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Conan the Barbarian

August 19, 2011
Conan the Barbarian

Okay, who doesn’t know Conan the Barbarian? It was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role transitioning from a career as a bodybuilder to one as an actor, and long before his political turn as the “Governator”. But did you know that this deLaurentian orgy of sex and violence actually derived from a 1930s-era pulp character created by Robert E. Howard? It is to this source that director Marcus Nispel and writers Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer — fresh off of Dylan Dog: Dead of Night — turn for their inspiration in Conan the Barbarian.

Most of the story has changed radically, and many of the fans’ favorite lines have gone with them. But what stands in its place is, it must be admitted, a far superior movie than the original. It’s still over the top — maybe even over that — but it’s not nearly the camp-fest the original film adaptation was. This is a dirty, gritty Conan, full of epic fantasy action. The Lord of the Rings may have inspired Dungeons and Dragons, but this movie is the distillation of everything great from that game.

In case you don’t know, Conan (Jason Momoa) is a “battle-born” member of the Cimmerian tribe of barbarians in the Hyborian age of the world. This followed the rule of the Acheronian necromancers, who dominated the worth with the aid of a bone mask powered by the blood of their own sacrificed daughters. The barbarians managed to overthrow this dynasty and broke the mask into shards that no one might possess that sort of power again. One shard is in the Cimmerians’ posession, guarded by Conan’s father, Corin (Ron Perlman).

But the warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) seeks to reunite the mask to resurrect his dead sorceress wife and become a god to rule over Hyborea. He massacres the Cimmerians, yet leaves Conan alive as a young boy, to claim their shard of the mask. All that he needs is the blood of a direct descendent of the Acheronian line, for whom he searches with his daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan). He will find what he seeks in the last remaining pureblood Acheronian, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), hidden away in a remote monastery.

Meanwhile, Conan grows and seeks out the man who killed his father and his people, making allegiances with the Zamoran pirate Artus (Nonso Anozie) and the king of thieves Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui). And when these forces come together, the results can only be spectacular.

This is not a movie for the subtle; the key word in production seems to have been “more”. These is blood and gore and sex aplenty, albeit rather less sex than in the Schwarzenegger version. Momoa is coming off of a rather similar role as Khal Drogo in HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones, which probably helps him get into character. But it’s really amazing how much of a difference it makes to have an actually talented actor like Momoa playing Conan, even though this is far from a character-driven drama or anything of the sort.

What it lacks in subtlety it makes up in fun; there is hardly any downtime, as we rocket from one spectacular set piece to another. Lang and McGowan throw themselves into their deliciously evil parts with reckless abandon, which makes their confrontations with Conan that much more engrossing.

But what really grabbed me was the sheer texture of Hyborea. We careen through this world at a breakneck pace, but it really feels like there’s a lot more of it out there. There are songs and stories and people and places we barely even touch on; though Conan’s quest is indeed of paramount importance, there are so many other things going on at the same time. Not only do I want to see more of Conan’s story, I really want to see more of the legends of Hyborea now. It doesn’t even have to be a sequel; just give me more.

Oh yes, and there’s absolutely no reason to see this in 3D unless you have to.

Worth It: definitely more so than the original.
Bechdel Test: surprisingly this one might almost pass. There is one conversation that depending on how you interpret its subtext may well qualify. Given the rest of the film I’m going to err on the side of caution and say it fails, but if you watch it you can judge for yourself.

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