The first couple of decades of the new millennium has been pretty kind for us fantasy fanatics. Opening with the triumphant arrival of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2000s have seen a slew of tales of dragons, sorcery, swords and mayhem on both the big and the small screen. The Harry Potter series, for example, brought a classic fantasy series to life and made it enjoyable for both young and old viewers. Movies like Hellboy, John Carter, Constantine, Underworld, the Golden Compass, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and others brought more fantasy to movie houses and video, along with a series of superhero and science fiction epics, both good and not-so-good. Television wasn’t left behind, as Game of Thrones became a national phenomenon, and urban fantasies such as Once Upon a Time, Sleepy Hollow and my favorite Grimm all proved that fantastic tales had finally come of age and were accessible to the general public.
In the midst of all this, it seemed that another great franchise was about to be reinvigorated. Robert E. Howard’s muscular barbarian Conan hadn’t seen a cinematic outing since the disappointing 80s fiasco Conan the Destroyer, though he had appeared in a couple of godawful TV incarnations, both animated and live-action (see my previous entry on the John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian). I must admit that when I heard that a new Conan film was in the works I was dubious, especially since it starred a largely unknown actor and its creators were likewise relatively obscure. When I saw Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, however, I felt a bit more reassured. Momoa is a likeable, talented fellow and certainly has beefcake and pectorals to spare. I decided I’d give the new Conan flick a chance.
In the end I didn’t end up hating the new Conan as much as some others. There were moments that truly captured the spirit of Robert E. Howard’s vision, and Momoa certainly looked the part. Regrettably, the story kind of lets us down, as it substitutes a very generic swords-and-sorcery revenge plot for the charm, excitement and depth of its source material. Mind you, the same could be said of the Milius Conan, but it’s with some regret that I’m forced to admit that 2011’s Conan simply doesn’t measure up to its cinematic predecessor. As a film about a big muscular guy who’s out to avenge the death of his father and battle an evil wizard and his creepy daughter, it’s at least acceptable. But as a cinematic tribute to the greatness of the original Conan, it comes up short. It tells a story completely unrelated to the Conan we all know and love, to the point that it might as well be about someone else. In the final analysis, I would say that as an official piece of Conan lore, 2011’s Conan the Barbarian can only be described as…
Wait for it…
Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Please tip your servers.
Conan the Barbarian was directed by one Marcus Nispel, a guy with a fairly limited resume given this movie’s storied subject matter. Best known for directing 2003’s lackluster remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a bunch of music documentaries, Nispel did kind of hit one out of the park with the movie Pathfinder (which I own and hope to review here one day), a blood-soaked tale of a young Viking left behind in the new world by raiders, raised by Native Americans and forced to fight his fellow Norsemen when they come calling. I liked Pathfinder, though I did think that an awful lot of people got the tops of their heads chopped off with swords, and the sled chase between the titular Pathfinder and his Viking pursuers was just plain silly. Nevertheless, Pathfinder showed that Nispel had a knack for bloody action, and actually boded well for the new Conan flick. Again, however, it was the lack of faithfulness to its source material and its just overall lack of grandeur and mythic excitement that killed this movie for me.
Conan’s new adventures start off on a disastrously wrong foot, in the same manner as Milius’ version, with a stentorian voiceover by Mister Voiceover himself, Morgan Freeman, who probably tossed it off during his lunch hour. While it begins with the same familiar lines as REH’s original material, it veers into brand new territory, rewriting Hyborian history and from the get-go transforming Howard’s world into Swords and Sorcery Land, Version B6:
In between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world. Then came the dark empire of Acheron, where cruel necromancers sought secrets of resurrection. They crafted a mask from the bones of kings, and awakened its wrath with the pure blood of their daughters. The mask summoned spirits of unspeakable evil giving them power no mortal men should possess. Acheron enslaved the civilized world. Only the barbarian tribes were left to rise up against them. The mask was shattered and Acheron fell. Each tribe kept a single shard so that no man might attempt to join them back together and drive the world once again into chaos and ruin. The pieces were scattered across the land and hidden for ages. But prophecy spoke of a man who would one day try to reassemble the mask and rule the world. So came the dawn of Hyborian age, a time both bleak and brutal. And so came a child, born of battle…
Okay, wait just a goddamned minute… The Empire of Acheron (which they pronounce “Asheron” throughout the movie, btw)? A magical mask? Enslaved the civilized world? Mask shattered and given to barbarian tribes? Why not just destroy the fucking thing? Bury it? Burn it in the flames of Mt. Doom? Shit… This whole thing turns the original tales so violently on their head that the movie should just be called Dave the Barbarian or something.
