Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Barbarian Invasion

I was expecting to hate the new remake of Conan the Barbarian (2011, directed by Marcus Nispel), so the fact that I didn't hate it was an unexpected delight. Oh, it was big and stupid, but it was more plugged in to Robert E. Howard's pulp aesthetic than I was expecting, including a raft of beheadings and naked boobs (to say nothing of Jason Momoa's naked butt). My resistance to the film essentially crumbled three minutes into it when Conan's dad (played by Ron Perlman) performs a battlefield Caesarian to deliver his new son. That's such an outre beginning that I was up for the ride. And when, as he is instructing the youth of Cimmeria in the finer points of being a barbarian, he tells his students "When a Cimmerian feels thirst, it is the thirst for blood!" I was sold. At the end of the scene that follows, in which young Conan takes up the challenge and winds up returning from a manhood test with four heads of enemy scouts, I was grinning.

Mind you, I do NOT want to suggest that Conan the Barbarian is a great movie, or even a particularly good movie. I don't know if it's even interested in being a good movie, to tell the truth. What it is is a FUN movie, in which Conan's various incarnations as a thief, a mercenary, and a pirate are all incorporated into the whole. There's a certain fannish enthusiasm to all of this, and I don't mean that to be derogatory. Love is love, right?

The story is more or less the same as the one in John Milius's 1982 version of the character. Conan's village is wiped out by a marauding sorcerer and Conan spends his adolescence and young adulthood searching for this man. There's the sacrifice to the dark gods that Conan must prevent, the colorful side adventures. and lots and lots of violence. The evil wizard this time out is played by Stephen Lang. The sacrifice by Rachel Nichols. Lang's character also has a wicked daughter, played by Rose McGowan, and for some reason, I imagined the actress keeping all of her costumes for this movie. She's visually striking, though she doesn't manage to play "evil" well enough to make her more than an interesting visual. The movie does lack a female foil for Conan a la Sandahl Bergman's Valeria, and I won't pretend that it doesn't hurt the movie, because it's a noticeable absence. Still, if I want that, I'll go ahead and pick up the new comics adaptation/extrapolation of "The Queen of the Black Coast" by Becky Cloonan and Brian Wood. Movies aren't the only ones giving me my barbarian fix these days.

If I have a major complaint, it's that Conan the Barbarian is too reliant on computer generated backgrounds. A lot of concept art these days has a sameness to it, and Conan falls victim to this. I do like some of the film's more baroque flourishes, though. Khalar Zym's land ship is a nice touch, as is the variety of locales this provides (it's not just a bunch of running across a desert). I should also complain a bit about the score by Tyler Bates, though comparing this score to the Basil Poledouris score is a bit unfair. Even taking this into account, it's a disappointment, because it seems a bit on the Ren-faire kitschy side, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings scores. At the risk of criticizing the film for the movie I want to see rather than the one the filmmakers have made, I think Conan's music should have a middle-eastern flair to it. Katchaturian, for instance, would be a good fit. I also can't say I like the Castle Greyskull stand-in at the end of the movie, but not enough to knock the film for it. I am somewhat relieved that this film sidesteps the essential racism of Milius's film, and the racism one finds in the pulp stories, for that matter, by giving him an archenemy who isn't so loaded with atavisms.

The takeaway from all of this is that this is kind of a mixed bag. I really like Jason Momoa in the title role. He has a pantherish physique that seems more fluid and more dangerous than Schwarzeneggers muscles, and he has a glare that works for the character. I also like the way Conan sends one of Khalar Zym's henchmen back to him. That made me laugh so hard that I had to stop the movie for a few minutes because tears were gushing down my face. As usual for these kinds of things, your mileage may vary.


Chris Hewson said...

I liked this one a lot too! A couple of resons being that it actually spent more time focused on Conan's youth (which is good plotwise, and good in that Ron Perlman can get more screentime) and I liked that the companions he meets (i.e. the pirate guy, the lock-picking guy) don't die, so if they ever make a sequel to this, they have a chance for recurring characters.
Also, I kinda liked Jason Momoa's Conan better than Arnold's, because whenever I watch the Conan movies (or any Arnold movie), I don't see Arnold Swarzchenegger as a character, I see him as Arnold Swarzchenegger.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. Arnold was a traditional movie star that way. You're right. Momoa's Conan is an actual character.