If it weren’t for the fact that it grossed 18 million on it’s opening weekend, Conan the Barbarian could have become one of the best cult films of the 2010’s. Sure, it has blockbuster budgeting and an overdose of special effects, but this film has truly taken the “sword and sorcery” epic to a new level of historical abandon and literary haphazardness. This film is jam-packed with broads, swords and CGI hordes, along with gratuitous projectile viscera and abuse hurtled at women in a way that would make Sam Raimi proud.
2011’s Conan the Barbarian is a remake of the 1982 film of the same name, starring California’s favourite beefcake, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The original was certainly an offbeat classic. Its billing poster is hand-painted. In it, Conan was a thug, ludicrously wooing women despite a thick Austrian accent and aggressive flirting techniques. And, bizarrely, Conan punches a number of camels in the face (a montage of this has enjoyed a successful YouTube incarnation). Conan’s rebirth as a 3D million-dollar gorefest follows valiantly in this tradition of real entertainment cinema.
Even as a boy, Conan (Jason Momoa) is an exceptionally skilled warrior with more than a few notches to his belt; that is decapitated heads in his bloody fist. Having lost his mother at his battlefield birth, he’s developed a close and intensely manly relationship with his father (Ron Perlman). The pair’s Spartan-like subsistence lifestyle is brought to an end when a huge army led by the cruel Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang) brutally decimates the Barbarian village in search of the missing piece of a magical mask. Zim wants to use the mask to become the supreme ruler of all Hyboria, which is a veritable mish-mash of cities that broadly takes in Arabian, Egyptian, African, Greek, Viking, Celtic, Babylonian, Roman and native American motifs and costumes. We then skip forward to the adult Conan’s protracted search to exact revenge upon Zim, a journey taking in all of the whorehouses and skirmishes it can. Zim and his witch-daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) are also searching; for a pureblooded descendant of some ancient Necromancers whose blood they intend to feed to the aforementioned mask in order to resurrect Zim’s long-dead sorceress wife. Said pureblood is a white-clad virginal femme fatale played by Rachel Nicholls, who as the only female in the piece comprises Conan’s love interest.
Forgive me if I have breezed over this mess of magical characters and vendettas a little half-heartedly. It’s really not the plot that makes this film. Conan the Barbian is quite simply (and perhaps unexpectedly) a chronological biography film. Any more explanation is far from necessary. Like Conan’s existence, the film thrives upon in-the-moment, instantaneous gratification. It’s sexy, gory and exotic, with a smattering of quippy comic relief.
The main aesthetic feature of Conan the Barbarian is violence. In this respect all stops have been pulled out. The claret is spilt liberally throughout the almost unabridged fight scenes. The action is fast-paced and occasionally disorienting, and paired with horrendous bone-crunching and flesh-smacking Foley effects. The screening I attended had the volume up so loud that the on-screen violence began to impinge upon my own physical equilibrium. The most unsettling aspect of Conan’s brutality was the creativity with which the violence was rendered; satisfying the gimmick quota that cult cinema usually commands. i.e. exotic torture devices, repulsive opponents with inhuman tattoos, scars and teeth, nigh-farcical ways to slice a person up and of course a few classic impalings. It’s so exuberant as to nearly make light of the savagery, and is accordingly rated 18+.
The miraculously proportioned Hawaiian Jason Momoa re-incarnates the role previously filled by the Robot Republican. Momoa is an exceptional physical actor and navigates choreography with great agility. This is what Momoa does, his previous gig being the silently smouldering Khal Drogo in HBO series Game of Thrones. He has a similar number of lines in Conan as for the whole ten hours of the Thrones, and manages to get the job done well enough. Really, Conan is a visual feast; listening to what any character has to say is only going to inhibit your enjoyment of the slickness of the rest of the film. To this end, Conan’s lines are appropriately few and generally slightly on the ironically action-style side (“Woman! Come here!”). Between the pectoral close-ups and angelic male buttock shots you also may consider Conan to be a vehicle film for Momoa’s male glamour modelling career. Oh, the PECstasy of it all!
Performances by Rose McGowan and Stephen Lang are far more stimulating but still limited by the constant interruption of visual trickery. In particular, McGowan’s makeup and creepy finger-blades seem to be plot points-cum-character development in of themselves. Ron Perlman seems to be some kind of all-star wink to comic and action film fans, who would have loved him in Hellboy. His gruff voice and ridiculous beard are pitch perfect here.
There are a number of aspects to Conan the Barbarian that are laughable. An awkwardly realised magical mask and pale imitation of an Alien face-hugger earned a few sniggers, as did the fight scene where Conan “saves” a horde of frisky, topless girls from a life of sexual slavery and is rewarded with sex. Particularly unfathomable is the decision to use the voice of Morgan Freeman as the narrator in the opening scenes. On the one hand, this provides some serious swagger, but Freeman’s theatrical tone perhaps makes promises the rest of the film can’t keep in terms of real histrionic storytelling. Furthermore, Freeman’s most famous narration gig was the polar opposite of Conan: the tearjerking documentary March of the Penguins. His gentle tonal qualities are almost irreconcilable with the fact we’re meant to root for the barbarous Conan.
Conan the Barbarian is a far more satisfying and tangible experience than other recent ancient civilisation epics such as Clash of the Titans, Scorpion King, Centurion or Season of the Witch. The effects are better and crucially, the plot does not masquerade itself as anything other than a violent adventure film, which certainly reduces the number of cringeworthy moments in which “faces” attempt to act. In this kind of film, general trajectory therefore becomes more important to plot fulfilment than writing. This is where Conan is reneges on all promises. Oddly for a film about gratification, Conan’s life story fizzles after his mission is completed and unlike most adventure films, we really aren’t given any indication that another greater calling is imminent. An anti-climax to say the least. This is the equivalent of earning and million and retiring at thirty. I expect no sequel unless it is an ensemble piece about Conan’s difficulties managing his riches and reigning in his harem and countless love children whilst reminiscing about the ‘good old days’. A Barbarian Cheaper by the Dozen.
If we can glean any wisdom from the fairytale that is Conan the Barbarian, it is that muscles and fighting are as popular as ever, and apparently still look good on a man. Similarly, if you are a good guy, your moral code amounts to little more than an eye for an eye. If you wanted to go any deeper into what this film tells us you’ll discover that the new model for a big budget entertainment cinema includes less dialogue than it used to. Technology has always been an poignant indicator of the state of the world’s communicative preferences. For centuries, the world was ruled by the oral tradition, entertainments dominated by the bard, jester, and the melodramatic priest at the pulpit. Later, silent radio plays gave way to talkies, the sitting room plasma and pictorial info-graphics. Now the rate at which visual technologies are being developed is allowing action films to be made faster than perhaps is an admissible time for their scripts to be worked upon. In short, visual storytelling seems to be entering a kind of golden age. This format certainly privileges events and action over wit and ideas. I can’t help but wonder where the Mel Brooks of our time has got to, and heave a sigh when I realise the Scary Movie team have already made Epic Movie and maybe that’s as good as we’re going to get. Having said this, Conan is a visual feast and not at all a film that should be overly wordy. However, viewing too many visual feasts that are nonetheless artless may indeed result in optical malnutrition. 7.0/10