Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian: bludgeoning the classics

Steel versus sorcery, self-reliance versus hegemony, cold brutality versus hot sadism: there’s plenty of dramatic conflict inherent in Robert E. Howard’s oft-revived and re-tooled Conan tales, yet the only discernible conflict in director Marcus Nispel’s new Conan the Barbarian concerns the battle between the forces of inspiration and those of crass cynicism. The latter triumphs utterly.

Neither spectacularly awful not awfully spectacular, this new Conan makes good on none of its promises nor builds any momentum. A protracted prologue (with narration from Morgan Freeman!), which follows our titular barbarian from the womb (I mean this literally) through to childhood trauma, attempts to infuse the story with some psychology yet fails to produce a Conan half as compelling as Schwarzenegger’s far more single-minded embodiment. Once adult Conan (Jason Momoa, sneering with conviction and plenty buff, though he’d surely look more at home jumping off the top rope than fencing with sand demons) sets upon on his quest to avenge his father’s gruesome death, the film shifts into a steady and mind-numbing series of fight sequences, none of which are very imaginative nor support a coherent set of rules regarding the magical powers of its baddies.

John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian was an economical fantasy that thoughtfully embraced the savagery of its milieu and made its hero an emblem for its director’s anti-authoritarian, neo-anarchist beliefs and its singularly self-adoring star’s superman self-image. It also featured a wonderfully seductive villain in wigged James Earl Jones, was extremely entertaining and well-structured (the script came from Milius and Oliver Stone), and functioned as an interesting foil to Apocalypse Now (which was scripted by Milius and features a similar trajectory and virtually identical climax).

With its somewhat different narrative thrust (“arc” is too dynamic a term... come to think of it so is “thrust”), the new Conan can’t exactly be called a remake (despite echoes of the earlier film in the score and some of the choreography), but neither can anyone familiar with Milius’ film help but compare the two. The only things to recommend it are supporting performances from Ron Perlman and Conan’s martyred dad and Rose McGowan as the goth sorceress daughter of Conan’s adversary. Her inevitable demise during one of the film’s umpteen endings is almost a disappointment, but hardly enough to invoke “the lamentations of the women.”

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