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