Conan the Barbarian (2011).

I dig the Conan. My connections with him begin long ago when I was obsessed with the art of the late great Frank Frazetta, whose cover artwork for the magazines Creepy and Eerie managed to fill the void for me between the similar attachments to Famous Monsters of Filmland until the discovery of Heavy Metal (mind you, Creepy and HM both featured the work of the amazing Richard Corben, but we’ll get back to him at a later time). Upon our first few meetings, I didn’t even know his name, he was just “that guy in the Frazetta covers”, a battle-scarred, dark-haired warrior who was always just about to clash with someone, something, or more of either.

It was quite a bit later that I saw the same Frazetta masterworks on paperback books, those by Robert E. Howard and others, about this Conan guy. I had browsed through some Conan comic books before, but had never connected those to Frazetta’s work. I liked Howard’s stories the best of course — such an economy of words to perfectly etch vivid imagery and action hadn’t impressed me since the short stories of Philip K. Dick or Tolkien’s Silmarillion. While those stories penned by de Camp and Carter tended to be flaccid and desperate to rumble about, Howard’s work never failed to hit the ground running, and send you headlong into ADVENTURE.

Mind you, I never accepted the stories as Literature — Howard’s ignorances are just as on display as his talents — but I’ve always found his land of crumbling ancient ruins, fearsome beasts and supple maidens irresistable. To compare him to Tolkien, both have realms with their own history — situated within some unknown part of our own.

Then there was the movie. The first one, anyways. Conan the Barbarian (1982) had one heck of a pedigree: the gallant direction of John Milius, the sharp scripting of Oliver Stone (not to mention the killer art direction of Ron Cobb — more on him later, too), and The Man Who Would be Quaid — Schwarzenegger himself. Pretty damned close to the books — although a mixture of them — the elements were there: the crumbling ruins, the fearsome beasts (well, a really big snake) and supple maidens (Nadiuska and Sandahl Bergman, check), all played out to the sturm und drang of Basil Poledouris’ amazing score. Needless to say, it’s one of my all-time faves. Conan the Destroyer was released two years later, and — the less said about it, the better. Let’s move on.

Now there’s the remake, or — to be en vogue with the current mindset (if you could call it that) of Hollywood — “re-envisioning” of Conan. Directed by Marcus Nispel, who gave us the rather good Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes, and the potentially good but uninspired Pathfinder, and starring Ron Perlman, Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan, this film basically follows the same path as the first, being a revenge story. Taking on the lead role is Jason Momoa, who inspired all kinds of female fans (including my sister) recently in HBO’s Game of Thrones. He is exemplary at depicting the snarling Cimmerian, and overall does a good job, even if he seems uncomfortable with some of the lines. The  rest of the cast fares better, but really aren’t given much screentime (especially Perlman, which is a shame). While the production looks nice, with solid costume design and decent (albeit Frazetta-esque) digital mattes and animation, the major gripe I have with the movie is the script. From the get-go (after the narration given by Morgan Freeman (???)), when he is “battle-born” the story takes several implausible turns and, even though the action is enjoyable and the witty lines hit their mark, the whole thing feels hollow and on rails. What really impressed me with the Schwarzenegger film was how it was as rough around the edges as one of Howard’s stories, but had solid arcs for the characters as well as an overall progression. In this Conan, Nispel aspires to Howard’s pacing, but cannot match the author’s subtleties in setting character or scene — all we are left with are gaps between action scenes.

With this film and Pathfinder, Nispel is working his way to becoming the next Renny Harlin. He clearly has a love of this sort of tale, but not the skills to portray it properly. Best to watch this Conan while doing something else, just so you don’t pay too much attention to it.
4/10

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