After this howling travesty of a voiceover, we return to slightly less infuriating territory, and an origin story that makes far more sense and is far more respectful to REH than the previous movie. For a time, I was hopeful, but as always my hopes were dashed.
Being a red-blooded Cimmerian, Conan is (as REH wrote), born on the battlefield as his mother, suffering labor pains all the while, hacks and cleaves at her tribe’s foes, despite taking mortal wounds, such as an accidental Cesarean section that almost kills Conan before his career even gets off the ground. She is aided by none other than the great Ron Perlman as Conan’s dad Corin — one of this film’s most inspired casting choices. In many ways Ron Perlman is this generation’s Lon Chaney — a man of a thousand faces and roles, someone who can easily move from Conan to Hellboy to the Sons of Anarchy and back again.
Though mom doesn’t survive (“Of course she’s dead! You stuck a bloody sword through her!”), her baby is born and with her last breath she names him Conan. And so we move onto Conan’s boyhood in his little village under the tutelage of a now very big and hairy Ron Perlman. During his manhood ritual, in which boys of the tribe are expected to complete an obstacle course with a bird’s egg in their mouths, Conan encounters a band of raiding Picts and faces them down all by his little self, hacking and slashing for all he’s worth, and returning to his village with two big handfuls of Pictish heads (prompting me to shout “Meat’s back on the menu, boys!” and my friends to reply “Shut the fuck up!”).
We then flash forward a bit as Corin shows his kid how to forge a sword, asking him whether fire or ice is more important. We know of course that they’re of equal importance, but Conan doesn’t get it. “Fire and ice together,” intones Corin. “This is the mystery of steel.”
Oh, here we go again. I went over the whole “riddle of steel” thing in the last entry, so I won’t belabor the point, but jeez. Steel, schmeel.
Corin tries to teach the youngster the basics of sword fighting but unsurprisingly Conan is a bit too hot headed, and ends up getting dunked in a frozen lake, after which his dad tells him he’s not ready for a real sword yet. Keep this in mind — it will be important later.
So after a promising start, Conan the Barbarian veers off track again with a sequence that is pretty much the same as in the 80s version. We’ve seen it about a thousand times now — savage horsemen under command of a vicious warlord attack while Conan is out in the woods practicing, and the poor Cimmerians are massacred. Needless to say it’s the bad guys out looking for a piece of the mask mentioned in that awful prolog, and the battle-hardened northerners pretty much get their asses handed to them. Corin fights bravely and kills a lot of mooks, but is captured and tortured by the warlord Thulsa Doom… Wait, no… I mean Khalar Zym, played by veteran actor Stephen Lang, who’s been in everything (I loved him as George Pickett in Gettysburg, for example), who of course wants the final piece of the mask so he can become a god and reforge the Empire of Acheron, tell me where the mask fragment is located or you will die… yadda yadda yadda… You know the drill.
Of course Corin tells him where to shove it, Khalar Zym stabs him and young Conan leaps into the fray, slicing off the nose of one of Khalar’s minions and causing considerable mayhem before he too is captured. Despite his wound, Corin is still alive and Khalar compliments him on raising such a fierce little tyke. He then summons his creepy little daughter Marique, a pale wizardy girl with steel claws on one hand, to find the shard for him.
Wait a minute? Khalar can just use his creepy daughter to find the shard? Why the hell did he even bother threatening Corin? Yes, another sadistic and ineffectual conqueror with delusions of grandeur. I’m wondering who would win a fight between this guy and Lord Voltan from Hawk the Slayer.
Khalar then binds the still-living Corin under a crucible full of molten metal and forces Conan to hold the chain that keeps it upright. Then, the dirty dog, he has the village set on fire so Conan will perish while trying to save his dad. In doing so, however Khalar is committing evil overlord error number one: leaving your foe alive in a death trap that doesn’t work. He’ll learn the truth before this mess is over with, believe me. Or will he?
“A fate worse than death, eh Cimmerian?” he asks. “Watching your son die… Because he loves you.”
