The New Conan The Barbarian Doesn’t Suck But It Ain’t Perfect…
It took longer than I planned but I finally sat down and watched the new Conan The Barbarian movie. You all need to sit down because what I’m about to say is going to surprise you. I really liked this movie. I liked it more than Thor and Captain America. I liked as much as I liked X-Men: First Class. It was what I wanted a Conan movie to be, mainly violent, dark and at least evocative in mood to Robert E. Howard’s original stories. This movie hits all three marks pretty well which isn’t so bad for a movie that could barely stay in theaters for 2 weeks. I mean do not get me wrong, it isn’t a perfect adaptation, but neither was the original Conan The Barbarian film. In fact the best piece of advice I can give you about watching this movie is to just go with the flow, sitting there comparing the two films is pointless for the simple fact they are telling 2 entirely different stories albeit with the same character.
The weird thing is, it isn’t like this version of Conan was better from an acting stand point compared to its predecessor. When your predecessor features the “acting” of Arnold Schwarzenegger, that might seem like slightly backhanded praise, but the thing is Arnold was at least working from a better script. Jason Momoa isn’t given nearly as much fun dialogue in this as Arnold was given in the 1980 original and given how little dialogue Arnold had that is saying something. Momoa has ten times more dialogue but never had any real lines that stood out. Hell I think “Crom” was only mentioned once and that was by Ron Perlman. One utterance of Crom? In a Conan movie? It just seems wrong somehow. No mention of Mitra or even a random shout of “Seven Hells!” through the whole damn thing. So how can it be as good as Arnold’s Conan?
I love the 1980 John Milius film, but it didn’t really capture that dark fantasy feel that permeates all of Robert E. Howard’s stories set in The Hyborean Age. There were moments it felt like a Howard story, with the fight with the giant snake in Thulsa Doom’s temple and the orgy scene really capturing the vibe, but the overall feel of the movie didn’t give off that utterly Hyborean darkness. This new movie does. Even in scenes drenched in sunlight there is a harshness to environment and darkness overall that makes it feel like the people making the movie read copious amount of Howard to get the look right and really if you get the FEEL of Howard’s setting you are half-way to making a decent adaptation of his most recognizable character. If you’ve read Howard then you should know that his penchant for being descriptive of the Hyborean Age is one of those things that not just sells the world but sells Conan as a character. It is what makes you want to read Howard’s stories and in turn get his theme of Conan’s character i.e. the closer one is to a barbaric mindset, then the closer one is to freedom.
Freedom itself is one of those themes that gets brought up in the beginning of the film, when Conan’s own father, Corin, refuses to bow to the warlord Khalar Zym. In fact during the climax of the movie Conan says the same thing to Zym his father did about it being the only time he will ever see him kneel. That’s the thing about the character of Conan, he knows he is destined for greatness, he has been told as much but he refuses to be a slave to the concept of “Fate”. “Fate” goes against Howard’s philosophy on Barbarism so anything that could be construed as “Fate” is to be defied. “Fate” is a form of slavery, slavery goes against Barbarism, so it makes sense that one of Conan’s more memorable lines, “No man shall live in chains” is simple but harkens to this ideal of defiance and freedom. Anything that gets in the way of Conan’s freedom is something to be slain. It is that plain, it is that simple. It is that true to Howard.
If there is any weak part in the movie it is the story. Using a maguffin of ancient masks worn by the sorcerers of Acheron is well and good but it lacked no real tangible threat. Even Khalar Zym is kind of a petty villain, never really feeling like an oncoming force of evil. Compare that with James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in the 1980 version, where not only was Thulsa Doom truly mysterious and imposing, but he was an actual Howard villain from the mythology of King Kull. There was menace to Thulsa Doom because he wasn’t just leading an army like Khalar Zym, but leading people that were willing to jump off of cliffs for him because they worshiped him as if he were the God Set himself. Khalar Zym feels more like a henchman than a master villain and Conan is always best used when he has a master villain with a conspiracy to fight against. Hell, even the revenge that Conan is after Khalar Zym for, for killing his father, which is a driving point for Conan’s character, doesn’t feel as urgent as it should mainly because Zym doesn’t feel like a true “Big Bad Vilain”. Zym has a generic conspiracy, just a very generic hook. Its the old “I will get artifact (A) so I can become a God” story. Its not a bad story, its just not an epic story and you really want Conan to be up against epic odds. Sure there is the subplot about finding the priestess of pure blood, who is really just a way for there to be a romantic interest for Conan. Rachel Nichols plays the priestess Tamara just fine , never forgetting that she isn’t really what people are paying to see. What they want to see is Conan hack and slash his way to victory.
