And we’re back! Last time, I got into Conan (ca. 1982), the Milnius/Stone/Laurentiis version that effectively made Arnie’s career. Now, it’s time for the remake, the one directed by Marcus Nispel and starring Jason Momoa. Having just sat through it, I can tell you that the impressions it left are fresh in my mind, as is the bad taste it left in my mouth. I suppose that’s the inevitable result of seeing something that comes with high hopes, only to find out that it really isn’t that good. But I’m getting ahead of myself again, here’s Conan, the remake!
Conan The Barbarian (2011):
For some time now, producers have been trying to do a remake/re-imaging of Conan. Perhaps its the nostalgic appeal of the original or maybe its just a retro thing: sooner or later, fans grow up and pay good money to see something that reminds them of their youth. Just look at American Graffiti. But these attempts can always be messed up when studios spend forever fighting over rights and trying to come up with a plan, and then slap together a product hastily. That’s apparently what happened here.
After spending seven years in development with Warner Bros, the rights to shoot this film were shifted to Nu Image/Millennium Films in 2007, with a clause wishing for immediate start on production. It then took another two years before they found a director, eventually settling on Marcus Nispel, a man who’s made his career shooting remakes for guys like Michael Bay, and the critically-panned movie Pathfinder. A big-ass writing team was then assembled to come up with a passable script, and Jason Momoa (hot off playing the role of Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones) was cast as the hero.
Not a very encouraging start, but there were signs of promise. Momoa seemed like a good fit, having already done the badass barbarian thing as Drogo. Stephen Lang also seemed like a good choice to play the villain, having performed the role of the dubious military man in Avatar. And Ron Perlman, hell, he’s always good as a dirty, hairy, hut-dwelling man! One look at Quest for Fire and you can see how he seemed like a sure thing to play Conan’s father. All that was left was the story.
The story opens with narration by Morgan Freeman. Okay, bit of miscasting right there, but whatever. He explains how its the Hyborian Age, and gives us the bare bones of what’s been going on in this vague, adventurous period of historical fiction. And unlike the first movie, the back story here is kind of extensive. This story, we soon learn, has to do with a magic mask that gave evil witches and wizards the power of Gods. They are known as the Acheronian necromancers, and as the name suggests, they could resurrect the dead and… do other scary things I guess. Okay, seems a little Dungeons and Dragonsesque, but the movie’s just starting…
We also learn that this mask was broken when the evil people were cast down and divided amongst the Cimmerian tribes. And now, predictably, some evil dude is going around and collecting them, hoping to put the mask back together so he can have godlike power. All he needs is one final piece, and guess who’s got it… Conan’s people, naturally! We also get to see how Conan was born, on the battlefield of all places when his pregnant mother was stabbed and his dad had to perform a battlefield C section. Thus, in keeping with his legend, we get a boy who was “borne in battle”. Again, kind of over the top, but things are just getting started.
What follows are many scenes showing Conan as a young boy. After eviscerating a war party of rival tribesmen, we see him helping his father forge a sword, being told all about the Riddle of Steel. And wouldn’t you know it, they even tell us what it is! “What’s more important, Conan, the fire or the ice? Both! It’s the two that make steel hard. That’s the Riddle of Steel.” Really? That’s the riddle, fire and ice make it hard? Gee, I thought it would be something more complicated, not a user’s guide to smithing. If knowing this is all it takes to get into Valhalla then the damn place must be overflowing!
And then, Conan’s people are attacked by some big, bad warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). Hmm, Khalar, Khal? Do I detect a slight similarity (aka. ripoff!) there? Anyhoo, he beseiges the village, Conan’s people die, and he tells Corin that he can bend the knee and give up the last remaining fragment, or he’ll burn him alive and take it anyway. He also lets him know its okay to submit to him, since he’ll soon be a living God. But of course, Corin says no, and tells him that God or no, he’ll still fall! Conan of course comes to his aid, but it captured and tied up with him. Zym takes the last fragment, completes the mask (which looks like some kind of dried octopus, all tentacly-like), puts it on and has his evil moment. “Bwoohaahahahaha” and all that.
Conan and his father are left chained to a pot of molten iron which is suspended above them. In short, all they can do is stand there, or risk dumping it on one of their heads. Conan does his best to release his father, but Corin eventually sacrifices himself and causes the pot to dump on his head. Hmm, getting another deja vu moment here. Golden Crown anyone? Conan then goes out into the killing fields that were his home, grabs a sword and does the avenging hero thing. He raises it high and yells!
