REVIEW: Even If You Like ’Em Big and Stupid, Conan the Barbarian Disappoints

Movieline Score:

Movies have become so technically sophisticated, so hyper-real, that there's almost no such thing as a cheap pulp entertainment anymore: So many movies set out to wow us, which isn't the same as giving us pleasure. Yet even within those dispiriting parameters, you couldn't come up with a more mediocre wow than Marcus Nispel's Conan the Barbarian, which is perhaps less a remake of John Milius' 1982 crowdpleaser than an attempt to honor the spirit of Robert E. Howard's original novels, though it's hard to tell exactly what effect Nispel is going for. I wanted to giggle when Ron Perlman, as Conan's dad-to-be, performed an emergency mid-battle C-section on his dying wife. But the Conan birth scene, so epic in its epicness, is played totally straight. When Perlman holds that tastefully blood-streaked CGI newborn aloft to the mighty heavens, he seems to be angling for a few gifts of frankincense or myrrh, or at least a gift certificate from Land of Nod.

Things don't get much better when young Conan, a denizen of Howard's invented Hyborian Age (a time when humans apparently traipsed around in raggedy furs or starched white linen, without much in between), reaches adolescence. Despite the lad's seeming awkwardness, he slays a whole gang of ruthless savages while tenderly cradling a quail's egg in his mouth. Today you are a man, little Conan! Before long, the sullen, scrappy kid has sprouted and expanded into an expressionless piece of brawn played by Jason Momoa (of Game of Thrones). When a soupçon of emotion is called for, he can usually muster a minimalist smirk or grunt, and at one point pulls out all the stops to give a "Who's your daddy?" wink to a recently freed topless slave girl.

But this Conan, lost in a haze of murky beige 3-D, is barely a presence in his own movie. The plot is one of those complicated-but-simple mechanisms involving a broken mask that, once reassembled, grants its owner power over the whole world, and boy howdy, does warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) want power over the whole world. The mask needs to be activated by a drop of special blood, which can only be extracted from a comely maiden with full lips and taunting eyes, in this case Rachel Nichols' Tamara. Tamara is a monk -- monkette? -- and the last of a long line of something-or-others. Luckily, Khalar Zym's daughter, Marique (Rose MacGowan), is a very special kind of witch; she also has a bad case of alopecia, but you can't win 'em all. Marique is adept at sniffing out the pure blood needed to reactivate the supermask. She also looks fantastic in her over-the-knee platform boots, and of everyone in Conan the Barbarian, she offered the biggest serving of the violent-silly-sexy nonsense I had been hoping to see.

Did I mention that Khalar Zym, in addition to wanting to rule the world, also killed Conan's whole family? And for that reason, Conan is doomed to stalk the earth skulking and scowling, though he'd probably do it anyway. Still, it's wrong to lay too much of the blame for Conan's blandness at Momoa's big, square feet. The picture's violence is overt but also boring as heck: When a bad guy gets stabbed in the foot, blood spurts and gushes everywhere -- yet how, exactly, is a foot injury supposed to be thrilling? Later, there's a ho-hum impalement. Nispel -- who has built a career out of making movies that spring from the loins of other movies, like the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the 2009 Friday the 13th -- doesn't know what to do with the violence here other than just show it. Nothing is framed, either dramatically or visually. The movie's look is artificially grainy, and most of the scenes are encrusted with CGI -- you'd have to chip it away with a chisel to get to anything human or interesting or even remotely fantastical.

Because Conan is supposed to be, above all else, a fantasy, an escape, a spectacle with some bloody fun attached to it. Nispel takes it all so literally, and his lack of vision leaves the actors adrift. When Momoa's Conan utters what amounts to a slogan for easy living, Hyborian-style -- "I live, I love, I slay and I am content" -- there ought to be some sly euphoria behind it, an acknowledgment that this totally ridiculous line of dialogue is also stupendously awesome.

But Momoa doesn't have a light enough touch to make the line work. Watching Conan the Barbarian, I kept thinking fondly of The Scorpion King -- which featured Dwayne Johnson when it was still OK to call him the Rock -- a movie that was, at the time of its release, roundly mocked for being "bad." But The Scorpion King was really just deeply in touch with an old-fashioned sense of Saturday-matinee junk. It didn't take itself too seriously, and neither did Johnson; you could just roll around in the movie's kitsch, instead of letting it roll all over you. The stakes are much higher with Conan the Barbarian. The effects strive to be seemingly realistic, which only makes them less imaginative. And the action is muddy and ill-defined: The movie's big battle is pretty much a blur of swords and horses' flanks. Conan the Barbarian works hard to be sophisticated entertainment, without ever stepping back to laugh at itself. It doesn't live, love or slay. It's merely content.


