Friday, August 26, 2011

Vengeance is His: CONAN THE BARBARIAN


If the ancient-times set story of a boy who sees his clan slaughtered and subsequently grows into a vengeful warrior sounds familiar, that’s probably because Robert E. Howard’s 1930s stories about Conan the Barbarian were previously adapted to the big screen in a 1982 movie directed and co-written by John Milius and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his earliest roles. That film’s bloody awful, dumb, gory, and blockheaded, with mostly wooden acting and a militantly campy masculinity. This new Conan the Barbarian is a far more reasonable experience, though it’s still not very good.

This time around the titular barbarian is Jason Momoa, who may not be as grotesquely muscular as Schwarzenegger, but he’s smoother and rougher and certainly has a far better glower. He convincingly inhabits the body of a furious, monosyllabic swordsman. Before we get to Momoa, though, we first meet the character as a baby in his mother’s womb with an inside-looking-out shot of a battlefield C-section. His father (Ron Perlman) saves him from inside the dying mother and raises him over his head with a mighty “Arrgh!” Here, there be Conan.

Jumping forward, pre-teen Conan proves to be a precociously violent lad who begins training to fight to become a great warrior. He’s a natural. Soon enough, the village is slaughtered by an evil man with devious plans (Stephen Lang) who conveniently forgets to make sure he has killed every last villager. This leaves little Conan all alone, climbing out of the rubble and plucking a sword from a dead villager. When he raises the sword above his head with a bellowing “Nooooooooo!” it’s clear to see that he’ll grow into his vengeful glower.

As you can tell, this is not a movie of great subtlety, but one of unselfconsciously big gestures. It’s the kind of movie where the impact of hitting the ground causes the eyes in a severed head to pop open. (That’s a nice touch). As full-grown Conan slays his way through ambiguously ancient landscapes he clashes with Lang’s underlings on his quest for revenge. He spends time freeing slaves, fighting people made out of enchanted sand, slicing up giant watery tendrils, slashing at an evil sorceress (Rose McGowan), and reluctantly rescuing a pretty lady monk (Rachel Nichols). What does Conan think of all this sound and fury? “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” I think that’s his longest line of dialogue.

I can forgive the movie for its goriness. I can forgive its silliness. I can forgive its dumbness. But what can’t be forgiven is its dullness. For the first ten, maybe even twenty, minutes of Conan, I was reasonably entertained. Under Marcus Nispel’s bland, personality-free direction, the plot slips along with a marginal level of competently enjoyable inconsequentiality. By the movie’s midpoint, however, I found my mind wandering. I could not have been less involved in the various nonsense words attempting to orient me within the fantasy’s geography. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the mythology. Eventually, I just didn’t much care what happened. As the action grew choppier and weightless, as the blood splatters grew rote, the crunching sound effects and monotone mood ground down any interest I had. When I finally checked the time and found that there was still forty minutes to go, I was more than ready to leave. There’s only so much forgettable barbarism I could take.

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