Director: Marcus Nispel
Writers: Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood
Starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Rose McGowan, & Ron Perlman
I’ve been a lifelong fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. The first books I remember collecting were the Lancer books versions “edited” by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Whenever my family was traveling somewhere for a vacation, I kept my eyes peeled for used book stores and begged my parents to stop and see if we could find any of the books I was missing.
Yes, I’ve always been an obsessive collector. Sue me.
Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian was one of those comics that I somehow have tons of, even though I don’t remember ever actively collecting them. And then, in 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in John Milius’ film version and I was in love all over again. Sure, there was some bad acting, and a couple of questionable special effects, and the story wasn’t all that true to the Howard originals, but damn, man.
Conan the Barbarian is a great piece of work. The direction, the action sequences, and particularly the score by Basil Poledouris are monstrously epic in scope. There was also the fantastic voice-over narration by Mako, and the great William Smith playing Conan’s father, teaching young Conan about the Riddle of Steel.
I still love that film and could watch it just about any time.
We don’t mention the sequel in this dojo.
We also don’t discuss the animated series or the live-action Conan the Adventurer.
Instead we sit back and bask in the memories of that first great film and pretend that someday Arnold would return to play King Conan and show everyone how it was supposed to be done.
Then, last year word got out that there was a new Conan the Barbarian film being made. Not a sequel, but a reboot of what would hopefully spawn a new franchise. I was nervous, quite frankly. Other recent interpretations of Robert E. Howard properties hadn’t been all that great. Kevin Sorbo as Kull was atrocious, and James Purefoy as Solomon Kane had come close, but collapsed under a load of CGI in the end.
The choice of director had me concerned, as well. Marcus Nispel is a former music video director who had moved into directing remakes of 80s horror classics. Sure, he directed Faith No More’s “A Small Victory” but I had no interest whatsoever in checking out his versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. Although I have actually heard some good things about both. I also passed on his Vikings vs. Native Americans film Pathfinder, intrigued as I was by the premise.
Casting Jason Momoa as Conan was controversial at the time, as he was really only known for Baywatch Hawaii and Stargate: Atlantis. But when he showed up in Game of Thrones as the baddest of all bad asses, Khal Drogo, I was convinced that he was the right man for the job. Stephen Lang is also pretty capable when it comes to playing scary bad men, and I barely recognized him from the promo shots, so again, that was comforting.
The only thing I knew about the writers was that two of them were recently announced as working on a Doctor Strange script for Marvel. As it turns out those two, the writing team of Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer are responsible for a pretty disappointing string of films, including the awful Dylan Dog and universally reviled A Sound of Thunder.
The third writer, Sean Hood, has done some interesting work, though, so I went into this film with mixed expectations. I wasn’t really expecting much by way of story or direction, and just hoped that the lead actors could make it entertaining. I was kind of afraid that it was going to be another low-budget TV quality waste of time like Kull had been.
As it turns out, there is some bad acting from surprising sources and the story is about as generic as a sword and sorcery story could be. But, the direction is actually very good. The cinematography is beautiful. The set design is epic. The action sequences are very well done, with a minimum of CGI and lots of real stuntwork being done.
The movie doesn’t hold back in order to get the more profitable PG-13 rating either, instead going extra bloody and violent, embracing its R. There are even some boobies for those on the lookout for some cheap thrills.
But the best part is that Momoa and Lang are excellent.
The film ends up being a little like Solomon Kane, or Punisher: War Zone, in that with a better story it could have built on the perfect casting and been something great.
Surprisingly, the worst performance in the film comes from the usually reliable Ron Perlman as Corin, Conan’s father. There was something about his delivery that just bothered me. It was a little too casual. But to be fair, he was given some pretty awful dialogue to work with. And I’m sorry, but Conan’s father’s last words wouldn’t be “I love you, son.” They’d be something along the lines of “Kill all of the Bastards.”
Ron Perlman is no William Smith.
Hell, they should have slipped Smith in there somewhere in a cameo. Conan’s grandfather or something.
So yeah, Conan’s whole village is decimated by Khalar Zym (Lang) during his search for a magical hat that will allow him to rule the world or something like that. In a very Lord of the Rings opening sequence, narrated by Morgan Freeman for fuck’s sake, we learn of this magical hat and how it was too dangerous, so the tribes cut it up and buried it all around the world. Now Zym is collecting it to avenge the murder of his witchy wife.
Oh, and his witchy daughter, played by Rose McGowan for some reason, is helping out.
I’d also like to take this moment to say that Morgan Freeman is no Mako.