At this point, we’re about half an hour into the movie and the differences are becoming glaring. For one, in the original movie, Conan was the focus of things. Sure, its about his quest for revenge, but its also a big-time bildungsroman, the telling of how he came to be a powerful warlord who would go on to become a king. There was no magic MacGuffin to incite the plot and keep things going. Second, a great deal of time, far more than was necessary, is dedicated to Conan’s childhood in this movie. Whereas in the original, we get a brief glimpse of a rough, honest and in some ways idyllic existence that was interrupted by tragedy, here we get a full-on preamble that kind of overdeveloped things.
I mean, was it really necessary to show how Conan was a badass even as a child? Wasn’t it supposed to be his hard life that made him so rough and ruthless? Here we see him cutting off the heads of multiple warriors before he’s even hit puberty! And not at the neck, which would have been more civilized; no, he hews their heads off at the jaw! With blunt instruments! Forget Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Psychopath would have been much more appropriate! Don’t get me wrong, I was pulling for him, but it still seemed over-the-top.
What’s more, in spite of that fact Conan brutalized some of his men (he cuts off one of their noses), Zym decides to basically leave Conan alive. Sure, he chained them up to a pot of molten metal, but doesn’t that seem a little super-villainy? Instead of killing the father and selling the child into slavery, I’m going to put them in a situation that at least one of them can escape and pray they never find me. Doom at least had the foresight to sell the boy into slavery, and he seemed relatively helpless by comparison. But with this little psycho, seems to me the sane thing would have been to make sure he died in that village. He chops heads in half at ten, how bad do you think he’s going to be in twenty years?
And of course, the movie then cuts to Conan as a man. He’s part of a group of Aquilonian Mercenaries led by a big burly dude named Artus (Nonso Anozie). He and Conan are close friends and are dedicated to piracy and making trouble, but in truth their ultimate goal is to free slaves and find the man that killed Conan’s people. We get a scene where they are doing just this, killing slavers and setting the captives free because, as Conan says “No man shall live in chains.” After taking the slaves to party in Messantia, Conan is chanced upon by a man named Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui), a thief who is being pursued by one of Zym’s men: Lucius, the man who lost his nose to Conan as a boy.
Conan recognizes the man and decides to let himself be captured. Once in his prison, he breaks free and begins torturing him for answers. He reveals Zym’s identity to Conan and tells him of his plans. Basically, they involve him capturing a “pure one”, aka. a descendent of the Acheron necromancers, so he can unleash the mask’s power. Taking this information, Conan makes Lucius swallow the prison’s master key and hands the slaves a knife, telling them their freedom lies in Lucius’ belly. I suppose this is meant to be a kind of comic relief, “You swore you’d let me live!” “I swore that I wouldn’t kill you!” Mainly, it just seems cruel. However, Conan is told by Ela-Shan (who is a clear remake of Subotai) that if he ever needs a favor, to come looking for him in the City of Thieves. And of course, he will…
We then cut to Zym and his daughter, the dark sorceress Marique (Rose McGowan), as they cross the land looking for the “pure one”. This journey brings them to a monastery where we see a woman named Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who is being told her future by the head priest. He tells her that she will meet a warrior, a man who will change the course of history. However, the lesson is cut short when Zym’s men attack and seize the place. A totally overdone scene follows where Marique, after they’ve rounded up all the monasteries ladies, tastes their blood with her claws and then kills them, one after another, once she’s determined that they are not pure.
We also learn that Zym’s ultimate goal is to resurrect his wife, a witch herself who was burned alive by monks, and that he’s quite bitter about it. And of course, there’s also the obligatory scene where Zym smashes the head of the head priest on the stone steps after he tells him his wife was evil and got what she deserved. Okay, we get it, these guys are really, really bad! Moving on… On the plus side, Tamara got away, and it just so happens that Conan sees her fleeing and recognizes the men that are chasing her. After saving her, Conan pretends that he is going to ransom her to Zym for gold, but his real goal is to lure Zym into a trap.
Conan manages to catch up with Zym as his land-ship (a sea vessel which, for some reason, he’s having pulled across land!) where Zym and his daughter are talking about their plans. Marique tells Zym, in a speech heavily laced with incest, that she could be her mother and he wouldn’t need to bring her back. But naturally, in a response laced with abusiveness, he shoves her away and tells her she will never be her mother. Okay, if the goal here was to make these two seem more evil, then mission accomplished! Otherwise, all I can say is ew! In any case, that’s when Conan delivers his message via a catapult (yep, you read that right!): he hurls Zym’s man at his ship with a note attached. “Meet me at this abandoned trading post at midday”, it says. “Come alone!”
