(2011) Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Said Taghmaoui, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard, Steve O’Donnell, Raad Rawi, Nonso Anozie, Bob Sapp, Milton Welsh, Laila Rouass, Nathan Jones, Morgan Freeman (voice). Directed by Marcus Nispel
There’s something about a barbarian in a loincloth that fires up the imagination. It brings to mind swords dripping with blood and gore, scantily clad damsels in distress, terrifying monsters guarding hordes of fabulous treasure and ancient cities surrounding a wizard’s citadel. Ah, fantasy…
The swords and sorcery genre was more or less created (or at least popularized) by Robert E. Howard back in the 1920s and 1930s with his character Conan the Barbarian (in the same way J.R.R. Tolkein essentially created or at least popularized the high fantasy genre). In 1982, the John Milius movie based on the Howard character launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom. Will this 2011 version do the same for Jason Momoa?
Conan is born on a battlefield, literally ripped from the womb of his dying mother by his father Corin (Perlman) who cuts open the belly of his wife, yanks out the squalling baby and holds it before the eyes of mommy, who hangs around long enough to name him before expiring. Corin raises his son to the heavens with a roar which might be the only time Conan is ever going to be associated with a Disney animated classic (see The Lion King for reference).
Years pass and Conan grows into a young boy (Howard) who is taught by his blacksmith father how to fight. When the youths of the village are able to run a course in the countryside with a birds egg in their mouth without breaking it, they are considered worthy of becoming warriors for the clan. On such a day, they are attacked by a group of other Barbarians (these who are apparently mute and make a hideous animal roar) but young Conan takes out four of them without scarcely breaking a sweat let alone an egg. For this his father forges him a magnificent sword.
Unfortunately, Conan never gets a chance to use it. The tribe is attacked again, this time by the army of King Khalar Zym (Lang) who is after the shard of a magical mask that gives the wearer unspecified but unlimited power. With the help of his sadistic sorceress daughter Marique (McGowan), the shard is found and Khalar decides that Corin needs a molten iron facial. His son tries to save him but winds up failing.
Flash forward a decade or so and Conan has grown up into a big strapping man (Momoa). He roams Hyboria thieving and wenching with Artus (Anozie), an irascible pirate who is something of a mentor to Conan. When the bar Conan and Artus are drinking in are raided by the local constabulary, Conan notices that the man leading it was one of the soldiers who destroyed his village and helped murder his father. After Conan gets the information he wants, he rescues a thief named Ela-Shan (Taghmaoui) and heads out to a monastery where Khalar is apparently looking for a virgin of the True Blood (i.e. descended from ancient sorcerers) to sacrifice in order to activate the mask.
Said virgin is Tamara (Nichols) who the abbot Fassir (Rawi) sends away in a desperate attempt to save her, even though the monks and monk-ettes are massacred. Khalar’s baddies are about to capture Tamara but Conan saves the day. The two take an instant dislike to one another which in Hollywood-speak means that they’re going to be madly in love by the end of the picture.
Still, Khalar will stop at nothing to get his hands on the girl. Conan will have to battle through every manner of deadly creature, both man and beast, in order to save the girl and finally get his revenge.
Conan is one of the most enduring characters in pulp literature. Howard’s stories and novels have been in print nearly continuously for over 80 years, and his mythos has been added to and expanded upon by nearly every medium imaginable, from graphic novels to videogames to movies. He represents the primal male attributes, as he shrugs “I live. I love. I slay. I am content” at one point in the movie.
Momoa is going to inevitably be compared with Schwarzenegger and he acquits himself surprisingly well. Those who saw him as the brutal, brooding Khal Drogo in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” might be surprised at his range. His Conan here is a little bit more easygoing than Drogo; to be honest I’ve always pictured Conan as more like Drogo; dark, quiet, likely to let his actions speak louder than his words. This Conan is engaging and funny. Momoa doesn’t quite have Arnold’s natural charisma, but he certainly has potential to be a big star.
His supporting cast blows hot and cold. Lang gives an over the top performance that borderlines on the ludicrous, while Perlman, who is forced to wear the most ludicrous beard in cinematic history, does a fine job as Corin. Young Leo Howard does a nice job as young Conan and is literally spectacular in his own fight scenes. In some ways he outdoes Momoa.
Nichols is uncommonly pretty, although she looks a little more modern in some ways. I think she was just a little bit miscast here, but she makes a good effort. McGowan is terrifying as the witch which is what she’s meant to be but sometimes she seems almost TOO crazy.
Most of the problems I have with the movie is that they don’t really capture the spirit of the Conan stories. Howard’s stories are generally dark and dank, with monsters that are beyond imagining. Here the monsters are rather pedestrian; there are sand warriors that reminded me of similar creatures in The Mummy Returns and an octopus like creature that is all tentacle and CGI mayhem. Nice enough but not particularly groundbreaking.
This is entertaining enough, but it isn’t the movie it could have been. I would love to see more direct translations of Howard’s work to the screen but it hasn’t happened yet. As to those critics who wonder if the world needs an another Conan movie, the answer is far more than we need another quirky indie romance. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against indie films of any sort. It’s just we have had plenty of great indie films and no great Conan movies yet.
And there’s a need for them. Good entertainment is hard to find, for one thing. The swords and sorcery genre has yet to live up to its potential, but there is a lot to explore there. This movie tells me we’re not ready to yet, or at least Hollywood isn’t. I guess I’ll just have to wait awhile longer for my Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser movie.
REASONS TO GO: Momoa is actually awfully likable and charismatic. Early fight scenes are well-staged.
REASONS TO STAY: Movie loses momentum in last third. Doesn’t capture feel of Howard’s stories.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect there is a whole lot of violence, blood and gore; there is also a fair amount of nudity and sexuality as well, and some disturbing monsters.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ron Perlman, who plays Conan’s father, voiced Conan in a videogame and also the unreleased animated feature Conan: Red Nails.
HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas should be seen on the big screen.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Fright Night (2011)