Khalar triumphantly sticks the final piece on the strangely Cthuloid mask and leaves, chuckling triumphantly.
“Marique,” he drools expositorally, “we are halfway there. When we find the pureblood your mother, my beloved, will live again!”
Wait… Is the mask going to make Khalar a god? Or is it going to restore his beloved wife to life? Or both? Or what? I’m confused — this mask’s suite of powers seems a little bit… vague.
Then Marique, disturbing little shit that she is, decides she likes Corin’s sword (the one he didn’t give to Conan because Conan was such a dumbass) and takes it along with the raiders as they leave.
Okay, so they’ve massacred Conan’s people, burned his village, forced him to watch as his father dies, and stolen his sword? Okay, these guys are so dead it’s not funny.
(I also note that as molten iron cools fairly quickly, Conan probably doesn’t have to hold the crucible back for very long, and if he just waits a couple of minutes the metal will solidify and they both can escape. Of course I’m using logic and real-world physics here, and they have no place in the world of swords and sorcery cinema.)
Corin urges Conan to let go the chain and save himself and when little Conan predictably refuses, Corin tells him that he loves him, and pulls down on the chain, incinerating himself and allowing his son to escape and seek vengeance. Which he of course spends the rest of the movie doing.
Conan left Cimmeria and wandered the edges of the world — slaying, thieving, surviving, storming the high walls of Venarium and prowling the dark seas among pirates. But the nameless man who slaughtered his village and killed his father remained in shadow.
(Despite my griping, I will cut this film some slack, as it does indeed imply that Conan had all sorts of adventures before this flick took place, and roughly follows the career that REH mapped out for him. Of course, there’s still that magic Cthulhu mask plot to worry about…)
And now we meet young Conan again, now all grown up and dead sexy, with bulging pecs and a physique that rivals the deathless Arnold S, and a band of followers who help him out in a raid on a slavers’ camp. He and his buccaneer buddies roll big stones down a hill, smashing carts, crushing slavers and probably flattening a few of the slaves too, but who worries about those guys? There is also some very senseless violence against vegetables, for a lot of oranges and cabbages get clobbered as well.
With the various pieces of produce now fully pacified, Conan rides into battle along with his boon companion Artus (played by Nonso Anozie, probably best known as Xaro in Game of Thrones), hacking up surviving slavers and setting a bunch of topless women free. And oh, yeah… He frees some men too, but I didn’t really pay much attention to them. When the slaves wonder what the hell is up and where the hell they’re supposed to go now, Conan and Artus load them up on a ship and sail to Messantia, sin-city of the Hyborian age. There, Conan beats Artus at arm wrestling by spitting in his face and the topless women dance a lot. Actually, a pretty typical evening in Messantia, all things considered.
While Conan is busy quaffing ale and living it up, a fugitivey-looking guy with manacles appears in the tavern, pursued by a fat guy with no nose who looks very familiar, if you know what I mean. As he recognizes Mister No-Nose (aka Lucius, played by another veteran actor, Steven O’Donnell), Conan allows himself to be captured so he and the escaped slave guy, Ela-Shan (French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui), can get to Lucius’ headquarters and work him over. Conan does this in record time as he is dragged to the slave pits but immediately clobbers all his guards and fakes his way into Lucius’ chambers with the severed head of his chief mook.
Lucius himself doesn’t last long, despite his fashionable severed-nose-cover cum facemask. He’s annoyed at being interrupted while torturing Ela-Shan, but moments later he’s strapped into his own arm-crushing machine, the slaves all have weapons, and Conan is shoving his finger into the hole where his nose used to be (yeah, it’s as gross as it sounds). He’s not made of stern stuff like Conan’s dad and he quickly cracks, revealing that the bandit who killed Conan’s dad was none other than Shadow Lord Khalar Zym, and he’s currently scouring the Forbidden Forest (Generic Fantasy Location #481) for a young woman, whom Lucius calls “The Pureblood.”
Conan’s okay with this, and assures Lucius that he won’t kill him. He does, however, make Lucius swallow the key to the captives’ chains, hamstrings him and turns him over to the mob. Exit Lucius, and good riddance. Ela-Shan shouts at Conan to look him up anytime, as he’s a pretty damned good rogue with at least a 17 Dexterity score.
