“I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.”
That’s Conan the Cimmerian—er, barbarian—for you. An armchair philosopher and skull-crusher courtesy of the perilous Hyborian Age, Robert E. Howard’s Conan is one of the classic ‘low-brow’ pulp characters, his creator’s lurid and breathless prose ensnaring many a teen boy since the late 1930s. Conan’s existential nihilism, captured above (and pulled from Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast) finds its way into Marcus Nispel’s new big screen iteration and gets severely truncated on the way. All that remains is the howler ‘I live, I love, I slay. I am content.’ This is indicative of the whole affair; it is faithful to many of Howard’s superficial details, but just keeps lifting off the frosting while forgetting most of what has made the character durable these long years.
When John Milius tackled the property in 1982—casting then bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger as his lead—he commandeered Howard’s globe-trotting adventures and crafted a steely, masculine mythos that had a strangely Neitzchean bent. The Conan of that film lived the life of a slave, his body trained and pounded to deadly precision, but his mind still that of an errant, restless teen, struggling against his past and uncertain of his future. Memorable, entertaining and even striking at times, that film was more Milius’ vision than Howard’s.
Nispel moves away from that image of a warrior shaped by civilization and circumstance, to chase after the specter of the pulp-age Conan, a whirling force of nature unleashed on a savage land. The opening images are bathed in bright red, with the young hero being literally cut from his mother’s womb on the field of battle, held up by his father Corin (Ron Perlman) like a cracked, hard R version of The Lion King. For roughly the next two hours, the audience gets launched into a nonstop onslaught of blades, bared breasts and bountiful rivers of blood. At first, it works but after awhile it starts to numb the senses.
The story, if it can be called such, is essentially a series of big action set pieces tied together with errant threads lifted from Conan’s adventure portfolio. Rehashing elements from the first film, young Conan (an effective and feral Leo Howard) is left orphaned when merciless warlord Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang) burns his village and murders his dad. Cut to the future and a grown Conan (Jason Momoa) tearing his way through the countryside, marauding, freeing slaves, and bedding wenches whilst on a quest to take vengeance against the man who caused his pain. Zim, it turns out, was similarly bent when he attacked the Cimmerians, exacting revenge for the death of his sorceress wife, who he now wishes to reanimate with the assistance of a supernatural mask. Although the fate of the world is at stake, Conan is mostly concerned with ripping of Zim’s head. Cut, curse, sneer, disembowel, smolder, repeat.
Along the path that leads to Zim and glorious justice are a gallery of adversaries, both human and not. The most interesting of which are swordsman summoned from the desert sand and a particularly Lovecraftian sea monster that eviscerates stuff with its creepy tentacles. The action scenes are well handled and convincingly shot, framed against some absolutely stunning scenery that has been augmented just enough to evoke the Frazetta paintings that adorn Conan’s published sagas. Nispel wallows in the gore, throwing more viscera at the screen than was in any of the other iterations combined. Consider for instance, the moment where Conan rams his meaty knuckles into the open nasal cavity of a villain with a chopped-off schnoz. For those who enjoy such things, there’s a veritable buffet of beheadings, stabbings, and separated arteries spurting in the general direction of everywhere.
What about a love interest, though? What’s a barbarian without his main squeeze? Arnold got Valeria and leggy dancer Sandahl Bergman. Momoa’s Conan gets hottie redhead Rachel Nichols as warrior monk Tamara. The witchy Marique (Rose McGowan)—Zim’s creepy daughter with inappropriate daddy issues—discovers that the apocalyptic mask requires, as do many arcane artifacts, a particular and special element to activate it; the lifeblood of an ‘Ancient’. Since this is an endeavor aimed mostly at adolescent males, Tamara is that ancient. She’s also not really all that monk-like, especially once she’s excited the passions of Conan. Faster than you can say Skinemax, the two of them are off in the wild engaging in soft-focus co-mingling. Nichols is beautiful but doesn’t quite take command as a female with enough spunk and nerve to match the Cimmerian.
Marique is the only other female of note in the story, and although her costume design is vampy and intriguing, McGowan’s overacting and her unsavory fascination with daddy make her a one-note goth cartoon. That Saturday morning mindset extends to Lang’s Zim as well, and although the actor is gifted at giving snaky bad guys odd definition, there’s not much he can do with this one. He can leer with skill, but everything out of his mouth sounds like it was written on post-its by Snidely Whiplash.
What makes the film a fun ride is the casting of Jason Momoa as the titular hero. A Hawaiian model turned actor, Momoa has already done the barbarian thing as Kal Drogo on HBO’s Game of Thrones. He has the dark, toned look of the character and his sneers are on par with Schwarzenegger, whose lips behaved like roller coasters in the older films. Momoa is also a better actor than Arnold, and tries to display the heart and verve of a hero hidden inside of a Wildman.
The problem is that’s not how this Conan is written. The moral code of Conan, often represented as more noble than the supposedly civilized leaders around him, is fairly absent in this outing. Truthfully, there’s not much distinguishing Zim’s quest and drive from the hero’s, and that muddies the film thematically, while the 3D muddies it visually. The result is an entertaining swashbuckler that meets the basic needs of the genre without being memorable. In Momoa we have a worthy Conan. Next time, let’s get a script and a director with a better understanding of the character. May I suggest an adaptation of Howard’s Beyond the Black River? That’s a tale with legitimate bite and a barbarian worthy of the big screen.