The rest of the film is lots and lots of fighting, drinking, fighting, loving, fighting, swimming, and fighting. There’s really a lot to love if there were only some point to it all. I really don’t understand why they didn’t actually adapt any of the Howard stories, even in snippets to bridge the gaps between cliché plot point after cliché plot point.
And in the end, Conan wins and rides off into the sunset to visit his father’s grave. Or something like that.
This was a huge missed opportunity that could have been easily avoided by simply hiring writers who actually wrote good scripts and did more than pay lip service to loving Robert E. Howard’s work.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Conan the Barbarian is hitting the shelves in a two-disc combo Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, plus digital copy release for only a few bucks more than the straight Blu-ray release, but the stand alone Blu-ray doesn’t have the special features. It’s not priced too outrageously for what you get.
Visually, while I wasn’t able to view this in 3D, the 2D is rather spectacular at times. The colors are vivid and the blacks are deep. There’s a nice
contrast and there’s never a time when it seemed too dark or was difficult to follow the action. The CGI, where it is used, blends fairly well, until we get to the monster battle at the three quarter mark, but even that’s not so bad when you remember the big mechanical snake from the ’82 version.
The sets are great and the landscapes immense. There is a sense of scale here that really rises above expectation and the Blu-ray format only enhances that. This is a damn fine looking film.
The audio is also impressive. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix allows for easy transitions from near silence to the heat of battle without blowing out your speakers. This is the sort of soundscape that the format is made for. And while the score isn’t all that, the film still sounds about as good as one could expect.
I hate to keep doing this, but composer Tyler Bates is no Basil Poledouris.
There are two feature length audio commentaries, one by director Marcus Nispel, the other by Momoa and Rose McGowan. There’s also a Staging the Fights special that shares the pre-visualizations put together by the stunt teams to show Nispel what the fight sequences would look like. They’re kind of kick-ass, but the highlights of the special features are the three documentary works.
Battle Royale: Engineering the Action (HD 9:55): This is a pretty entertaining look at the stunt work and really does illustrate just how old-school this film is at times. There’s a horse chase, some parkour action only slightly supplemented by wire work (and the real wire work is for supernatural beings – Momoa’s wires are safety precautions), and some extremely impressive swordplay by Momoa.
Seriously. The man did his homework and learned how to use that sword. Yeah, he’s flashy at times, but damned if he isn’t fast and dangerous as well. I was very impressed with this aspect of the film and the behind-the-scenes.
The Conan Legacy (HD 18:01): This is a very nicely done look at the character of Conan from his beginnings in Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction and beyond. There’s a look at the rebirth of Conan in the Sixties when de Camp began re-releasing them (although there’s no discussion of de Camp’s controversial editing/re-writing processes) and a discussion with Roy Thomas about translating the character into a Marvel Comics property.
Paul Sammon, the author of Conan the Phenomenon and the producers, writers, actors, and director of the film also talk at length about everything from the Frank Frazetta paintings to the animated series and everything in between and beyond. There’s a short mention of the live action TV series and then we move back to the comics and Dark Horse’s recent Conan revival.
This special feature made me very happy. I recommend watching it before watching the film, as it seems everyone involved really cared about staying true to Howard’s original Conan stories.
Of course, none of those stories are the story of the film, and the writers lose a shitload of points for saying that out loud. How can you say you love Howard’s stories, but they “weren’t the story of this film”???
Somebody deserved a slap in the mouth for saying that out loud.
Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan (HD 11:24): If you don’t know anything about Robert E. Howard, this short feature will give you some very nice insight into the man responsible for Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and others. Howard’s life was short and fairly tragic, but this piece does a good job of balancing his depressing final days with stories of writing and interacting with other pulp authors of the day.
Ultimately, this movie fails to break any new ground or offer anything you haven’t seen before. The clichés are thick and fast and undermine everything that the director and the performers try to do. But, with that said, Nispel has directed a fantastic-looking film and Jason Momoa and Stephen Lang pour their hearts into their characters. The extras are nice and informative, and they actually serve to almost make you forgive Donnelly & Oppenheimer. Almost. It does help me to put all the blame on them, giving the third writer, Sean Hood, a pass. He’s at least done some good work before this, so maybe he’s responsible for whatever works.
I don’t know that I’d recommend buying this, but it’s definitely worth a rental. I’m not ashamed to have it on my shelf, but I’m not going to be pulling this one out to impress friends and relatives.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot. His first novel,The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook, or can be sampled and/or purchased at Smashwords. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.