And now we move on to the Forbidden Forest, where a bunch of lovely young virginal priestesses live in primal splendor, isolated from the cares of the world. But Khalar and his horde are coming, all clad in kind of pseudo-Samurai armor, accompanied by the requisite mass of slaves and dragging what appears to be a huge sailing ship through the forest (no, really), accompanied by their evil ruler and his equally evil daughter, now grown to full evil womanly evilness.
Okay, I’m going to take a short break from the narrative to rant about the grown-up Marique, played by one of the most attractive women in the history of mankind, Rose McGowan. I’ve mentioned her before — she was slated to play Red Sonja in Robert Rodriguez’s ill-fated remake, and killed as the one-legged go-go dancer Cherry Darling in Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, his half of the unsuccessful but intriguing Grindhouse.
Mind you, while she’s indeed beautiful and very talented, Ms. McGowan doesn’t have good taste in men, having been associated at various times with the beautiful starlet Marilyn Manson, the pretty but largely wooden actor Robert Pattinson and even her own director Rodriguez, whose marriage she reportedly broke up and to whom she was for a time engaged (before breaking up with him and slamming his inability to film outside of Texas as the reason his remake of Barbarella — another big disappointment — fell through). As this really isn’t a gossip column, I’ll leave that behind, other than to say that there are far more reliable and interesting guys for her to date, and I imagine she doesn’t like older guys, but hey — I can dream…
Anyway, when I heard she was playing the evil warlord’s equally evil daughter, I was of course thrilled, since I was sure she’d do so in typical swords and sorcery fashion — i.e. with as little clothing as possible. Imagine my disappointment then when we finally see her with a shaved and tattooed head, weird semi-braided hair and a shaggy, shapeless cloak. She still has her creepy finger-claws however, so it’s not all bad, but come on! You’ve got Rose McGowan playing the villainess in an epic swords and sorcery flick and you then proceed to shave her head and make her as utterly unattractive as possible. You’re really starting to piss me off, movie. I’m warning you…
Well to give her credit, Marique is very evil and actually one of the better-realized characters in the movie, daddy issues and all. As she rides along with her father’s army (and, apparently, navy), she throws her hood back, revealing her horribly shaven pate and says that the “Pureblood” must be near, as she can smell her. Okay, her father’s an evil warlord and her mother was a sorceress. Marique is walking, talking evidence that some people just shouldn’t breed.
So now knowing the identity of the dastard who slew his father and burned his village, Conan tells Artus to divert his ship and rides for the Forbidden Forest. Before he gets there however, Khalar’s army strikes, smashing the temple gates with the big ship’s ram (sorry, but it seems to me that there should be an easier way to do this short of dragging a massive warship through the forest, but hey… I’m not the evil Khalar Zym), capturing the inhabitants and in general laying waste to the place. Marique digs this, shouting and waving around Corin’s stolen sword, an act that I’m sure she will come to regret soon.
One young vestal, the innocent Tamara (Rachel Nichols, of TV’s Alias and Criminal Minds, also had the misfortune of playing Scarlet in the less-than-thrilling GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, among other things) is urged to flee the city before it falls and despite her willingness to stay and fight she’s shoved into a carriage by the grey-haired high priest Faasir (Rad Raawi) and told to flee to another temple where the monks will give her refuge.
As the carriage rumbles away, leaving the burning temple behind, they ride past Conan, sitting astride his horse on a nearby hill, watching the goings-on through a telescope. A telescope? Really, movie? Conan using a fucking telescope… Now I’ve seen it all.
Luckily for everyone, the carriage bears the Cthulhu-seal on the side, drawing our hero’s attention, and he rides in pursuit and leaps onto the carriage, determined to have a cozy chat with its occupants. Regrettably, Tamara has no idea what he’s talking about when he demands “Where’s Khalar?” and then the pursuing baddies show up and everything goes to hell.
A pretty exciting chase scene ensues, with Tamara climbing out of the carriage and decoupling it, letting it tumble down a hill and kill a bunch of mooks, then carrying on riding the remaining horses and killing off a few more minions (she’s pretty good at it — apparently temple training included sword fighting). Now Conan shows up, kind of confused but willing to kill a few more mooks if that’s what the scene demands, and finally confronting the scary and tattooed chief mook, Remo (Milton Welsh), who blows the whole thing by claiming that Tamara is the property of Khalar Zym.