But of course, he doesn’t. He comes to the post with Marique, and Conan confronts them and demands Zym’s head! This is the first fight scene between these two, and naturally it goes against Conan. Using her dark magic, Marique sends a whole bunch of sand people at Conan while he father and him exchange blows with their swords. Conan is forced to flee, taking Tamara with them, by jumping off the edge of the cliff into the water, where Conan’s buddies happen to be waiting. They get on board, sail off, fight off some of Zym’s men, and Tamara and Conan get better acquainted. She learns that he’s incredibly noble, in spite of his rough and tumble exterior. And Conan tells Artus that he’s found the man who murdered father, his family, his people, and of course Artus pledges to help him get his revenge. They’re buddies, remember?
So Conan is dropped up farther along the coast, where he will make his way to Zym’s fortress. However, Tamara decides to tag along for a bit and the two have rough sex in a cave nearby. Yes, the timing of this seems stupid, the dialogue is quite awful, and there’s absolutely no chemistry between them. But what’s even more odd is on the following morning, Tamara wanders out of the cave before Conan awakes (guess she wasn’t too impressed!) somehow finds herself wandering deeper in the wilderness, and is captured by Zym’s daughter. Wait, weren’t they doing it in a cave near the shore? How did she wander into the forest here? Was she totally turned around, or was the sex just that good? In any case, Marique tastes her blood (as usual) and determines she’s the one! Shortly thereafter, Conan wakes up, follows Tamara’s trail to the same wood, and finds one of Marique’s claws which she carelessly left behind. It’s on now!
He then, as previewed, travels to the City of Thieves (guard your pocket book man!), finds Ela-Shan and tells him he needs his help breaking in to Zym’s stronghold. They arrive just Zym is preparing the sacrifice, which consists of making Tamara wear some tight, revealing outfit, cuffing her wrists and ankles, strapping her to a big wheel and… I’m sorry, I got lost there for a second. Were they going for some serious visual innuendo here? Somehow, it seemed like they took a wrong turn on “damsel in distress” road and got lost in S&M junction. But predictably, Conan and El-Shan battle their way in, fight some bad dudes and a big tentacled monster, and Conan is set for his big finale with Zym.
And I can say without reservation that the final fight was totally anti-climactic! For one, they seem to be fighting in front of a poorly animated green screen for all it. It looks like a scene from Mordor, but only if the people from Xena had designed it! And invariably, Tamara must be saved repeatedly (which is annoying), the fight scenes get both ludicrous (they fight on the wheel as its suspended on two rocks over a chasm!) and there’s really no tension to speak of. But alas, Tamara needs to be saved again, as she falls through a plank on a walkway and Zym’s spell is taking effect. Slowly, she’s being invaded by the evil spirit of Zym’s wife. She tells Conan to drop her, but he can’t! Not even with Zym standing before him ready to deliver a death blow.
He and Zym then delivers their final words to each other, which is really just a rehashing of the words he and Conan’s father shared years before. Zym tells Conan that there’s no shame in kneeling to him since he’s a living god. Conan replies, “You forgot what my father told you. God or not, you will FALL! He then knocks the planks out from under Zym’s feet, he falls to his death, and Tamara is saved from being taken over by the spirit of his dead wife. They make it out, he drops her off at a new monastery, then carries on the remains of his old village site. There, he finds the remains of his father’s forge, raises his old sword, and yells!
Okay, I’m going to start with what I didn’t like about this movie, because its a far more important list. Strengths, I got few to mention, and as for impressions, practically none! So here goes… First of all, having Morgan Freeman do the narration was a serious case of miscasting. Yeah, I love Morgan as much as the next person, and he is like THE guy when it comes to voice-over work, but not for this movie. This is a fantasy and historical fiction epic, it requires someone who sounds bad-ass and foreboding. Someone like Mako, Keith David (Spawn), or Tony Todd (The Crow), not the man who narrated Shawshank Redemption, played God in Bruce Almighty, was Driving Miss Daisy, and played Neslon Mandella. It’s just not a good fit!
Second, as mentioned, Conan’s backstory. The original did the best job of this, in my opinion. When it comes right down to it, Conan is characterized by a few simple things: his strength, his cunning, and his feral wits. He’s tough in a way that speaks to hard living and smart in a way that speaks to a life of survival and living on the edge. By taking that away, the remake made his less believable, presenting him as a guy who was just badass from the day he was born. This might have seemed cool to some, but in my opinion it made him way less believable.
Also, in this remake, the character of Conan seemed poorly executed and somewhat confused. With his many overdone antics, we’re made to believe he’s a real bad dude. But then they kind of go out of their way to make him appear good, loyal and loving. And when I say out of their way, I mean they just come out and say it. “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” “No man shall live in chains”. “He has the loyalty of a dog”, etc, etc. In the original, Arnie needed barely any words at all to convey this, he just played the part. People could tell from his mere presence he was bad, and by his friendship with Subotai and his romance with Valeria that he was loyal and loving, and by his determination to find Doom and avenge his parents on his own that he was brave. Nobody needed to say anything out loud.
