Conan The Barbarian

Conan The Barbarian

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

Robert E Howard's legendary warrior is adapted for the screen once more, having successfully made previous transitions into mass consciousness via Marvel Comics and a certain Austrian oak Eighties action star. Many still hold John Milius and Oliver Stone's initial cinematic outing in high regard, while the Grace Jones-enhanced sequel is often revered for its utter silliness, but true fans of the original stories have always hankered after a more faithful recreation of their Cimmerian hero's adventures. Director Marcus Nispel made a decent stab at remaking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the laziness he displayed with his recent Friday The 13th reboot is sadly also in evidence here; he's assembled most of the essential elements for a satisfying action romp, but falls somewhat short of establishing Conan as a worthwhile franchise hero for a new generation.

Torn from his mother's womb on the battlefield and raised to respect the steel of his father's forge, Conan finds himself the sole survivor of his tribe after an evil warlord ransacks their village for the final piece of a mystical, magically-endowed helmet. Growing up to become a feared but respected pirate and barbarian, Conan's quest for vengeance gathers pace when he runs into his nemesis' henchman. Later, a chance encounter with the last 'pure-blood' necessary for re-activating the mask gives him the bait he needs to ensnare Khalar Zym, but his enemy's dangerous witch daughter and legion of bloodthirsty followers could prove his undoing.

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This long-gestated production gets the brutal basics right, but drops the ball by straying from Howard's fantasy-inflected sagas in favor of a more straightforward swords-and-sandals style. This is apparently to keep the focus on rebooting the character (yawn) and to avoid comparison with the recent, poorly-received Clash Of The Titans remake, but it smacks more of budgetary restraints than any genuine attempt at character development. The savage tribal enemies are all-too-familiar, while some sand-devils cribbed from The Mummy films and a faceless mass of Kraken-like tentacles offer a little variety, but given the genre's potential for outlandish creatures there's not enough here in the way of threat or thrills. We want monsters!

In the title role, Jason Momoa's physical presence is undeniable, and he has charisma to burn, but the script paints Conan into a bit of a corner; he's most enjoyable when he's being an unrepentant anti-hero, but these moments are sadly few and far between. Barbarians are meant to be regressive brutes, so the moments when he's unashamedly misogynistic are entirely appropriate, but for the most part he's a little too noble to be anything more than a pretty standard fantasy hero. Arnie's knowing nonchalance is sadly missed.

Stephen Lang - so splendidly macho-cheesy in Avatar - is a strangely restrained villain, seeming almost too respectful of his enemy to be taken seriously. At least Rose McGowan vamps it up with relish, coming on like a Marilyn Manson reject with Freddy Krueger fingers, while Rachel Nichols is appealing despite having very little to do as the fesity love interest. As a mainstay of this kind of material, Ron Perlman shows up looking like Will Ferrell in Zoolander, transcending his ridiculous appearance to bring a dash of dignity and pathos to his tragic scenes. The stunt-work deserves special mention, with the actors all shouldering their fair share of the fighting and falling about; this is complemented by the admirably straight camerawork and editing, for once letting you clearly appreciate the action rather than trying to obscure it through an attempt at jittery realism.

Nispel has beaten down this path before, with the visually arresting but woefully under-whelming Vikings versus Indians yarn Pathfinder. He's in Apocalypto-lite territory all over again here - there are moments when you wish Mel Gibson was behind the camera to give the blood and thunder that extra shunt into nastiness. The claret is is spilled with gleeful abandon but after a promising start it all grows a little toothless and tiresome. Conan's initial sadism is refreshingly unsanitized, his brutality recalling Ironclad's jaw-dropping grisliness, but the relentless sword-fights and precarious negotiations of videogame-style platforms soon highlight how intrinsically unimaginative the story is. A seemingly never-ending climax also sees the film outstay its welcome; to his credit though, Nispel does wrap his story up without leaving us hanging on a cliff in expectation of a sequel.

Conan The Barbarian is packed with moderately entertaining action, effectively evoking Howard's Hyborian age without excessive CGI or an overly indulgent running time. Fans of this type of fare will find plenty to like, but the final article remains a bit of a missed opportunity, never quite climbing the spectacular heights the character deserves. It would be good to see Conan embark on even more adult-orientated adventures; Momoa has obvious action hero potential and will hopefully get the chance to grow into the role. For now, this is a solid summer blockbuster with a pleasingly violent streak, but not a whole lot more.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2011
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The legendary Cimmerian warrior battles to save the land where he lives from an encroaching evil force.
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Director: Marcus Nispel

Writer: Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer, based on the stories by Robert E Howard.

Starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman, Rachel Nichols

Year: 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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