Of course this gets Conan’s interest, and he says “Well, she’s my property now,” a statement that I suspect Tamara might take issue with, but what the hell. However, upon seeing Conan gut his last fellow mook in a shower of grape-flavored blood, and learning that he’s the last survivor of the raid on the Cimmerian village, Remo decides that he has an urgent appointment elsewhere and rides away, leaving Conan with Tamara and a lot of explaining to do.
Meanwhile back at the temple, Marique is doing her best sexy-creepy act with the captured priestesses, offering them life in exchange for the location of “the Pureblood” and then pretty much killing them anyway, since none of them are the one she’s looking for.
Now, as Khalar interrogates the kindly high priest Faasir, we get some backstory. It seems that Khalar and Marique were overthrown and captured years ago, and forced to watch as his beloved wife was tried as a witch and burned at the stake. Now, that would probably chap anyone’s hide, but Khalar chooses to respond to the whole affair by going to find the Mask of Acheron, conquer the world, become a god, and bring his wife back to life.
I understand this. Grief is a very complex emotion. The death of a loved one triggers many emotions and many responses. Some withdraw from society, others spend years in mourning before returning to life, while still others, like Khalar and Marique, decide to conquer the world and become gods. Grief is a very personal and individual process, after all.
Marique offers to extract Faasir’s secrets with her own patented interrogation techniques, but Khalar nixes that plan when the high priest says that his wife deserved to die because she was such an evil, evil person. Enraged, Khalar smashes Faashir’s head on the marble floor, and there goes his best source of information. Then a messenger-mook tells him that one of the priestesses escaped and that Remo is chasing her. That, Khalar realizes, must be the still-unexplained “Pureblood.”
Well, Remo’s not exactly chasing Tamara. Just the opposite, in fact, as he flees through scattered ruins with Conan in hot pursuit. Of course his actions are in vain, for the hardy barbarian quickly catches him and knocks him out, then prepares for Khalar Zym to show up. Tamara doesn’t like this plan, and says she wants to go to Hyrkania, but Conan will have none of this. He ties her up, builds a fire and continues to wait. When she tries to complain, Conan gags her.
Conan, it seems, has lost none of his charm over the years.
Night descends, and Khalar waits in his big land-ship and, in a very very creepy scene, Marique helps him out of his armor while they discuss how great it’s going to be when her mom is resurrected. Marique speculates that if things don’t work out, she’d kind of like to, you know, take mom’s place.
Kneeling down, she says “My powers are growing inside of me. My mother’s blood flows through me. I can help you recover the secrets of Acheron, just as she did. I can help them all kneel before you, just as I kneel before you now. ”
Okay, all together now…
And since Khalar is a big huge perv, he almost falls for it, telling Marique that while she’s a lot like her mother (again EWWWWWWWWW!), she is not her, the pushing her away. Marique looks pissed, but doesn’t press the issue, and we are all VERY grateful for it.
The next morning Remo reveals to Conan that Tamara is the last of the Acheronian bloodline and that she’s needed for his big ritual. Khalar will pay a king’s ransom of course, so Remo offers to lead Conan to their designated meeting place. Once there, Conan straps Remo to a catapult with a message stuffed in his mouth and flings him onto the deck of that goddamned ship that Khalar keeps dragging around, demanding a little tete-a-tete alone with our favorite warlord later that day.
Being the reliable and honorable guy that he is, Khalar shows up at the meeting, but of course brings Marique (still mostly bald and sporting her tattooed pate and weird ‘do, but also dressed a helluva lot more sexily than before) with him to provide a little sorcerous backup should things get dicey. And they do indeed get dicey, for Conan shuns Khalar’s offered reward, draws his sword and it’s on like Donkey Kong.
Marique is prepared and she casts her spell, creating a bunch of sand-golems that immediately attack Conan and refuse to die when he shoves a sword through them. A reasonably thrilling fight follows, and Conan discovers that the sand-people eventually die, but only after taking a lot of punishment. Khalar now draws his funny double-bladed scimitar and the big confrontation begins.
Of course there’s repartee during the fight, in which Conan reveals his true identity and Khalar, in true evil warlord fashion, chuckles and suggests that his father would be ashamed of him. Khalar’s weapon is another one of those exotic bad-guy weapons which are unbelievably effective in movies but would never actually work in the real world — a two-bladed sword hinged in the middle that he can flip out at will and use like a giant pair of scissors. Needless to say he holds his own against Conan, and when Marique throws some spells into the mix, things look bad for our titular Cimmerian.
