Conan series

This article was originally published on on 19 August 2011.

I was just talking the other day with my friend Allison about books people expect you to have read (and how they are taken aback if you haven’t). There are millions of books out there and only so much time in the day. People have LIVES (most people, anyway) and it can be difficult to fit in every little thing you want to read. While we were referring to highbrow literature (later that day someone proved her point by chiding her for being unfamiliar with Jennifer Egan), I find the same to be true for geek culture (in both literature and film). In case you haven’t worked out the relevance of this introduction yet, here it is: I have never read any of Robert E. Howard’s Conan books and stories, read any of the comics, or seen the classic movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Howard is considered the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre and a cornerstone of geek lit. Well that would be a lot of reading to do as article prep, but I can still remedy the movie part of that before reviewing Marcus Nispel’s new film Conan the Barbarian.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

In many ways I miss the 1980s (or the early 90s, which in many ways was still the 80s). If I had seen this movie as a kid, I would have loved it. As an adult my reaction is somewhat mixed. There were a few dull stretches but there were enough moments of awesomeness to offset them. This movie was kind of like the film version of a heavy metal album cover. The acting is just awful across the board, but in a kind of an appealing way. I found myself endlessly amused by the weird grunting noises Arnold Schwarzenegger makes when he fights. A lot of the movie just strikes me as silly, though the silliness is counter-balanced with badass moments of decapitating giant snakes or having sex with fire deities. I have a feeling the best way to watch Conan embark on his quest of vengeance against villainous cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) is with a bunch of friends and a good supply of alcohol. There’s actually a pretty decent story underneath all the over-the-top “acting” and buckets of blood. I think maybe I’ve just been spoiled by more recent fantasy like The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. Maybe if I want to explore it further I’ll read the books.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

So it seems like they decided to take everything that was kind of lame in the first movie and crank that up to 11. Then they take all the crazy badass gore and nudity and just get rid of it. What’s left behind is weird to say the least. Conan is hired by a queen (Sarah Douglas from Superman II) to escort her niece (a 15-year-old Olivia D’Abo) on a dangerous quest. Wilt Chamberlain (no, really) plays her bodyguard, tasked with protecting her chastity (oh dear God, did they get the wrong man for that job). Japanese actor Mako returns as Conan’s sorcerer friend Akiro. Tracey Walter (Bob the goon from Tim Burton’s Batman) plays a thief who is supposed to be the comic relief but is so god damn annoying I kept praying for his violent onscreen death… but alas it never came. Conan the Destroyer teeters on the edge of being so bad it’s good and being so bad it’s just pathetic. I watched it by myself so right now I’m leaning towards the latter. Again, with friends and alcohol it might cross over to the former. I don’t know why anyone would want a Conan film without R-rated violence and nudity, but one exists.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

I heard this one was really good, actually… wait, what? Celebrated documentary about the late night talk show host by the same director as Idle Hands? Not part of the violent fantasy series based on Robert E. Howard’s novels and stories? Oh… never mind…

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

So I don’t really know what I was expecting going into this movie. My only familiarity with Marcus Nispel comes from his remakes of classic slasher flicks: 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2009’s Friday the 13th. Both films were light on substance but heavy on style and ended up being a lot of fun. I was curious to see how Nispel worked in another genre (I, like most people, did not see Pathfinder). The new Conan is Jason Momoa from HBO’s A Game of Thrones. Once more he is seeking to avenge his murdered people, but this time instead of Thulsa Doom the culprit is Kalar Zym (Stephen Lang, the evil army dude from Avatar). Zym, along with his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) is seeking to re-assemble some mask that grants necromantic powers or something. It’s all explained via opening narration by someone who sounds like it could be Morgan Freeman but could just as easily be a Morgan Freeman impersonator (I guess he’s been having some problems with that lately). They also need the blood of a woman who is the last of her particular bloodline (Rachel Nichols, the sexy green girl from Star Trek).

All in all I think I had pretty much the same basic opinion about the new Conan the Barbarian as I did about the old one. It has some badass moments and a few boring stretches. I suppose the acting is better but the original didn’t exactly set the bar that high. Lang and McGowan make very entertaining scenery-chewing villains. However, the guy in the title role fails to leave any kind of real impression. On A Game of Thrones, Jason Momoa brought a real intensity to the role of Khal Drogo and he did it all while speaking the totally made-up Dothraki language. In Conan, the American Momoa gets to speak his native language in his own accent and doesn’t even come close to being that engaging. At times there are glimmers of an untapped charisma but those moments are few and far between. On to the matter of 3D: DO NOT WASTE YOUR MONEY SEEING THIS IN 3D. Maybe one or two scenes have a nice sense of depth but the majority of the movie is flat flat flat. I took of my glasses a couple times and the picture looked exactly the same (except a bit brighter). I still maintain that 3D can be used well (Captain America and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are some recent examples) but this movie did not do a single damn thing with it. I don’t want to beat up too mercilessly on Conan the Barbarian. Much like the original, I kind of enjoyed it in spite of itself. The blood and boobs are back and with them a sense that the film isn’t TOO self-serious. If you like sword and sorcery flicks, this one’s worth checking out but maybe you should wait for disc.

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