‘Conan the Barbarian’ movie review: Jason Momoa in trashy take on the pulp hero

Guilty pleasure time: Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian is far from a good film, but it delivers enough B-movie cheap thrills to skate by for its intended audience. On tap: buckets of blood and gore, severed heads, limbs, and features, topless women and a gratuitous sex scene, witchcraft and CGI monsters, misogyny played for comedy, and plentiful sword-based action scenes, all wrapped up in a simplistic revenge-movie storyline.

This Conan isn’t officially a remake of the 1982 movie that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom; it’s intended to be a more faithful interpretation of Robert E. Howard’s 1930s pulp fiction. And there are some isolated shots and scenes that recall the original Weird Tales stories and the 1970s Marvel comic. 

But what Nispel and credited screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood have essentially done is boil down the earlier epic-scale John Milius film starring Schwarzenegger into a fast and loose, easily digestible actioner.

This Conan is literally born on the battlefield as father Corin (Ron Perlman) performs an emergency C-section on his mortally wounded wife in the midst of combat. As a pre-teen played by Leo Howard, Conan is already an expert fighter; while older boys run in fear, he makes quick work of a quartet of savages, delivering their severed heads to his father’s feet.

Like the earlier movie, young Conan’s village slaughtered by an enemy seeking supernatural power, with Stephen Lang’s Khalar Zym filling in for James Earl Jones’ memorable Thulsa Doom. Unlike that film, which followed Conan’s life as a slave, a warrior, a thief, and finally a hero, this one just flashes-forward 20 years as Conan (now played by Jason Momoa) is about to take on Zym and the others responsible for his father’s death.

This Conan has no lifelong Christ-like struggle: he’s a hero right from the start, freeing the slaves (mostly the young, topless female ones) and driven by a singular goal: revenge, preferably brutal and bloody. 

In an early scene, Conan slices off the nose of an enemy, sticks his finger in the nose hole to pry information, forces him to swallow the key to his slave chamber, and then dumps him in front of his captives, telling them their freedom lies in his stomach. 

If he happens to save the beautiful “pure blood” heroine (Rachel Nichols) along the way, that’s just fine – as long as she keeps her mouth shut, and he can have his way with her.

Bonus: completely unnecessary narration by (drumroll) Morgan Freeman.

Hawaiian Momoa, known best for his roles on TV (Baywatch, Stargate: Atlantis) certainly looks the part; his dark features feel closer to Robert E. Howard’s original creation than Schwarzenegger in the earlier films. His line delivery, however, leaves a lot to be desired; it’s flat and uninspiring outside of the occasional howler (“I live. I love. I slay. I am content.”) But Lang makes an effective snarling villain, as does Rose McGowan as his cruel witchcraft-practicing daughter Marique.

If nothing else, director Nispel is consistent: a former commercial and music video director (amongst many others, he did Killer/Papa was a Rolling Stone for George Michael and Spiderwebs for No Doubt), his first four theatrical features (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Pathfinder, and Conan) have all been remakes, and they’ve all been of a similar quality: underwhelming (especially compared to the originals), familiar-bland in style and light in content.

Conan was shot in 2D and has been given a post-production 3D conversion. I caught the 3D version, which isn’t an affront to the eyes but adds little to the experience; for an inflated ticket price, you’re getting a dimmer picture (much of the film, especially the extended cave-set climax, is already dim enough) and little else. In the Czech Republic, both 2D and 3D versions are screening in English with Czech subtitles.

In summation: 2011’s Conan the Barbarian is indefensible trash, and a poor alternative to the 1982 film. But you might get some cheap kicks out of it.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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