the information necessary to put him hot on Zym’s trail. Zym is still busy trying to bring his mask to life. Sure, he’s got all the pieces, but now he needs a “pure blood” to activate it. Conan follows Zym to a monastery where Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the pure blood, resides. With Conan desperate to bring Zym down and Tamara eager to survive, their paths merge and they team to fight.
That summary could really have been completed in just three words – muscles, swords and blood. While there are hints of character information sprinkled throughout the film, everything we learn about our main players comes in the heat of battle, never leaving it adequate time to be properly digested. There’s a fantastic sequence early on, during which a pack of young tribesmen run straight into the enemy. Everyone flees, but Conan forges on, not only demolishing his foes, but beheading them and bringing his prizes home to present to daddy, showing how vicious he can be. When we’re in older Conan’s world, we see he’s a noble man, but get this information through even more vicious battle sequences as the warrior knifes everyone forbidding him to free the slaves.
Conan’s born during war and he’s 110% a man of it and so is his movie. There are far less than a dozen quiet, one-on-one moments – few of which are carnage-free. No, that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that puts a significant amount of pressure on those few moments to build character and none are particularly successful. That makes Conan the Barbarian for just one type of moviegoer – a person looking for an action-packed experience and absolutely nothing more.
Momoa is an absolute natural on screen and in this type of role, which gives the character of Conan, a much needed boost. His childhood heartbreak is just not enough to fuel his mission from the audience’s perspective, however, Momoa is charming enough to keep you rooting for the hero. On the other hand, any sympathy for his leading lady comes only from concern for him, as Nichols is as bland as they come. Then again, it’s wrong to put all the blame on Nichols, as the role of Tamara is rather one-dimensional. To top it off, her romance with Conan is, by far, the most contrived element of the film.
As for our bad guys, they’re visually stimulating, to say the least. Lang knows what he’s doing in this type of role and it shows, but he’s too run-of-the-mill to truly fear. Plus, the whole venture just isn’t compelling. Not for a single second do you ever doubt that Zym will snag the last piece of the mask, let alone get the opportunity to drip some pure blood on it. There’s zero suspense. However, Marique (Rose McGowan) is there to spice things up a bit. Unlike her father, Marique’s quite unpredictable and has a few cool tricks up her sleeve, the best of which involves some sand blowing that gives rise to skeletal-like warriors. It’s too bad more time isn’t devoted to her relationship with her father. Anything we learn about them comes from straight exposition, which is a shame as there are a number of layers to the duo that could be interesting to explore.
While Conan may be a film of little depth, for those simply seeking a bloody adventure, it delivers big time. Not only is there fire, sword fights, acrobatics and a ton of gore, but they’re all shown in a rather exceptional manner. I did not catch the film in 3D, but you don’t need the extra dimension to fully enjoy the combat. Director Marcus Nispel has an eye for this type of material, providing impressively vast views of every fight while still making each feel quite intimate. Conan is overrun with battle scenes, yet each and every one is unique and memorable.
That being said, personally, I’m not satiated by a swords and sandals movie that gives me action and nothing more, but there’s nothing wrong with those who are and for that group, Conan the Barbarian is an instant winner.