There are such things as bad movies that nonetheless deliver entertainment value, especially in the summertime. And Conan The Barbarian could be the best bad movie of the year.
It starts with perhaps the most goofy and violent birth ever to grace the big screen. Conan’s very pregnant mother sustains a wound to the stomach during a battle. As life ebbs from her and the fight rages around her, she makes a last request of her barbarian king: to see her son before she dies. And without any regard for her condition, Corin (Ron Perlman), makes that happen. It’s really funny stuff and, at the same time, kinda cool.
The origin story continues as Conan reaches his teens only to watch his village and his father cut down by the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). In a scene reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the boy Conan must make a terrible choice that will forever change his life. It helps make him the barbarian king and sets Conan on a journey directed by revenge.
Conan the Barbarian is one violent picture. Heads and bodies seem to explode, and blood flows in buckets. Fourteen-year-old boys will wriggle with glee as Conan (Jason Momoa) cuts down his opponents with his Cimmerian steel blade and manhandles bare-breasted women by the gaggle. It is, perhaps, the comic violence and macho attitude that make the movie bearable. Women who see the film will probably laugh throughout and older men will just have to channel their inner boy. Whatever you do, just don’t try to make any sense of all the carnage and bloodletting.
The 1982 Conan feature was directed by John Milius, who went on to direct another 1980s hit, Red Dawn. (coincidentally, the Dawn remake should soon find its way to theaters soon). But the character was created by Robert E. Howard way back in the 1930s. Unlike Milius’ adaptation, co-written with Oliver Stone, the barbarian story in this 2011 version is really given the pulp treatment. Having seen the 1982 film many times, I have a nostalgic affinity for it. The movie launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and doggoneit it’s not that bad. This new attempt by remake director Marcus Nispel (see his new takes on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th) is a much sillier version.
Casting is an important draw here. Jason Momoa, most recently seen as Khal Drogo in the HBO hit Game of Thrones) makes a good Conan. He’s taller and leaner than Arnold and, arguably, a better actor in the role. So much of the action in the film is the product of computer animated magic, but it helps that key characters are played by actors that handle physical acting well. Stephen Lang does the best he can with the poorly written Khalar Zym, bringing the same intimidation factor that made him memorable in Avatar. Sadly, while Lang can be a scary screen presence, Zym is never really frightening. He’s a crude cupcake compared to the bad guy Thulsa Doom played by James Earl Jones in the 1982 version.
Getting the best of things is Ron Perlman, whose large muscular frame has consistently landed him roles playing tough guys, from Hellboy to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children. As Conan’s rough-but-loving father, Perlman carries the early part of the movie. He brings sensitively and pathos to a flick that’s otherwise bland and as broad as a Cimmerian forged sword.
Rose McGowan looks crazy and unrecognizable as Zym’s witch daughter Marique. And while some weirdness is hinted at between the evil father and wicked daughter, the script does not play with that dynamic enough to make it really interesting. Rachel Nichols is fine as the fair and pretty polar opposite to McGowan’s menacing witch. But the women in the film are secondary to the sweaty musclebound men in the lead roles.
Strangely, this Conan lacks the spirituality that helped give the original some weight. Critics like Roger Ebert found the 1982 film controversial with the casting of James Earl Jones as the mystical heavy, opposite the blonde and Nordic looking Schwarzenegger. This time around, other than a misogynistic theme, nothing about Conan (2011) should ruffle any feathers.