Friday, September 16, 2011

Conan The Barbarian (2011) - Theatrical Review


Release Date: August 19, 2011

The question never was did we need another Conan movie, the question always was and always shall be whether or not anyone could ever supplant Arnold Schwarzenegger as the indelible barbarian. The funny thing is that while this new beginning proves that it is possible for someone to put their own spin on the character but it also proves that maybe someone should have put more thought into the actual movie containing the character as well.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Glendora AMC 12
Time: 12:30 pm August 26, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 52 min
Studio: Universal

Loves: The original Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Likes: The world of Conan, Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols
Neutral: The villains
Hates: That they turned Conan into an action movie
Missing: That epic feeling the Arnie version had

I will admit that I hold the original 1982 film up on a pretty high pedestal. But as much as I absolutely adore that film it is not without its faults (as minor as they are). So other than never truly embracing the idea that Hollywood would ever find an actor that could claim the throne from one of the greatest screen icons of my generation I was fairly open to the concept of bringing the barbarian back to the big screen. I love the world that this mythology exists in, it always felt like a lost time from our history where sorcery reigned supreme and only people like Conan could ever stand against the tyranny of the wicked. This new film was not something I wanted per say but it was something that I was willing to give a chance to and see if it could win me over. So with that mind set I embarked on my own journey of high adventure to see if the barbarian still had what it took to capture my imagination once again just like it did when I was a child.

We are shown that Conan (Jason Momoa) was born to fight (he was forced out of his mother's womb by a sword piercing her belly on the field of battle) and that even as a young boy his blood lust and skill in combat was without equal even amongst his own people, the Cimmerians. His village is attacked by a man named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) seeking a piece to a mythical mask that is said to give its wearer enormous power. Seeing his father and his entire people ravaged by Khalar enrages the young boy which fuels his already insatiable lust for violence and once he has become a man, Conan sets his sights on finding Khalar and killing him along with his sorcerer daughter Marique (Rose McGowan).

Conan is ready to kick some ass.

I was surprised at just how much of this movie worked for me. To be honest I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from it. I was able to derive from the trailers that it certainly had the world of Conan realized fairly well but I just wasn't able to tell what the mood or story would be like. For a fan of the original film I was overjoyed to find out that this new movie mimicked a lot of that 1982 classic when it came to the flow and direction of the narrative. It was still about a boy who witnessed his family and people murdered and vowed revenge on the ones responsible. And that simplicity helped immensely here because most of the plot elements dealing with Khalar and his search for ultimate power were pretty lackluster.

I love the fact that Conan isn't setting out to free anyone, save anyone or even pay any mind to any one person's plight. Other than a very brief glimpse of him freeing some slaves for reasons never really gone into (if Conan himself was a slave the film never tells us), he is simply hunting down Khalar for his own selfish reasons and only truly becomes sidetracked slightly when a girl enters the picture (of course). This was one of the weaker aspects of the film though and I am not knocking it for bringing a love story of sorts into the fold but more so on how limply handled it was. The love interest in the 1982 Conan was a perfect fit for the character, she was not only beautiful but also a skilled warrior who could and did fight by his side. The woman that catches Conan's heart this time around, Tamara (played by the beautiful Rachel Nichols), is more of the oh-I-broke-a-nail type of woman as opposed to the let's-kick-some-ass type. But that switch works for this movie and while I would have liked to see her fight along side Conan (she does a little by the end) I was alright with her more feminine appeal.

Khalar is an evil dude but not a very memorable one.

The problem I had with that though had nothing to do with how her character was portrayed but more so with how the movie itself seemed disinterested in pursuing any sort of relationship between the two of them. Aside from a brief campfire scene the two characters never have much time to get to know one another. Conan is more interested in using Tamara as a means to lure Khalar out of hiding so that he may kill him. Their entire relationship appears to be set on fast forward the whole time with their eventual sex scene feeling as though it was shoehorned into the proceedings as opposed to happening organically. That leads me into probably my biggest issue with the film overall which is it being more of an action heavy movie than something with a more epic tone to it.

The original Conan was a revenge story but it felt grander than such a simple story contrivance as that due to how meticulous everything was handled. You got to see how Conan became the warrior he was destined to be and we got to discover the world along with him. In this new interpretation of the Conan mythology the same story elements are in place but everything is glossed over at a rapid fire pace as though the filmmakers were afraid the audience would get bored if we saw characters talking to one another for longer than a couple minutes. They sidetracked the origin story of Conan by making him out to be a skilled and lethal warrior from the outset. Instead of witnessing him becoming the legendary Conan it is implied that he was simply born as an unstoppable behemoth. While I am not entirely upset at this change I would have liked to have seen how Conan got to the point he is at when we first meet him all grown up. We literally see him as a child just after his father and people are massacred and the next scene shows him attacking slave traders with a group of followers. How did he survive on his own as a child? How did he become the warrior that he is beyond his natural abilities? Where did he get all these other warriors that followed him? Unfortunately the film is more interested in cutting to the chase which was a shame and a lost opportunity I felt.

