Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian (2011) (Review)

     It has been a while since I've read any Robert E. Howard or L. Sprague de Camp Conan stories.  Author-I've-met-and-had-conversations-with Richard A. Knaak has been contracted to write some very recent Conan novels, but I haven't bothered to pick them up.  I like the character of Conan, but there is something very immature about rooting for a barbarian-type to strike out against the "civilized" world; that is one type of fantasy story.
     Another is the revenge fantasy, and that is what director Marcus Nispel gives audiences with his 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian.  Where John Milius' 1982 version was a pitch-perfect example of how to tell an epic story – perhaps in a more subdued and grounded manner than can work today – Nispel blends the imagery and pacing from several more recent films (some of them good), making this effort feel a little like a high budget mash-up.  Milius's Conan was a conflicted soul driven in equal parts by his own greed, his loyalty to his companions, and a need to come to terms with his father's death.  In contrast, Nispel has a Conan who spends the first 22 minutes as a little boy – an extended sequence that did not work for me – then another 15 or so as a rampaging pirate for freedom before he gets on track to seek revenge.
     Visually, the film is parts Russell Mulcahy's Highlander (1986), TV's Xena (1995-2001; largely in the costuming, but also in some of the action sequences and Conan as a freedom loving pirate), Nispel's own Pathfinder (2004), Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999), and a fine helping of scenic vistas reminiscent of someone trying to ape Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03).  The comic book style blood added to the otherwise serviceable action sequences didn't help, but that was still much better than the acrobatic (Xena?) sand spawned creatures (The Mummy?) and a fight sequence that does nothing for the movie.  A fair amount of what Nispel cobble together works, even in the hodge-podge style he adopts, but enough of it was jarring to me to keep me from getting into the story. 
     Not that there is much to Conan's part of the story.  Much of the film is dedicated to Stephen Lang's Kalar Zym (if his dress wasn't enough to let me view Lang as a stand-in for an '80s Clancy Brown, they went and named his character Zym) and his daughter with an Electra Complex.  None of it is interesting – not in terms of plot or action.  Rachel Nichols appears to be in a completely different movie – and I am just going to assume there was a body double for a certain scene so that it remains like she isn't really in the movie – her character a maguffin and a foil to show that Conan isn't just a murderous, brooding thug.
     I guess my biggest quibble is how Nispel handled the Hyborian world.  I have slightly more than a passing familiarity with the geography, both from reading the Howard/de Camp stories and many years of playing RSI, inc.'s Hyborian War. I know my Cimmeria – grim, moody, covered in mist – but Nispel's looks more like MacLeod's village in Highlander (and the assaulting forces look like a score of Kurgan wannabes) and not a hilly Germanic forest.  Then we are taken to a Zingaran slave colony (if anyone can explain what a slave colony is, that would be great; I imagine this is a kind of shorthand for a place where Zingarans capture people to sell as slaves), so we are on the West Coast of the world.  After that, we go to Argos (Messantia), which makes sense only if Conan and company sail as close as possible to Zingara without actually going there once the slave colony is destroyed.  Everything after that is unknown to me, with a Shaipur monastery, a fortress called Khor Kalba, and a city-of-thieves that isn't Shadizar.  Now, combine my frustration with not knowing where I am in a world I kind of know with the rampant mispronunciation of Acheron and Hyrkania (that latter of which being a place no one who look's like Rachel Nichols' Tamara should want to go willingly; this is where '82 Conan was fighting in the slave pits).
     There will be people who will really like this movie.  I guess, like with the relaunch of Star Trek (2009), it helps to not have much vested in the canon of the characters and their universe.  However, I didn't think there was much in the way of fun to be had with this Conan the Barbarian.  Nispel stretched scenes longer than they need to be, and adopts a Peter Jackson approach – from King Kong (2005) – if some is good, then more is more, and much more must then, finally, be better.  It didn't work then, and it doesn't now.
This is how Conan should look, so kudos for that.
     Jason Momoa occasionally looks very much like Conan (more than Schwarzenegger ever did), and he may evolve into a pretty good action star.  He isn't what is wrong with the movie.  Treating Picts as though they are some type of human-goblin hybrid is what's wrong with it.  Not finding a proper balance between cartoonish, camp, and gritty action is what's wrong with it.  And not trimming about 15 minutes worth of filler because somebody thought the filler looked good is what's wrong with it.
     If I were unfamiliar with the original Conan the Barbarian (1982), I might view this as a C+ effort.  Compared to Kull the Conqueror (1997), I would rate it a B-.  But when viewed in the entirety of Howard's (and various other authors) material and how well it had been handled in the past, I have to put this at the C/C- level.  I didn't enjoy it, and there were parts that really grated on me (like having a second expository voice over to start the second act), but I can't view it as a disaster.  This is one I think most viewers can wait for on DVD/Blu-ray or to come to premium cable.

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