Sunday, November 20, 2011

Video review: "Conan the Barbarian"

This reboot of the "Conan" franchise was ill-conceived and poorly executed. The film cost $90 million to make and grossed barely more than $20 million, marking it as one of the biggest flops of 2011. It stars a nobody with whose near-total lack of onscreen charisma only reminds us how Arnold Schwarzenegger made Conan perhaps his most iconic film role after the Terminator.

Schwarzenegger had little acting ability when he first started, but he had ineluctable screen presence. Even his thick Australian accent added to the character, making him seem alien and strange. We really felt like Conan could have wandered down from the frozen hinterlands of Cimmeria into the civilized regions, and started brawling and wenching.

Author Robert E. Howard, who committed suicide at age 30, never attempted to give Conan a backstory. He simply was, and one of the things that made the character so appealing was that he did not spend a lot of time probing his inner self, and brought no baggage beyond a desire to slay, fornicate and conquer.

Both film versions feel compelled to give Conan a childhood story. With the original film, it simply was a jumping-off point for his adventures. But with "Conan the Barbarian," director Marcus Nispel and his trio of screenwriters make it the character's central conflict, as he attempts to avenge himself on the warlord who killed his father (Ron Perlman).

Schwarzenegger's Conan was less concerned with vengeance than solving the "Riddle of Steel." But all this new Conan wants to do -- besides pout and glower a lot -- is get one back for ol' daddy. The bad guy here is Zhalar Kym (Stephen Lang), who wants to reassemble the magical death mask the barbarian tribes sundered and split between them. At his side is his daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), who has a funky partially-shaven head and some sorcerous powers.

This brings us to Jason Momoa as the new Conan. Physically, as a fit for the character he's in some ways better than Schwarzenegger and some ways worse. Conan was supposed to be a Northerner whose skin was bronzed by the southern suns, so Momoa's Polynesian heritage actually works for him. I also liked that they gave him lots of scars, including several large ones on his face -- Howard always described Conan as covered with old battle wounds.

Somehow, though, Momoa just isn't as physically imposing as the former bodybuilder. Conan is the rare example where you do want an enormously muscular guy, because he's supposed to be the strongest man in the world.

This Conan's physical attributes seem modest. At one point the damsel in distress is dangling over a fiery pit by a chain, and he struggles to pull her up as his enemy closes in. The real Conan could've flung her around like a sack of sugar. Momoa also keeps encountering big bruisers much larger than himself, a tactic that should've been used more sparingly.

Momoa also falls into the annoying and common trap of speaking all his dialogue from the back of his throat, so it comes out gravely and "intense." Mostly it just sounds like he's choking on his soup.

The story is basically just one long chase. Conan takes prisoner the female monk (Rachel Nichols) who is the Pureblood essential to revitalizing the death mask's powers. His hope is to draw out Zhalar Kym so he can kill him. Of course, things grow more complicated.

The action scenes are largely murky and confusing affairs, with a whole lot of fancy sword-twirling by Momoa. Not to be a Howard purist here, but Conan would be more of a brutal, unpolished fighter. Though one battle between Conan and some sand mummies conjured up by Marique has some sizzle. Left unexplained, though, is why in the final showdown she never resorts to her magic and fights only with her Krueger-esque finger blades.

"Conan the Barbarian" is a dull a witless reboot.

1 star out of four

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