Tamara is a beautiful and odd romantic figure for Conan.

This faster pace also translated into a much bigger focus on action scenes. I love action movies, I would even go so far as to say that I am an action movie junkie but the world and story of Conan never felt like a universe that lent itself very well to the action movie genre. Sword fights are always fun to watch but you can only take so much before watching two people clashing swords becomes tiresome (Revenge of the Sith anyone...?). But somehow the filmmakers found a way to pump up the action with explosions, CG sand-men that can't die and even a scene with tentacles wreaking havoc during some of the more ordinary sword fights. While not all of it was very successful I must admit that it was all done fairly well and despite my wish for a more intimate portrayal of this character I found most of the action set pieces to be entertaining in the end.

With this being a story of revenge though there is a lot of emphasis placed on the villain of the film so that villain had better be something or someone worthy of a warrior such as Conan. I don't think anything will ever top the awesomeness that was James Earl Jones in the original Conan but even without that comparison I can't really say that the guy they got for Conan to focus all his anger on was anything special. The actor Stephen Lang I am a huge fan of and thanks to his role in Avatar he has been getting a lot more acting gigs lately. But the character of Khalar is to blame  ultimately for how underwhelming he felt as an adversary to one of the greatest warriors of all time. His quest to find the pieces to a mask that will grant him ultimate power was terribly yawn inducing and had it not been for the unexpected but welcome addition of Rose McGowan as his sorcerer daughter I don't think I would have remembered much when it came to the plot concerning him. Conan needs a foe that is diabolical and not just a mean dude. Part of what made Thulsa Doom such a great foil for Conan was that he went about his quest of world domination through subtle methods and used his followers as his sword when his powers were not enough. Khalar is just a thug, a guy that wants power and will slaughter anyone he needs to in order to get it and unfortunately that is not enough to make a character compelling.

Explosions in my Conan movie...huh?

To counter balance the lack of a very fulfilling villain though is something I did not think was possible, especially given my undying devotion to the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been MY Conan for the past three decades. I had always thought that it was that lightning in a bottle effect, such as what happened with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was not only the perfect time but also the only time an actor would become a character to the degree that it was impossible to even imagine anyone else in the role. But I am man enough to admit when I was wrong and to my astonishing surprise I was very wrong here.

I had first seen Jason Momoa in the HBO series Game of Thrones and found him to be utterly badass in the role of a leader of savages. And while I still will never conceit to the fact that anyone could ever replace Arnie as Conan, Momoa (wisely) chose to not duplicate that Conan. He has given us a whole new take on the character. Where Arnie's Conan was the strong and silent type, Momoa is a very talkative fella and has a lust for blood and carnage befitting such an iconic character. I think was sold on him as Conan after two things happened in the film itself. When he used a catapult to launch and enemy soldier into Khalar's encampment with a note attached to the still alive soldier all the while smirking at his own cruelty and later when he first confronts Khalar as an adult and he licks the blood off his sword and looks positively insane. If there are more Conan films to come (which I actually hope there are now) the only thing I would want is for Momoa to play the role again. It may not be the kick in the ass to his career that it was for Arnie but I think he has a very strong chance at making this franchise his own which is something I never thought I would say.

Momoa is a pretty badass Conan.

I would like to mention another strong sticking point for me that I honestly thought I would have been bitching about because it was NOT done right and that is the violence of the film. I was happy to see that R rating on my ticket stub and am even happier to report that this movie does that rating justice. It is a very violent film with people dying in all different sorts of ways (Conan's dad goes out in a particularly brutal fashion) but it didn't revel in it which was a smart choice. Lastly there is the soundtrack to talk about which sadly not only pales in comparison to the incredible soundtrack for the original film but also didn't really make any sort of impression on me what so ever. It wasn't bad but it also wasn't very memorable which is just a travesty considering how epic the music was in the original. I almost wish that they would have just remastered and re-purposed that old Basil Poledouris soundtrack and edited into this film. Perhaps there is a fan made edit around the corner some day.

So, this new version of Conan the Barbarian isn't nearly as offensive towards the legacy of the 1982 John Milius film as I had feared. It is a more than competent action flick that completely embraces the world it is set in and approaches the material with a no holds barred mind set that fits it well. Jason Momoa is a fantastic casting choice for the updated Conan who was let down by a ho hum villain and a lack of scope to the story being told. It hits most of the right notes for anyone looking for a quick thrill and some appropriately violent action but it fails at being anything more than just another action film. The 1982 film set so many standards and benchmarks for this genre that perhaps it is unfair to even compare the two but that's what happens when you tackle such a beloved and classic film as Conan the Barbarian. I can't say it will be remembered as fondly as that original film but I also can't say it is a bad film so if you get the chance then I highly recommend that you... 




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