REVIEW: “Conan the Barbarian” (2011)

For the past few years Hollywood has been consumed with remaking movies from the 1980’s. I have to admit, “Conan the Barbarian” was one I could see being remade with satisfying results. I’m a fan of the original 1982 fantasy film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a gritty and violent movie jammed with swordplay and sorcery. This time Jason Momoa takes on the role of Conan and while he does a good job channeling the Barbarian’s grunts, growls, and muscle flexes, ultimately the movie’s story runs out of gas and the special effects don’t live up to what you would expect from a 2011 movie.

We’re introduced to Conan at the time of his birth on the battlefield during an intense attack. His mother dies and he is raised by his father Corin (Ron Perlman), the leader of a tribe of barbarians. Conan grows into a young boy who’s agility and skills with the blade are beyond his years. It’s during this time that his village is attacked by an evil warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) who is seeking the pieces to an ancient mask he believes will resurrect his deceased wife and eventually lead to his rule over Hyboria. Doesn’t it always come down to that?

Zym and his army destroy young Conan’s village and leaving the boy to witness his father’s death. The story then catapults ahead to an adult Conan working as a mercenary. Still thirsty for revenge, he finds a trail that he hopes will lead to Zym. Zym still hasn’t figured the mask out and now is seeking a monastery that houses a pure-blood descendant (Rachel Nichols), blah, blah, blah. Conan ventures from location to location before tracking Zym down, falling for the descendant, and getting caught between saving her and carrying out his revenge.

The story has promise especially for those who love these types of fantasy films. It has moments that captures what made the original film a cult favorite particularly during the first half. But it hits a point where it begins to lose steam, turning into becomes a conventional and predictable fantasy tale. There are plenty of action scenes featuring snarls, sword twirling, and blood splatters. Some of them work well, but much of the action lacked context and seemed like nothing more than dressing. And I also found the finale to be as underwhelming as the buildup to it.

It’s also surprising to see how bland the special effects turned out to be. Many of the location shots look like hazy paintings instead of lived-in lands. There is also a creature battle close to the end that certainly doesn’t stand up to the visual accomplishments of today’s effects. But there is a really good effects-driven sequence where Conan is battling a group of sand warriors conjured up by Zym’s witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan). It’s clearly the best the movie offers.

As I mentioned, Momoa is a soild Conan and Nichols is a good match for him on the screen. Perlman is a nice choice for Conan’s father even though it’s a relatively small role. Stephen Lang isn’t as bad as he was in “Avatar” but once again he seems to be following the “How to Play a Movie Villain” handbook. He overplays several scenes and he’s never the slightest bit menacing. McGowan, his co-antagonist, feels like a bigger threat even though her character is pretty shallow and forgettable.

Forgettable is also a good way to describe “Conan the Barbarian”. It’s not a terrible movie but it squanders a lot of potential. It does do a few things right especially in the first half. There are also moments that made me reflect back to the original film and how I responded to it as a kid. Unfortunately this one can’t sustain a compelling story and the visuals don’t feel like a worthy enough upgrade. This was one remake that I expected a lot more from.