This brings us to the portrayal of Conan by Jason Momoa. The producers of this movie could’ve gotten another over-muscled, pseudo-actor to play Conan, but instead they went with Momoa, who while muscular, actually has a build more to how Robert E. Howard describes his hero; Lean and raw with reflexes like a jaguar and muscles coiled like a spring ready to be loosed into action at any moment. We don’t get the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Conan here. This is not a bruiser who merely hacks his way through his enemies. No, here is Conan using a variety of weapons, one-handed, two-handed and sometimes even using 2 weapons at once. I think I saw Momoa use a dagger as much as he used a sword in this movie and that is a good thing. Conan is a soldier and thief, he should know the weapons of strength and of stealth. Even then, the thing that is most striking is Momoa’s physical resemblance to previous drawn or painted versions of Conan. Momoa looks so much like Conan from the fantasy paintings of Frank Frazetta and comics of Ernie Chan, its like he leapt off the page and had been put on film. Momoa IS Conan. In look, in speech, in manner. He was cast perfectly make no mistake. His only problem is lack of good dialogue and one-liners. It is a minor gripe when one considers how good Momoa is in this movie. If only he had uttered “Crom” or sworn to Mitra a few times he would’ve been utterly perfect.
As for the rest of the cast, Stephen Lang is fine as Khalar Zym, but again there should’ve been a more imposing actor as the lead antagonist. Rose McGowan is perfectly creepy as Zym’s Hyborean age daughter/witch Marique. The writers even managed to work in some very creepy incestuous overtones between the 2 characters. Nonso Anozie is the real fun actor in this movie, playing Conan’s friend Artus. Artus feels like he should’ve been a sub-commander for Belit in the Howard tale “The Queen of The Black Coast“, he feels that authentic to the setting. He is also the character that helps the viewer empathize with our hero the best, as he is played as Conan’s oldest friend and it comes across exactly that way the longer he is on-screen. Sure Artus is a pirate with a crew that is probably full of slaves, but he is a good guy to have your back and then drink with afterwards. Hell the bar scene early in the movie with Conan and Artus gets over that friendship extremely well. Last let me heap praise on Ron Perleman simply because he is Ron Perleman and is awesome in everything I’ve ever seen him in. Here he plays young Conan’s father Corin. Unlike Conan’s nameless father in the Milius film, Corin has no time to lecture Conan about Crom and religion or what the “riddle of steel” is. Instead he demonstrates to him that life is harsh, unfair and brutal and one has to make of it what one can. Crom is a god that answers no prayers so better to act then spend time on your knees in prayer to him anyway. It is about being a man and what that means in the long run. That is what Corin tries to impart onto his young son.
In the end, I like this movie, but it is a very mixed bag. I like the portrayal of the main character a lot. I like how the movie was made to look like its setting from its source material and I like the fight scenes, again especially in the fight with the dweller. What the movie lacks is a menacing villain to drive the story and make me care about it . Conan is a great character but he is only as great as the story he is put into by the given writer. Hell everything about the story feels like a first draft of Howard, as opposed to a fully fleshed out Hyborean yarn. If Howard had written this, he wouldn’t even have submitted it to Weird Tales for publication. It looks how you want a Howard Conan story to look, it feels like how you want a Howard Conan story to feel but this movie doesn’t read how you would want a Howard Conan story to read. There in lies its shortcoming, the part that doesn’t make sense. It is a movie that doesn’t “read” the way you want it to. It is a shame and probably why it got such negative reviews. Hell it probably explains why people didn’t go to see the movie in theaters. The movie bombed in first release, barely making 1/5th of its production cost back. This means that we probably won’t get a sequel. It’s a shame really, because Momoa’s Conan is excellent, he is just working with writers who simply can’t measure to the man that breathed life into Conan in to begin with.