Bar is Set Low in Retread of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

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Average: 3 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Sword and sandal epics are almost expected to have wooden acting and absurd dialogue. The new film “Conan the Barbarian” meets those expectations, and doesn’t offer any action or originality to counteract the anticipated flaws.

The film is a redundant mass of stand-offs and battles, that has as a reasoning the eventual heroics of Conan (who is birthed on a battlefield and given a Jesus-like reverence). These confrontations are literally 80 percent of the film, and concedes with predictable and explicit probability that Conan will reign supreme. The scenic elements are the highlight of the film, it is the humans that trod upon it that spoils the atmosphere, and the movie.

Corin (Ron Perlman), is the leader of the Barbarians, a warring tribe in an ancient society that fights a supernatural power by scattering pieces of a mystical, conjuring mask that supposedly can make the dead rise back to rule the earth. Conan (Jason Momoa) is born in the midst of this conflict, cut from his dying mother on the battlefield. The evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) is in pursuit of the mask, aided by his daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), who is also a witch.

My Kingdom for a Gym: Jason Momoa as  ‘Conan the Barbarian’’
My Kingdom for a Gym: Jason Momoa as ‘Conan the Barbarian’
Photo credit: Simon Varsano for Lionsgate

They find the last piece of the mask puzzle with the Barbarians, then burn the village and kill Conan’s father. The son goes out into the world with revenge on his mind, and that leads him to an ancient monastery, where Tamara (Rachel Nichols) is told through prophecy that she and Conan will come together. She also has pure blood, which will activate the powers of the mask. This becomes a race between Khalar and Conan, to see who will possess Tamara and what purpose will be served once she is contained.

This film is based on a character created by Robert E. Howard in the midst of the American Depression. It was said to alight the “sword and sorcery” genre of pulp fiction, and has maintained its popularity throughout the years, even spawning a previous film series (beginning in 1982) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The re-emergence of the character is no doubt due to the super hero craze in general, Conan is a grittier, more animalistic example of the pulp genre, and no doubt survives because adolescent boys love bloody fights, busty slave girls and last-man-standing swordplay.

The production creates a fantastic world for Conan on land and sea. The villages, coastal regions and villainous headquarters have a comic book quality to them, structured within seaside cliffs and hidden in caves. The settings feel other worldly, a combination of the medieval crusades and middle earth. The optional 3D offers nothing to the proceedings, it feels like a retrofit. With so much attention going into production design and creating the profit motivating 3D effect, it’s unfortunate that more resources weren’t available to create a lucid narrative.

The story is vague and the characters spout mostly silly dialogue. Stephen Lang as Khalar Zym gets punished especially hard, earning several “Monty Python ‘Holy Grail’ Moments” with his eccentric performance and proclamations of doom. Rose McGowan gets to deliciously overact as Marique the Witch, who has magical powers to defeat Conan at one moment, and doesn’t at another, more opportune time. Jason Momoa was so distant and dull as Conan he generates nostalgia for Arnold’s grunting performance in the original. At least the background characters were provocative. In one territory Conan frees some slave girls, and their lack of breast coverings are augmented by perfect white teeth, so apparently it is a land of twice a year check-ups.

Witchy Woman: Rose McGowan as Marique in ‘Conan the Barbarian’’
Witchy Woman: Rose McGowan as Marique in ‘Conan the Barbarian’
Photo credit: Simon Varsano for Lionsgate

The fighting in the film is redundant, and downright boring at times. It is also surprisingly bloody, with severed limbs leading the carnage. Conan takes his share of blows, but somehow is never injured enough to be incapacitated. One scene shows the Barbarian led into a chamber of torture under heavy guard, yet somehow, someway, the hero is able to disarm everyone and torture some information out of a nose-less foe. Even fighting strange sand creatures – conjured up by Marique – doesn’t heat up the action. Why not defeat them by throwing water? Shades of the Wizard of Oz, they’re melting!

The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian was adapted by the dream team of Oliver Stone and director John Milius, and has a cult following. This version has three generic screenwriters, and a potential that won’t even inspire an illegal download.

“Conan the Barbarian” opens everywhere August 19th. See listings for 3D showings. Featuring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman and Rose McGowan. Adapted for the screen by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood. Directed by Marcus Nispei. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

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