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 of those movies that I could see being remade into a really satisfying film. I was a big fan of the original 1982 fantasy film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a gritty and violent movie filled with swordplay and sorcery. This time Jason Momoa of TV’s “Stargate Atlantis” and “Game of Thrones” takes on the role of Conan and while he does a good job channeling the Barbarian’s grunts, grumbles, 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 are introduced to Conan by seeing 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 agile and has skills with the sword beyond his age. It’s during this time that his village is attacked by the forces of an evil warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) who is seeking the pieces to an ancient mask that he believes will resurrect his deceased wife and eventually lead to his rule over Hyboria. Doesn’t it always come down to that in one way or another?
Zym and his army destroy young Conan’s village and leave him to watch his father’s death. The story then catapults ahead to an adult Conan working as a mercenary. He still wants revenge for the death of his father and soon finds a trail that he hopes will lead to Zym. Zym is seeking to activate the ancient mask which takes him to a monastery that houses a pure-blood descendent (Rachel Nichols) who is the key to the mask’s power. Conan ventures from location to location before tracking Zym down and he soon finds himself in the middle of this weird tangled mess. He also must face the conflict between a true romantic affection for the descendent and the sworn revenge on the warlord who killed his father.
The story has promise especially for those who love these types of films and it would be unfair to completely dismiss it. The movie has moments that does capture what made the original film a cult favorite particularly during the first half. But at the halfway mark the movie begins to lose steam and it becomes more of a conventional fantasy tale that doesn’t offer anything fresh. There are plenty of action scenes that offer lots of snarls, sword twirling, and blood splatters. Some of them are well conceived and I remember letting out a few exclamations during a couple of particularly good sequences. But to be honest, a lot of the action lacked context and seemed to just be pop up at random. I also found the finale to be as underwhelming as is the buildup to it. Since the movie was already struggling narratively, it really hurts that the action falls a little short.
I was also a bit surprised at how unimpressive the special effects turned out to be. There are several scenes where we get shots of a new location from a distance but each of these places look like a hazy painting with the exception of smoke from the chimneys or a bird flying by. There is also a creature battle close to the end that certainly won’t blow you away especially considering 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). As far as the action goes, this was 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 its s smaller role. Stephen Lang isn’t as horrible as he was in “Avatar” but he still seems to be following the “How to Play a Movie Villain” handbook. He overplays several scenes and he’s never that 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 far from being a terrible movie but it squanders a lot of potential. It does do a few things right especially in the first half of the film. There are also moments that made me think back to the original film and how I responded to these types of movies when I was a kid. Unfortunately the film can’t offer a compelling story from start to finish and the visuals just don’t feel like a strong enough upgrade to make this feel special. It’s really unfortunate. This was one remake that I expected a lot more from.