The same is true for the villain, Khalar Zym. I was surprised, to be sure. Ordinarily, Stephen Lang is an effective actor who lends a certain dignity and strength to his characters. This was true even in Avatar, where in spite of a weak plot a cliched characters, he still managed to give strong performance. But here, he is both overdone as the bad guy and really not scary at all! Mainly, he just seems like a creepy old dude who’s looking to get smashed! I’m not sure where all those muscles he built up for Avatar went, but in this movie, he looked pretty damn scrawny and emaciated. Might have been the costume, but gone was the picture of the brusque and burly old dude who can still kick your ass! And that tuft of grey hair on his chin? Didn’t help! Neither did his cheesy lines: “Behold… and despair… your new master!”
In addition, the supporting cast is pretty weak. Ron Perlman did a good job of portraying Conan’s father, but the role really didn’t seem like a challenge for him. Mainly, he just looked the part and phoned the rest in. Then there was Rachel Nichols, who people might recognize from GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra or as the new blonde lady on Criminal Minds. To call her acting wooden would be too kind! Seriously, I haven’t seen blank stares and cardboard acting like this since… well, GI Joe! The romance between her and Conan was also totally unbelievable. At one point I asked myself, isn’t this woman supposed to be a nun or something? Why then is she shagging the barbarian? And the way he just drops her off at a monastery at the end. Has she not broken her vows at this point? Wouldn’t there be some kind of moral conflict in them having an affair?
Rose McGowan (from Charmed and clealrly one of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s favorite people to work with) filled the role of the evil daughter quite well, but the character itself was quite weak. Mainly, she’s just creepy and dark for the sake of being creepy and dark, and the incest thing was clearly just thrown in for added vileness. And Ela-Shan, a clear homage to Sobutai’s character, felt like he was just penciled in out of duty. He shows up near the beginning to advance the plot, disappears, reappears as needed, then disappears again. In short, he’s the friend you call when you need a ride but have no intention of hanging out with. That’s mean!
Jason Momoa, who I admire the hell out of for his performance of Khal Drogo in the HBO Game of Thrones miniseries, also had some issues adapting the role of Conan. Sure, he looks the part. A tall, dark, ripped dude with long dark hair? Hell, he IS the part! But he’s a long way from Khal Drogo in this one. Much of the time, he can’t seem to decide if he’s going to go with the deep, raspy voice (a la Christian Bale in Batman), or just use his natural, deep voice. The latter was far better, but he kept doing the raspy thing, sometimes switching in mid-sentence. And when he does the evil stare and threatening words, he just sounded kind of silly! Momoa said he wanted to steer away from Arnie’s version of Conan, which was totally respectable. But at the same time, I think he should have taken a lesson from Arnie’s performance: less is more, especially when you’ve got the kind the commanding presence these two share.
Okay, what was actually good about this movie was the set design. Here was something that also reminded me of Game of Thrones, and it was the picturesque castles and landscapes the movie’s animators came up with. Most of the time, they are pretty cool, and don’t look particularly phoney or out of place. This cannot be said for the final scene where Conan and Zym fight it out in the “Cracks of Doom”, but otherwise the setting looked pretty good. And they did manage to make a lot of the settings look and feel like something out of the original story, giving things a dirty look and feel that calls to mind Biblical allusions, or scenes out of Orientalist art. This was something the original movie did quite well in spite of a limited budget, and this movie did it quite well too.
Other than that, sorry to say, but this movie did not live up to the original or the graphic novel which inspired it all. It was a good attempt, but clearly a combination of things were working against it. For one, you can’t take something like an original cult-classic and just redo it! Something like that takes dedication, vision, time, and energy. Throwing writers, a director, some actors (albeit good ones) together and saying “get on it” just isn’t enough. And in the end, the results spoke for themselves. In addition to being almost universally panned by critics, this movie made only 20 million dollars, and that was with a budget over 70! Given time and with DVD sales, I’m sure the studio will recoup its dough, but for the moment, this re-release has done little aside from riding off the coat tails of Game of Thrones.
Speaking of which, it was recently announced that Nonso Anozie will be in season 2 of GOT, playing the role of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. It’s also been said that Momoa’s been talking to the writers about bringing the character of Khal Drogo back. The ties between these two projects continues to astound me! In any case, if you’re looking for some cheesy entertainment, pick this one up and help the studio make its money back! If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the original though, something with sword, epic fantasy and a touch of realism, I strongly recommend you rewatch the original, maybe even with the commentary. Or you could just check out Game of Thrones! Whatever floats your boat…
Conan The Barbarian (2011):
Entertainment Value: 7/10