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Conan the Barbarian (2011) – Film Review

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Conan The Barbarian (2011) -  Jason Momoa
Conan (Jason Momoa) © 2011 Lionsgate

There’s sorcery but little real magic in this disjointed and insufficiently rousing reboot of the Conan franchise.

It’s better than the two muscle-brained 1980s movies that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as the sword-swinging Cimmerian, but that wasn’t a very high barbarian bar to jump. Jason Momoa is a more athletic and agile Conan. The screenplay doesn’t depart as radically from creator Robert E Howard’s prose conception of the hero or his world. And the entire production is more visually appealing than what went before, even taking into account a regrettable 3D conversion that makes dark scenes murky.

Yet while Momoa’s Conan looks less stiff and steroid-stuffed than Schwarzenegger’s, the character’s personality remains flatly two-dimensional. For all his size and strength, Momoa comes off more like a roughhousing professional wrestler than a semi-savage warrior. Also, Conan’s initial disregard for the charms of a female hostage smacks more of clueless asexual distraction than coldly amoral disinterest. This Hyborian-age himbo’s poster-perfect appearance isn’t enough to make up for a charisma deficit that keeps him from establishing any meaningful, much less iconic, presence.

As for faithfulness to Conan’s 1930s pulp-fiction origins, purists will be glad to see that the new Conan doesn’t grow to adulthood in captivity, a wrongheaded change wrought by the 1982 movie. But both films burden the character with similar childhood tragedies that are not part of the official Conan canon, giving him a seen-it-a-thousand-times motive for revenge. This personal-vendetta plot device gets the movie off to an uninspired start.

Conan The Barbarian (2011) -  Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan
Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and Marique (Rose McGowan) © 2011 Lionsgate

In his quest to locate pieces of a legendary power-bestowing mask, evil sorcerer Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) causes the death of Conan’s father (Ron Perlman) and countless others in Conan’s village. The adolescent Conan (played by Leo Howard) already is a fierce, enemies-beheading fighter. The next time we see Conan (as Momoa), he is several years older and cheerfully engaged in unlawful pursuits unrelated to exacting vengeance on Zym.

The movie’s delayed-gratification angle is a problem because Howard’s fearless Conan never would lose focus by waiting for experience, chance or convenience to make his job of dispensing justice on his father’s killer easier. He would have set out to kill Zym immediately, no matter what the odds. A later scene in which Conan is carelessly unhurried about rescuing a kidnapped damsel, even though he has no reason to think she won’t be sacrificed immediately, is similarly contrary to the character’s nature.

In fairness, a strict word-for-word adaptation of Howard’s work would have its own problems. One of the most painfully awkward lines in the new movie — “I live, I love, I slay and I am content” — is a shortened version of one taken from Howard’s story “Queen of the Black Coast.”

The movie’s good points: Rose McGowan has an interesting role as Zym’s sadistic and incestuously seductive daughter Marique. The CGI-enhanced “sand warriors” she creates to fight Conan disintegrate quite artfully. The movie’s most fantasy-fantastic visual is a full-sized battleship carried overland on the backs of elephants, its prow used to smash through city walls. And when it comes to creative violence, it’s hard to beat bashing a guard in the face with a severed head, fingering the open wound where a soldier’s nose used to be, or catapulting a living enemy several hundred yards to crash through a ship’s deck.

On the downside, Rachel Nichols is un-exotically contemporary as Tamara, the movie’s monastery-raised but feisty heroine. And although her sex scene with Conan is unusual in that there’s no real romance established between the two, their parting is so strangely abrupt it’s as if Conan has developed amnesia.

Director Marcus Nispel fumbles many of the action scenes, including a confrontation with a flailing giant octopus that’s all but incomprehensible. Also, the conclusion of Conan’s last showdown with Zym will be anticlimactic for anyone expecting the arrival of a terrifyingly massive demon monstrosity for a big-finish blowout.

If there’s one rule to which every sword-and-sorcery saga should adhere, it’s that you should save the biggest and best for last.

[Rating:3]