Conan the Barbarian

Director: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman, Rose McGowan
Review: 1 star (of five)

Shadows in the Moonlight

A swift crashing of horses through the tall reeds; a heavy fall, a despairing cry. From the dying steed there staggered up its rider, a slender girl in sandals and girdled tunic. Her dark hair fell over her white shoulders, her eyes were those of a trapped animal. She did not look at the jungle of reeds that hemmed in the little clearing, nor at the blue waters that lapped the low shore behind her. Her wide-eyed gaze was fixed in agonized intensity on the horseman who pushed through the reedy screen and dismounted before her.

He was a tall man, slender, but hard as steel. From head to heel he was clad in silvered mesh-mail that fitted his supple form like a glove. From uunder the dome-shaped, gold-chased helmet his brown eyes regarded her mockingly.

‘Stand back!’ her voice shrilled with terror. ‘Touch me not, Shah Amurath, or I will throw myself into the water and drown!’

He laughed, and his laugh was like the purr of a sword sliding from a silken sheath.

— Robert E. Howard

You know those people who think video games are destroying young minds, desensitizing them to nuance, context and story in favor of an endless series of pointless, fast-paced episodes of violence, utterly shorn of meaning, each pretty much indistinguishable from the previous? Don’t take those people to see Conan The Barbarian.

More to the point, don’t take anyone who isn’t: 1) a mouthbreathing troglodyte who just likes to see the pictures move, or 2) someone against whom you’ve long plotted revenge.

Marcus Nispel, whose previous credits include music videos, the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the 2009 Friday the 13th, directs this movie with, actually, less subtlety than you’d expect based on that track record. (Wait … there was a Friday the 13th in 2009?) The movie cranks the violence up to 11 from the very start, and each subsequent action scene, with its frenetic mix of high-speed and slo-mo, immersing you in the chaos, offers the same intensity, the same bucket-sloshes of digital blood, to the pounding tempo of a migraine, with no variation, no buildup, no tension … no signal, just pure noise.

The story, such as it is, shows the hands of its multitude of credited writers (the most accomplished of whom were part of the committee that wrote Sahara, a flop noted for a similar lack of story coherence). The disjointed story would be meandering, except meandering suggests a more thoughtful pace. This movie is like an epileptic fit expressed as a foot race.

from Jewels of Gwahlur

Man and Monster; they met at the highest arch of the span, where, a hundred feet below, rushed the furious black water. As the monstrous shape with its leprous grey body and the features of a carven, inhuman idol loomed over him. Conan struck as a wounded tiger strikes, with every ounce of thew and fury behind the blow. That stroke would have sheared a human body asunder; but the bones of the servant of Bit Yakin wee like tempered steel. Yet even tempered steel could not wholly have withstood that furious stroke. Ribs and shoulder-bone parted and blood spouted from the great gash.

— Robert E. Howard

Jason Momoa makes a decent Conan—a little too handsome to be the brutish barbarian of Robert E. Howard’s stories, perhaps, but he has some charm that somehow escaped Nispel’s determined attempts to extinguish anything resembling wit from the movie. Similarly, Leo Howard, who plays a young Conan has an intensity that a good director and writer could’ve made something out of. I’d watch another Conan movie with either of these actors, if they were working with talented filmmakers. Also: There’s never too much Ron Perlman, and he’s well-cast as Conan’s father.

Rachel Nichols does her best as the film’s plucky and independent damsel in distress, but there is something so modern and pedestrian, so downtown shopgirl, about her that she never quite fits into a movie in which nothing actually fits at all. But she’s acres better than the villains, the creepiest of which is Rose McGowan in the role of Marilyn Manson’s girlfriend. Avatar’s Stephen Lang isn’t given much to do as McGowan’s glowering father, who starts the film by seizing a relic of untold magical power … and then can’t make it work for 15 years. When he does make it work … nothing happens. He’s still just an aging guy stuck in a bad movie, losing. Awesome Maguffin, Team Hack!

Digresson: The 3D sucks. I wrote this entire review, retyped the Howard quotes, downloaded the pictures … and it was only when a Google result mentioned that the film was n 3D that I remembered, oh yeah, it was in fake, low-quality 3D that added nothing at all to the film. So if you must see it and have an option, save a few bucks and go without the 2D the movie was shot in.

I’ve seen a few reviewers say that this savage, brutal film is “true to Howard’s writing.” These idiots must never have read the man. Howard’s often stilted, always hyperbolic writing had a poetic lilt this film not only lacks, but actively despises. Howard’s Conan was not all action—think of the ruined, eerie lost city in The Jewels of Gwahlur, or the haunted jungle temple of Shadows in the Moonlight. Howard was a man who knew how to pace a story, knew how to build tension. And when he wrote action, he wrote it not as pointless carnage, but with a cadence and majesty.

This movie? Imagine a hundred baboons jabbering under the strobe lights in a nightclub where a tone-deaf DJ plays nothing but those electronic songs that go “boom-boom-boom-boom” in endless loop. There. You just saved yourself eleven bucks.

from Queen of the Black Coast

She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther. She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping with blood of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so close she came to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared up into his somber menacing eyes.

— Robert E. Howard