  • Laura Lee says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with your critique of Conan. I loved this movie from beginning to end. I was instantly roped into the movie following the birth of Conan aka baby Jesus. I enjoyed the actor who played young Conan, Perlman was engaging to watch, Rose was enthralling as the Witch, and Jason Momoa was not only sexy eye candy, but was really fun to watch. Jason held my attention, he was what I expected Conan to be which was, Strong emotionally, tough physically, yet compassionate to some degree. I found a certain balance to his performance, and would love to see more of him-on screen that is. Also, I preferred his performance over Arnold's and it was nice to actually be able to understand the words coming out of Conan's mouth. That may offend some people, but I don't really care. I loved this movie, it was not a waste of my time and Opps! sorry if you wasted time watching this movie, that you apparently did not like-Oh well! life goes on honey.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    Would it be AICN of me to refer to Ms. Lee as a plant?

  • casting couch says:

    The Conan books were fantastic to read when I was 15-year-old, 21 years ago. I've always imagined what they'd look like as films. One day someone will make a really good series of movies based on them.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Near time, I think, for reviews to be released just after a film's release weekend. It would give a good film review a good chance to further blossom through online discussion, if such is something we now all actually want. As is, it simply ends up being a tag you can't dispose of while watching the film, and leaves you when you yourself have had a chance to consider, initiating your discourse by a fire that is now near ashes, with those who've made their good use of it, away to refresh themselves for the kick of immediacy engaged through first encounters with other relevant affairs. Reviews read more and more to me simply as hand-me-downs. I'm with n +1: down with reviews.

  • I think there's something here. I love the conventional week-of-release review, but that idea of retrospect and discussion -- especially with an informed audience as opposed to the raving cults of this director or that (not that they'll stay away, but still) -- is worth pursuing. We do something along those lines with our Monday Morning Talkback features, but I agree that a more officially critical perspective could go a long way in the days and weeks after a movie is released.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I certainly noticed the Monday Morning Talkback, and appreciated the try. Though again, unfortunately it isn't evident to me that what we all want to do is come closer and closer to a utopia of mutual and truly democratic Aristotilean engagement, or French salon fruitive challenge and play -- we may just want someone else dancing to entertain us, or keeping aloof enough to draw our hate and cement our own surely now non-negotiable virtue -- I hope a good number of us are still game.
    Wouldn't it be the very, very best, if what you got are great movie reviews, that we fully credit for their intelligence, wit, and generosity, for what they've added to our lives, but that still kind of ultimately serve as solid conversation starting points for the sheer abundance of the same the reviews provoked? Quite frankly, I'm tired of when public discussion is engaged, it's between the various notable so and sos from such and such worthy magazine. The sense you get is that the rest of the internet is in their judgment, and regardless of the presence or lack thereof of trolls, being tamed into becoming just servile background noise, digested much the same as quickening street noise, and that they like it that way, want it to remain that way, regardless of who actually else might be out there (who actually become inconvenient, insufferably irritating and outrageously covetous, if they are in fact amply intelligent and ample in number rather than for the most part earnest but inadequate immitators or full-out insufferable trolls.) This is the safely-ensconced boutique liberal, away from everyone else, and who's actually mostly lost it for the furthering of anything beyond next day's successful dalliance. Though better than its kin, the hierarchy-loving conservative, a la David Brooks, it is still frustratingly immature and obnoxious. That's why n + 1's recent argument against reviews struck solid: if were in for name-calling, there are indeed other trolls.

  • You're overthinking it. The primary function of film reviews in the consumer media -- to which Movieline belongs -- is as a service describing a movie's merits, shortcomings and other qualities that help inform a reader's decision to see it or not. Ideally people who opt to see it would come back and discuss their reaction in relation to our review. We do Talkback as a means of bridging the discussion gap. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
    Either way, as you allude to, I think you're in the wrong place if you're seeking "democratic Aristotelian engagement" about popular cinema -- and by "wrong place," I mean the Internet, not Movieline. The whole _point_ of commenting is to respond to some kind of established authority, and it's all professional critics can do any more to reinforce their own by having one definitive, influential take on a film. I'm not sure how you'd rather see the "safely ensconced boutique liberal" behave under the circumstances?

