In 1982 the duo of John Milius (director) and Arnold Schwarzenneger (actor) brought to the big-screen the first film adaptation of the classic, pulp character of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard. The Milius-Schwarzenneger Conan the Barbarian was an instant hit and classic. It also made Schwarzenneger into an A-list superstar who would rule the 80’s and 90’s. This film was followed up by a lesser quality, though fun in its own way, sequel in 1984 with Conan the Destroyer. Milius saw this franchise as a trilogy with the third and final film to be called Conan the Conqueror. But a sort of blacklisting of Milius as a filmmaker and Schwarzenneger moving onto other projects killed the planned third film. The start of the new millenium saw an interest in restarting the third film, but after countless delays and changes in filmmakers and stars the project was once again shelved.
In 2010, the franchise which launched an Austrian-bodybuilder into superstardom was finally greenlit, but this time around it would be a reboot of the series with the film hewing coser to Robert E. Howard’s creation and world-building than the Milius version of 1982. To bring Conan the Cimmerian to life would be Hawaiian-Irish Jason Momoa (of Stargate Atlantis and Game of Thrones fame) with German-filmmaker Marcus Nispel taking on the directing reins. The film’s trio of writers (Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood) would literally take the world of the Hyborian Age which Howard had meticulously created for his Conan character and use that as the basis for this reboot.
Conan the Barbarian begins with a surprising introductory narration of the world of the Hyborian Age by none other than Morgan Freeman. This narration was one clue that while this film wouldn’t and shouldn’t be seen as thought-provoking and award-season fare it looks to try anything and everything to make it fun and relevant. The film succeeds in this respect in its own way. As we see Conan come into the world as a baby born of battle in the most literal way. It’s not often we see on the big-screen a pregnant mother delivering her child by way of battlefield C-section. From this moment forward this film will wallow in the bloody carnage and machismo-fueled world of Robert E. Howard to the nth degree.
The film’s Conan as played by Leo Howard as the younger version then to Jason Momoa as the adult version looks to be different than the Schwarzenneger one. While Momoa was still quite the physical specimen on the screen he also exuded a sense of fluid, athleticism like that of a sleek jungle cat whereas Arnold’s Conan was more of the big cat of the savannah. The stand out performance in the film comes from both Leo Howard (quite ferocious as the young Conan) and Momoa. The film lives or dies on whether we believe these two actors as the characters they inhabit. Not once during the near 2-hour running time do we not believe these two as Conan.
Conan the Barbarian as a film does have several weaknesses which could derail it for me. For one, the story itself is quite cliched as we see the typical hero’s journey coinciding with the goal of saving the world from an almost cartoonish villain (Stephen Lang clearly having fun as the warlord Khalar Zym) with an equally cartoonish sidekick (Rose McGowan who seemed out of place as Zym’s witch-daughter Marique). The story’s plot seems more geared like a video game where each sequence was there to put Conan in the best way possible to do what he does best and that’s kill enemies by the score and do it with bloody panache.
While the film will definitely not score very well with many people I think they will do so as they compare it to the original Milius film. I think the mistake they also will use as an excuse to not like the film is that it’s dumb and loud. I, for one, thought I would feel the same, but as I watched the film I acknowledged those very same criticisms, saw the flaws, but in the end I still enjoyed the film for what it was: an almost gleeful, throwback to the 80’s sword-and-sorcery exploitation film that tried to cash in on the success of the original Conan the Barbarian.
Nispel’s film may not stand the test of time as the original, but in the end he made a film that actually stayed true to the pulpy origins of the character (Robert E. Howard was never known as a subtle writer and this film reveled in his blunt-way of writing). This Conan the Barbarian was several steps above the usual sword-and-sorcery stuff which the SyFy Channel seems to churn out by the dozen each year and it’s steps below that of the original. What it does share with the 1982 film is a sense of fun even if it’s at the expense of story and character and at times I’m fine with that. Not everything has to be Inception or Pride and Prejudice.