Marcus Nispel’s new “Conan The Barbarian” is the film equivalent of having someone punch you in the face for two straight hours while someone screams in your ear. Now, if you like that sort of thing, buckle up, because “Conan” is absolutely stark raving mad from the first frame to the last. Hyperviolent, with all the sexual sophistication of an eleven year old who just read his first “Hustler,” and filled with utterly nonsensical set pieces, it is no more faithful a rendering of the work of Robert E. Howard than the 1982 John Milius film was. It is, however, pulpy in an almost defiantly unapologetic way, and there is some kick to seeing a movie this gleefully unconcerned with offending modern sensibilities. I would not call this the definitive “Conan” movie that I still hope someone makes some day, but I would say that it’s unforgettably deranged, and I had fun watching it even as I felt shame over how much fun I was having.
I grew up on the Robert E. Howard stories, as well as the stories by other authors working in his world and the Marvel comics treatment by Roy Thomas, and I had very strong feelings about the character before I ever saw the original Milius film. When that came out in 1982, I fell in love with it as a movie, even though I didn’t love it as an adaptation. This time out, screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood have drawn definite inspiration from Howard’s work, and you can go through the film and pick out moments here and there that are directly lifted from this story or that story.
In addition, the master stroke here was the discovery and casting of Jason Momoa as Conan. He’s been working for a while as an actor, starting with some time on “Baywatch,” and he’s had some real success on series television in shows like “North Shore,” “Stargate: Atlantis,” and most recently, “A Game Of Thrones” on HBO. In terms of film, though, this is his big introduction, and what he captures that Arnold Schwarzenegger never did is the sense that this guy’s a great big coiled animal, lean but ridiculously ripped, and he brings a very different physical presence to the role than Schwarzenegger did. He plays it as a thinking beast, a guy with an innate knowledge of how to kill absolutely everything he encounters, and whatever else I thought about the film, Momoa was the right guy for the gig.
Likewise, it’s a pretty easy call to cast Ron Perlman as Corin, Conan’s father, for the early sequences in the film, and he’s got a nice, easy chemistry with Leo Howard, who plays the ten-year-old Conan. That’s important, since just like with the 1982 film, this is essentially a revenge story about Conan trying to hunt down the people who killed his village and his parents. Also, they once again emphasize the idea that Conan’s father was a sword-maker, passing along to him an understanding of the mystery of steel. Leo Howard’s got a strong, convincing presence, and he handles himself well in the action scenes.
As far as the bad guys go, Stephen Lang builds on the lunatic energy of his work in “Avatar” with his performance here as Khalar Zym, the warlord who is searching for the pieces of a magical mask that, reunited, will give him some sort of power over life and death and allow him to bring back his dead wife, who was a powerful witch. Their daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), has followed in the footsteps of her mother, and there’s a creepy near-romantic vibe between the two of them that makes all of their sequences extra-icky. Between the two of them, there is no scenery left to be chewed by the end of the film, and it’s always sort of amazing to watch people go so far over the top that they can’t even see the ground anymore.
Rachel Nichols has perhaps the hardest role because it’s the most poorly defined on the page. She’s the Macguffin, the missing piece in the magical puzzle, which means Khalar Zym wants to kidnap her and Conan wants to protect her, and Nichols is certainly built like a Frazetta painting. She’s a charming actor, and she’s able to handle herself well in action scenes, but almost by virtue of the role, she spends much of the running time standing around, a plot point more than a character. She makes the most of it, but it ultimately seems somewhat thankless. If I mentioned that the film features her in a nude scene in 3D, would that sell a few tickets?
So far, I’ve been writing about this like it’s a normal movie, like it wasn’t directed by an absolute degenerate madman, but that’s because I’ve been saving it up. There is almost no way for me to prepare you in print for just how deranged Nispel’s work really is. First, there’s the 3D. He’s like a Nazi scientist, determined to see just how much 3D the human brain can withstand before exploding. From the very first frame, there’s constantly something flying straight at the viewer. More than that, though, this movie absolutely wallows in bloodshed. I’m not timid about onscreen mayhem at all, but this just feels dirty. The film opens with a shot of a baby floating in uteri, and then pulls back to reveal that Conan’s pregnant mother is actually on a battlefield, in the middle of a massive battle, and another warrior slashes her across her distended belly. As she lays back to die, Perlman pulls a fairly obvious rubber baby out, holds it in her face, and bellows, “NAME YOUR SON!” As she manages to gasp “Conan” before dying, Perlman holds the baby aloft, and we’re off and running. You can bet that if his birth is that bloody, things only get worse from there. Or better. Just depends on your point of view.
There were walkouts when I saw it. There’s a character who gets his nose chopped off early in the film, and later, when Conan finds him again, he interrogates the guy by jamming his finger into his open nasal cavity up to the second knuckle, causing the guy to shake and wet himself. There were two women in front of me who jumped up and ran for the door, one of them on shaky legs, desperate not to see any more. I can only imagine that for many people, this film will test their threshold. I’ve certainly seen more violent movies, but not mainstream fantasy films. There’s a PG-13 vibe that’s been a big part of the genre for a while now, due in no small part to the success of things like “Lord Of The Rings” and “Harry Potter.” This goes in the exact opposite direction, full force. And, yes, that is appropriate considering the property, but it’s still a shock to the system.
I wasn’t sure how far the film would push the fantasy side of things, but rest assured, there are monsters and there is magic, and things get very, very weird at times. Some of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud silly, the score by Tyler Bates is so unrelenting that I felt like filing assault charges, and I’m not sure I really believe the world that Chris August designed as a cohesive whole. Even so, there’s an undeniable energy to the thing, especially in the action cutting , and it looks sharp thanks to cinematographer Thomas Kloss. I would say this is probably the most entertaining film Nispel has made so far. I’m not a fan of his remake of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” at all, and I think “Pathfinder” is a film of botched ideas and execution. At least his “Friday the 13th” had an energetic first half, and it seemed to be a step in the right direction for him. With this, I’m not sure what to make of the guy. I want to applaud anyone crazy enough to hire an uncredited Morgan Freeman to narrate the film, and I look forward to the eventual mash-up videos where someone takes this narration and slaps it on “March Of The Penguins” or “Shawshank Redemption,” but that choice is so bizarre that I almost feel like I dreamed it, like it can’t actually have happened.
The last point I’d like to make is that this film makes a very strange, almost unthinkable mistake. When you’re painting in archetype this big and broad, you need to make things very clear, very black and white. Your good guys need to be very good. Your bad guys need to be very bad. Conan is a barbarian, yes, but he is driven by a very simple, easy moral code. He inspires loyalty and love because he follows his own heart, and he does what is right. In this film, his motivation is exactly the same as the motivation of the bad guy, and frankly, they never make the case that Conan has any more of a moral right to win than Khalar Zym does. It’s arbitrary good and bad instead of anything that the audience can genuinely invest in, and it’s really misguided.
I am flabbergasted at the mere existence of this movie. I’m almost not sure what letter grade to give it. It’s so disturbing that it’s impossible to stop watching, but I can’t honestly say that it works as a movie in any convention sense. You almost have to see it for yourself just so you understand what Nispel has done. What is good in life? Not “Conan The Barbarian.”
“Conan The Barbarian” opens this Friday, and guts will be spilled. Everywhere.