Luckily for Conan, Tamara intervenes, setting some oil barrels on fire, and the two escape in the ensuing explosion despite Khalar’s shouted “NO!” Then it turns out that the outpost where they’re fighting is on the edge of a precipice, and Artus’ ship just happens to be anchored immediately below. They jump into the water, and presto, escape from certain death.
Conan, like most movie heroes, recovers from his mortal wounds almost instantly, and swears to renew his quest for vengeance. He does however ask Artus to take Tamara to safety. That night, however, Khalar’s psuedo-samurai attack the ship and try to carry Tamara off. Conan of course bursts out of his bunk (literally) and the crew proceed to hand the Acheronians their collective asses. Tamara shows off more of that temple training, gutting her share of attackers in the fight as well.
(There’s an apparently error here as well, for the bad guys creep up on the ship in the pitch black dead of night, yet when Conan and company emerge onto the deck it’s full, broad noon-like daylight. For shame movie, for shame…)
With the enemy’s attack on their ship a total failure, the pirates exult, then Conan departs to renew his quest for vengeance. Tamara watches him kind of wistfully, so Artus gives her a map that Conan apparently left behind and she goes ashore for final goodbyes and a little hot barbarian-on-priestess lovin’.
While they hang out, Tamara gets kind of philosophical. “Do you ever wonder if our actions serve some plan — some purpose spun by the gods?” she asks. “Or are we all just doomed to chaos and ruin?”
Conan doesn’t care much for philosophy right at the moment. “I know not and I care not,” he replies. “I live, I love, I slay and I am content.”
Sigh. Not only is poor Jason Momoa’s delivery of the line as flat as a dead possum in the middle of a freeway, it is completely out of character. He clearly does care about things other than living, loving and slaying, and clearly has other interests, among them vengeance on the guy who killed his father. While the quote certainly sums up Howard’s original Conan, it doesn’t really work very well in the current story.
Oh well. This quote is apparently just what Tamara wants to hear, for a moment later they’re both naked and getting busy in a conveniently nearby cabin with Conan’s broadsword stuck upright in the ground nearby (how’s that for symbolism?). Obviously everyone has a good time, since it’s all soft-focused and there’s a lot of dust in the air.
The next morning Tamara bids the sleeping Conan a fond goodbye and slips away into the forest and straight into the hands of Marique and a squad of Khalar Zym’s warriors, who just happen to be passing by.
Aw crap. Talk about bad coincidences…
Conan shows up a day late and a dollar short, but finds one of Marique’s metal claws on the ground, telling him exactly what happened, and with that he’s off to the fortress of Khor Kalba, where Khalar (Gods, do they love the letter “K” in this movie or what?) is preparing to off his victim in the final ritual to resurrect his wife, turn him into a god, conquer the world, etc., etc., etc.
But first Conan must make a quick stop at Argalon, City of Thieves (I know this because it’s right there on the screen), to pick up good ol’ Ela-Shan, best thief on the continent. Together they head out, despite Ela-Shan’s suggestion that sneaking into Khor Kalba is like sneaking into a female dragon’s lair to steal her eggs, but like the honey badger, Conan just doesn’t give a fuck.
In the fortress, Marique (now clad in an odd garment apparently made entirely of bottle caps) tries for some girlfriend-time with Tamara, telling her how flattering the gown they’ve given her is, but Tamara doesn’t fall for it. She’s really not into the whole sacrifice thing, even if she is going to be the vessel for Marique’s mom’s spirit and grant Khalar god-like powers.
Down below the city, Ela-Shan leads Conan into the flooded dungeons, where they fight the savage jailer and the expected nasty tentacle-monster. After a long and very wet melee, Conan ends up feeding the jailer to his monster and the two head into the palace, only to discover (d’oh!) that Khalar is taking Tamara, bound to a big stone ring, to “Skull Cave” (generic fantasy location #931) for the sacrifice. Ela-Shan says goodbye and Conan sets out in pursuit.
So all Conan had to do was wait outside the fortress for Khalar and his prisoner to come out? Then finding Ela-Shan, crawling through the dungeon and fighting the tentacle-monster was completely unnecessary and was there just to pad out the film?
