Conan the Barbarian review

Director Marcus Nispel’s version of Conan the Barbarian is nearly two hours of a big man wielding a big sword, killing people and weird octopus-snake like things, occasionally stopping to eat and have slow motion sex (but not at the same time). It doesn’t get any more simple than that. Not strictly a remake of the 1980’s movies, this is an entirely original story based on Robert E. Howard’s creation.

Young Conan (Leo Howard) is born in the middle of some unexplained battle by his dying mother. Brought up by his father Corin (Ron Perlman), Conan proves his worth after he kills a group of bandits and cuts off their heads. Following a week of riots, I’m sure the sight of a young child inflicting violence will go down well in the UK. Soon warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) attacks the Cimmerian village, searching for the last piece of the all powerful Mask of Acheron (aka the Blood Mask), as well as a pure-blood human so he can revive his dead wife. After his father is killed, his village destroyed and years of growing up, buff Conan (Jason Momoa) sets off across Hyboria to seek revenge. 

A Conan film had originally interested the likes of The Wachowski Brothers and Robert Rodriguez before Nispel was attached. His work on remakes such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th meant that expectations weren’t at all high. This is typical hacky-slashy nonsense. The story is ludicrous, with the clunky acting and dialogue pushing the film dangerously towards straight-to-video territory. Yet I imagine that even this is part of the appeal for a Conan film. On the plus side, some scenes do look polished, with exotic locations, well-staged action sequences and adequate special effects.

As for Conan himself, Jason Momoa certainly looks the part and clearly makes his presence felt on screen. He’s got the swordplay nailed down and even uses his fists and (in the funniest scene) a catapult contraption when it comes to racking up a high body count. At least this Conan fights for the right reasons (“No man should live in chains”).

Rose McGowan is an unbelievable delight, in a ‘so-bad-it’s-good-role’ as Khalar’s insane witch daughter Marique. Sporting a crazy hair-do (channelling The Phantom Menace’s Princess Amidala), she has steel claws as a weapon (she shreds the skin off a woman’s face), and unrealistically blood red lips (maybe it’s Maybelline?). The kind of woman you’d take to meet your parents… till you find out that her relationship with her father is borderline incestuous (bizarrely, she is the one that wants him).

Rachel Nichols screams a lot as Tamara, the pure-blood that Khalar is searching for. As well as needing to be rescued, she does get to help Conan at times. She later asks him, “Are we all just doomed to chaos and ruin,” as if expecting some kind of deep meaningful answer (she doesn’t get one). After supposedly spending years trying to track Tamara down, that Khalar and Marique manage to capture her via a plain and simple ambush defies belief.

The film rushes from one set piece to the next, lest the audience get bored. Because violence is fun (“When a barbarian feels thirst, it is a thirst for blood,” says Conan), the main focus is on plenty of fighting and bloodshed, occurring at regular ten minute intervals. There’s a cartoon-like level of violence throughout, but midway through, seeing another limb flying off a nameless victim just left me feeling numb to it all.

Conan squaring off against numerous sand creatures is a great action highlight and is the one moment where Conan takes a lot of hits and realises just how out of his depth he is. During the rest of the film, you never really feel that he’s in any danger. His final battle with Khalar has one moment of creative ingenuity to it. This is pretty hard to describe, but with Tamara chained to some weird ritualistic circular contraption, it somehow manages to fall down a narrow crevice where it gets stuck, giving Conan and Khalar an opportunity to fight on top of it. The only strange thing about the final battle is that Khalar’s large army of men seem to have disappeared.

What lets the action down is that unfortunately most of it suffers from crazy edits, probably carried over from Nispel’s early days as a music video director. Sometimes it’s best to not cut away to anything and just keep the camera still. Plus, the 3D conversion did no favours here, making the film look awfully murky.

Fans of Robert E. Howard’s work and the older Conan movies will flock to this regardless, while young teenagers with a love for excessive violence and destruction will certainly get a kick out of it, provided they haven’t already been arrested. Conan the Barbarian is a rather pointless piece of disposable entertainment. It’s so by the numbers and it doesn’t really do a lot new. The result is like a spoilt child trying to gain attention by shouting out just how many people he’s managed to beat up, and then struggles when it comes to telling his battle stories. 

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