It's been nearly three decades since Robert E Howard's seminal barbarian protagonist — he can hardly be considered a hero — first graced the big screen, and since that time there have been many sword-slinging warriors to follow in his footsteps, most recently and to much popular and box office appreciation being J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS gang. Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere in the tiny republic of Togo for the last ten years or so, you know the LOTR fantasy epics made a shitload of cash, so it was inevitable that Hollywood would try to mine the audience's hunger for fantasy in some way, and it would seem that now would be a good time to dust off Conan and his Hyborian Age wanderings. After all, Howard's Conan stories more or less defined the genre, if not outright inventing it, so why not bring back that genre's single most well-known and popular character? The audience was already built-in after three decades of fans who enjoyed the first Conan flick, released in 1982 and starring as it did Arnold Schwarzenegger in what is arguably the film that first put him on the map as perhaps the epitome of the 1980's action hero. (THE TERMINATOR didn't happen until two years later, by which time most of America knew who Ah-nuld was thanks to Conan.) And, yeah, there was a sequel, the inexplicably PG-13-rated CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), but that film sucked and brought what looked to be a promising franchise to a screeching halt.
As the first film's cult reputation grew, in its wake followed a terrible Saturday morning cartoon wherein Conan was the bodyguard/escort for some royal kids and each week taught them important life lessons like "don't judge people because they're different from you" — I swear to god I'm not making this up — and there was also a live-action show, CONAN THE ADVENTURER, that sought to cash in on the popularity of HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, but that watered-down mess died a swift death at the end of its sole season. Now, in the current climate of reboots/re-imaginings, I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone had the bright idea of making a Conan movie for the 2000's, with what I'm sure was the intention of kickstarting another cash cow along the lines of LOTR or the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN flicks. Well, I'm here to tell all of you fellow lovers of the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN that that film's status as a cult classic and textbook example of how to make a mythic "warrior's journey" film has absolutely nothing to worry about.
The current iteration opens with a new version of our sullen protagonist's origin, cribbing much of its initial thrust from the 1982 film. We first meet Conan when he is literally still within his mother's womb, and the oft-stated "he was born on a battlefield" takes on new meaning as his ready-to-pop mom is seen in leathers and armor in the middle of some random battle in which her tribe of Cimmerian warriors are dealing out death like it was Halloween candy. As the extremely pregnant woman fights with sword in hand, she is critically wounded, so Conan's dad (Ron Perlman) performs an impromptu C-section and brings his son into the world. Oh, and before that happens, the voice of Morgan Freeman tells the tale of an ancient mask of great power that was crafted from the bones of dead kings, an item so rife with evil magic that it had to be broken down into several components and hidden for a thousand years lest its possessor take over the world.
We then skip ahead by about twelve years or so and find Conan (Leo Howard) yearning to become a full-fledged warrior of his tribe, and during the trial of young men that will determine who earns that coveted position, Conan and the other lads on the trial encounter several animalistic raiders. While his fellows pussy out and hightail it back home, Conan takes on and spectacularly slays the raiders. returning to his village with their severed heads as trophies. At that point I said to myself, "This has promise," but those hopes were dashed as the remainder of the film degenerated into a rote and eventually boring trope-fest that offered little to keep me interested.
Young Conan and his dad (who looks like some kind of heavy metal orangutan by way of Snorri Sturluson) bond over some father-son arts and crafts.
Anyway, Conan's people are wiped out by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a conqueror who seeks the last piece of the mask — that just so happens to be in the care of the tribe's leader, Conan's pop — which he obtains with the help of his witchy and bone china-white-complected daughter (Rose McGowan, who was by far my favorite thing in the film). As the bad guys ride off with their prize and the sword that Conan's dad had forged for him, presuming Conan dead after they torched the building he and his now-dead father were in, Conan swears vengeance and the story jumps ahead by about ten or twelve years.
We then meet the adult Conan (Jason Momoa), who has spent the past decade or so wandering as a a thief and brigand, now living among a band of pirates and robbers who take the time to rescue a large group of peasants and very attractive topless women from slavers, thus establishing Conan and his pirate pals as decent folk who just say "No!" to slavery. (Which is a load of P.C. bullshit, because anyone who's ever read any Conan story will tell you that slavery is very much an accepted part of Conan's world, with even Conan himself not being against it as a practice. If you ended up as a slave, that meant that was just your tough luck, so to avoid ending up in chains you had to be a badass.) It's during the post-rescue revelry when Conan comes face-to-face with one of the warriors who killed his people years earlier (a warrior whom Conan incidentally happened to deprive of his nose, thus making him easy to identify) and after brutally gathering info, he makes a beeline to Zym (minus the offered aid of his pirate cronies, because it's a personal vendetta). It turns out that Zym has spent years searching for "the pure-blood," a holy woman named Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whose blood is instrumental to a ritual that, using the evil mask, will resurrect Zym's burned-at-the-stake sorceress wife and, via her magic superpowers, render him a god who will rule the world. Needless to say, Conan ain't havin' it.
What ensues after that is a pretty-to-look-at hodgepodge of elements shamelessly cribbed from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, and even bits from THE MUMMY series, all of which add up to form a generic "adult" fantasy fim that's somehow replete with gore, some very nice nekkid titties and one semi-graphic sex scene, but nonetheless feels like a kids' adventure movie. Several of the set-pieces — a few of which were flat-out idiotic and laugh-out-loud stupid — evoke other films or fantasy/quest video games, and at no point did this Conan story feel like its own thing. This film bears even less of the flavor of creator Howard's visceral and testosterone-laden works than the 1982 film did, but the '82 flick at least defied its own genre by crafting a Campbell-esque warrior's journey tale with a surprisingly sweeping and epic feel. (The sword and sandal genre had become something of a moribund joke after the onslaught of Hercules and gladiator films released by the truckload during the heyday of the "peplum" craze, so the '82 film was a welcome surprise.) That sweep and sense of grandeur, plus a narrative that involved its viewers in Conan's vendetta and made us genuinely care about him succeeding is nowhere to be found here. When not aping other popular properties, this CONAN THE BARBARIAN stands as the most generic fantasy film to come down the pike in ages, and while not flat-out terrible, it is a sad squandering of a great opportunity. Jason Momoa was a decent and very ferocious Conan, and Rose McGowan as the uber-creepy sorceress Marique steals whatever scene she's in, but their considerable efforts couldn't elevate a film that in the end smacks of nothing more than "Conan by committee."
BOTTOM LINE: If you absolutely have to see this film — an urge that I understand, what with having been an avid Conan fan since 1974 and all — don't get ripped off by shelling out the extra cash for 3D. I saw it in 2D and there are only a couple of segments that were obviously composed with 3D in mind. Otherwise, wait for cable and have your intoxicant of choice on hand to liven up the proceedings. I was totally straight as I sat through it and I found myself rather bored about halfway through. I've certainly seen far worse films, especially in this particular genre, but this was a big disappointment. To sum up, this entire film was essentially a Manowar album cover brought to life at the cost of a reported $80 million.