Holy crap, movie. You are definitely not getting a Christmas present from me this year…
Okay, ten minutes of screen time wasted, and we’re at Skull Cave and the real climax of the movie. Conan easily makes his way to the ritual chamber where Tamara is all ready for sacrifice, Temple of Doom style.
Marique hands Corin’s sword to her father. “As the victorious barbarian’s sword once shattered the mask,” she says, “so shall a vanquished barbarian’s sword revive it.”
Khalar figures this is cool and slices Tamara’s chest with the sword, letting her blood flow into the Cthulhu-mask while elsewhere Conan creeps up on the chamber, killing mooks as he does so.
The creepy tentacle mask now comes to life, waving its arms around, and Khalar slaps it on his face, but just as he’s calling on his queen to return to life, Conan shows up and starts hacking.
A somewhat confusing and clearly tailor-made-for-an-action-movie-climax sequence follows, in which the earth opens under the bound Tamara and her big stone ring falls to hang, suspended over the fissure. Conan leaps to save her, but the power-up enhanced Khalar quickly follows and — yes, you guessed it — they have a big showdown on the stone ring as it tilts and wobbles above the abyss with Tamara helpless between them.
Now frankly this whole fight-on-a-wobbly-platform sequence was exciting once, back in the days of Flash Gordon, but we’ve seen this a million times, including that interminable hamster-wheel swordfight in Pirates of the Caribbean 2, during which I sat in my theater seat, wishing desperately for the sweet oblivion that only death could bring. This fight isn’t quite that boring or predictable, but it’s close.
While Conan and Khalar engage in their less-than-thrilling setpiece battle, jumping around, swinging up and down, whirling around the ring and listening to Tamara scream, earthquakes ravage the cavern above and Marique tries to flee. Conan finally cuts Tamara free and she too runs, while the big battle continues, with the movie’s undistinguished score pounding in the background.
And of course, Tamara encounters Marique in the rubble-filled corridors and they have a nice ferocious fight of their own, which I found a lot more exciting than Conan and Khalar’s confrontation. Just as Marique is about to strangle Tamara with a chain (this of course makes no sense, since Khalar needs Tamara alive if he’s ever going to try the ritual again, but what the hell?), Conan shows up and chops her head off, then Tamara pushes her into the abyss where she’s impaled on an iron pole and we’re finally rid of her and her weird haircut.
Khalar has pursued Conan and now they fight, with Khalar threatening to kill Conan “With your own father’s blade!” Conan of course takes the sword away and after some more blade-wielding acrobatics, flees with Tamara, leaving Khalar in the rubble-filled corridors to discover his daughter’s impaled corpse.
Frankly I was hoping that the flick would have ended about ten minutes ago, but we’ve still got some more cliches to cover. As they retreat across a bridge, Tamara falls, clinging to a chain, forcing Conan to hold her above the lava-filled abyss. And just in case we missed the symbolism here, Khalar shows up and snarls, “Once again, the little Cimmerian boy is caught holding the chain!” No kidding, warlord. I guess we can’t slip anything past you, can we?
Now Khalar summons his wife’s spirit and bids it take over Tamara, forcing the unfortunate priestess to beg Conan to let her fall. We know, of course, that this can’t possibly happen, since the preview audiences would never have allowed it, and because the screenwriters read Save the Cat at least a hundred times. Tamara fights off the intruding spirit, but it looks as if Mrs. Khalar is going win and all is lost for our heroic barbarian.
And once more, for the final and fatal time, Khalar makes yet another evil overlord mistake, walking up close to Conan as he holds the chain, gloating that “There is no shame in kneeling before me… I warned your father that one day I would be a god!”
To which Conan replied, “And my father warned you, that one day… God or not… You would… FALL!”
And with that he uses his free sword-arm to chop away the bridge under Khalar, sending him tumbling into the abyss where, presumably he and the mask are consumed by the fires of the earth, and the spirit of his wife is vanquished, restoring Tamara to normal.
Conan then pulls Tamara to safety and the two flee, escaping (again predictably) just as Skull Cavern collapses behind them.
The two then ride off happily in front of a green screen, and Tamara again says her goodbye, heading off for Hyrkania, where she said she wanted to go in the first place. Conan rides off, returning to the ruins of his village, where he finds the old forge and (I presume) finally takes possession of the mighty sword that his father forged for him. Roll credits and end.