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I'm not sure why you're so sure the Internet is the wrong place for democratic Aristotelian engagement; it strikes me that the original moving impulse behind the world wide web, the internet, was primarily hippie-democracy infused -- genius was everywhere, but hereto mostly not countenanced for being too unconnected. In any case, such things as the profession of teaching were once held by all to be beyond-doubt about established, clear authorities, and students as dependent respondents, with the great concern to let some of the especially apt rise but mostly to keep authority in place in face of each new spread of untamed rascalians, always ready, and in the end, fully able, to ignorantly disregard proffered accomplishments and riches that had taken countless betters so much sacrifice and effort to put forth.
    But then progressives came along and said such heretical things like that, in fact, teaching was mostly to be student lead, and only teacher guided. And that "authority" -- a term they were reluctant to use unless for purposes of critizing it, for it seeming inbred with a notion of man as sinner -- went to the purest of inclination, which might very well be the "student" rather than those entrenched by their "profession."
    To me, you are talking mostly about your site, as you would run it, and others of similarly discouraging safeholding and if-not-illiberal-then-at-least-not-progressive inclinations. The "boutique liberal" part came from Chris Hedges, by the way. He's actually hoping liberals become arrogantly contented with their elitism, constituted by it, so that his muscular next wave of proletariat leftism has an easier time banishing its predecessors' influence from the scene. I'm not at all with him and his new-thought, nuance, and creativity-killing militant doctrinism, but instead for keeping some of the benevolent, other-respecting/loving hippie spirit alive -- even amongst those who've come to pretty much so loathe and profoundly suspect anyone who speaks outside their immediate circle and familiar moving spirit, they seem to be teetering on the edge of a succinct but brutal skewering of the lesser even while engaged in open and polite discourse with them.
    You want people kept contained and at bay; it's evident in when you choose to respond to "commentators" (discussion enablers?), and in what you say when you do respond. I like you, but you are apt to be a jerk. Some of us get a kick out of it and even root you on, but we all notice it.

    • christopher james says:

      you'll probably never see this but i just feel compelled to say that you should stop drinking energy drinks, meditate for about an hour, then come back and re-read the things you are writing. not only do you not make as much sense as you probably believe, your use of certain "intellectual" terms is shoddy at best and just plain wrong at worse. look everyone's a genius analytical mind nowadays (or grifters grifting each other at every opportunity to make each other feel smaller) but i'm letting you know as a personal impersonal favor here, you're overreaching big time. grow some cantaloupe or something.

  • TL; dr.
    Kidding! Anyway, I can't speak to how the internet was founded or intended. I just know that I police a ton of comments here, and you are one of a very small minority who choose to use this forum as an outlet to write seriously and intellectually about movies. I do appreciate it.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Stephanie thinks "Conan" and "Revenge of the Apes" take themselves too seriously. In my judgment, she's more the type who'd choose Delta Tau over Omega Theta. Thirty years ago, everyone would have made the same choice, but right now, most of us want it kept deadened but deadly serious, asking for "another" through gritted teeth while staring revenge. I'm not sure how many people can even see affable anymore.
    In my experience, if you're perfectly sane fraternity intiation experiences should be had to get through for their screaming for constant laughter over their ridiculousness; but what sobers you up quick enough to get through is the realization that none of those you thought your peers are quite with you, have in fact become as if in a trance state, and can't at all share the joke with you because "this all" means something, makes more than intrinsic sense to them. Disturbing and scary.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Correction: I think they see affableness, but mostly only recognize it as something to be piked through the head quickly, then screamingly and severely taunted -- lest it stir up something dispossessing in you. How we like our heroes absolutely merciless these days. No respite for villains, mostly it would seem, so that heroes never have to lapse from a mood that seems to work for them and let something else in: you strangely get a sense that "absolute justice," so up close to be personal, is mostly about quickly teaching empathy, empathic response, and vulnerableness who's boss through brutal pounding. I'm thinking of what happens to the noseless one in this film, a bit of what happens to the black guy in "Apes," and others around but which i can't just now quite peg.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    I got it now. It was in the actually affect-"infected" "Ironman" that I noticed a concern for the director to show himself willing to kill decency out of a too-strong need to prove himself tough (I'm thinking of the scene where Ironman leaves the mercenary for the mob to destroy and pretend it as simple justice, when there way too many inflictions in the film to not russle up that it was mostly self-protecting cowardly sacrifice, of the mercenary, and of the humanness in the mob.). From such a responsive, "listening," your-concern abaying director, i thought this portended poorly.