While as I said, I don’t have quite the same hate for this film as some, I thought that this version of Conan was far inferior to Milius’ work. While enjoyable, there is nothing in this film — nothing — that distinguishes Conan from any other bare-chested barbarian hero. He might as well be Deathstalker or Hawk the Slayer for all the distinction he’s given. Yeah, he’s a barbarian. Yeah, he slays and loves and is content. But he’s flat, uninteresting, generic. The fact that never once in the entire movie does he swear by Crom is only one sign of the movie’s lack of grandeur, imagination and respect for its source material.
Conan the Barbarian, though enjoyable as a basic swords-n-pecs movie, feels more like an episode of Xena, with cheap special effects, unimaginative sets and a plot that may well have been generated via mad-libs. And the music? One is tempted to ask “What music?” given how bland and generic the score is. After the memorable, soaring themes of the 1980s version, the forgettable music of 2011’s incarnation is even worse.
When released in 2011, Conan flopped so resoundingly that it pretty much killed any chance of this franchise seeing the light of day for decades. I fully expect to be dead in the ground before another Conan movie is made, and even then it’s probably going to suck.
Now, after all that trash-talk I want to at least mention that my sympathies go out to the folks who made this movie, misguided though they were, especially screenwriter Sean Hood, who wrote this poignant article after the fact, explaining how painful it is to see the film you put so much effort into flop hard. It’s impossible not to feel at least some compassion in the face of such a work, and it of course reminds the rest of us not to get too cocky — we could, after all, be standing in this gentleman’s shoes at any time, and we won’t like it either.
All the same, I can’t help but feel as if this all could have been done better, especially by people who claim to have love and respect for both the genre and the original tales. Why does every incarnation of our favorite barbarian have to be so damned bland and cliche-ridden? Why does every producer, writer, director, have to add his own interpretation, plot, backstory and characters? While the actual character Conan is trademarked and tightly controlled by the Swedish company Paradox Entertainment (no, really… read about it here), the original Weird Tales stories published by Howard are in the public domain. Why must we have Conan the bodybuilder, Conan the cartoon character, Conan the bland generic fantasy hero, Conan the guy who’s avenging his father, etc., etc., etc. instead of a straight adaptation of one of Howard’s better tales? Red Nails, anyone? Hour of the Dragon? People of the Black Circle? Queen of the Black Coast? Even A Witch Shall Be Born? All of these stories can be freely adapted to movies or television.
Oh well. There’s not much that can be done at this point. As noted above, the franchise is probably dead for the foreseeable future. Sigh.
And so I conclude yet another epic review in the swords-and-sorcery realm, and we conclude with our ratings. See you soon — I’m hoping for a Hall of RPG Oddities soon, and given my current status, awaiting the publication of my first three-book series, I need to be a hell of a lot more frequent in my posts. Fight on, brothers and sisters. See you shortly.
Sword and Sorcery Rating:
I’m going to be generous here — Conan the Barbarian does indeed fulfill its promise as a swords and sorcery flick, with evil wizards, swordplay, blood, conquest, magic and an epic plotline. Mind you, its execution is pretty pedestrian, but it’s still faithful to the genre and for that I give it three bloody broadswords.
Nope. Not funny. Not at all. Neither intentionally or unintentionally. Flat as a mackeral.
There’s a lot of spurting blood here, a lot of bodies and a lot of swordplay, and sometimes it’s pretty exciting. Regrettably, the staging, photography and direction are all very uninteresting and dull, making even the supposedly thrilling portions of the movie even less interesting.
Naked breasts and naked pecs are all on display here, albeit with all the artistry of a car commercial. Jason Momoa is indeed an attractive and stunningly fit man, and we do see a lot of him, but the presentation remains lame. After the three sword S&S rating I’m feeling less generous. Two swords.
The acting is decent, but the directing, staging and overall mood of the film is just so damned bland I can’t really get excited about it. Conan demands a mythic, epic feel and it’s nowhere to be found here. A few years ago I might have said that this movie would have fared better on TV, but that was before Game of Thrones grabbed the public’s imagination, making lackluster presentations like 2011’s Conan the Barbarian look even less appealing. Sorry guys. Nice try, but it was dead on arrival.