Friday, September 2, 2011

Conan The Barbarian

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: A barbarian performs an emergency Caesarian-section with a bloody sword on his still conscious wife, but dying from a mortal wound inflicted by one of her husband’s many enemies, watching as he slices open her belly and pulls out her blood- and placenta-covered infant son. Before she expires, she gives her son a name. That scene doesn’t need to be imagined. It’s real. It’s the first scene in the latest, but by no means last, adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s bare-chested, sword-wielding, hedonistic warrior-hero, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, directed by anti-auteur, remake-specialist Marcus Nispel (FRIDAY THE 13TH, PATHFINDER, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) and his collaborators behind and in front of the camera.

That opening, not including exposition-filled voiceover narration by Morgan “Paycheck” Freeman’s dulcet tones, promises more, far more, than Nispel and his three credited screenwriters, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood (and who knows how many uncredited writers), can deliver. Before we meet the adult Conan played by Jason Momoa (GAME OF THRONES, STARGATE: ATLANTIS), Nispel jumps forward a decade plus to a teen Conan (Leo Howard). Teen Conan wants nothing more than to be a warrior like his father, Corin (Ron Perlman), but first has to win a race in and around the neighboring mountains. The winner, we’re told, will get the opportunity, not to mention, the honor, to fight with the warriors who protect the village Corin leads.

In what’s probably the high point of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, teen Conan encounters a band of savage-looking warriors from another tribe. Despite Conan The Barbarian’s pre-modern setting, the fine art of Parkour already existed. Conan’s acrobatic skills give him all the advantage he needs to dispatch the other warriors with relative, if bloody (as in CG bloody) ease. Teen Conan returns to his father and the village carrying three heads (Nispel tastefully leaves Conan’s decapitating his fallen foes offscreen). Nispel switches into Mr. Miyagi-montage mode with the now-impressed Corin instructing teen Conan in barbarian-warrior ways, up to and including creating Conan’s signature sword (Corin mumbles something about “fire and ice” as the secret ingredient to sword manufacture).

Corin and Conan’s father-and-son bonding, however, ends abruptly when Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a minor, local tyrant with a flair for fashionable armor, attacks, brutally slaughtering young, old, and everyone in between. Khalar Zym is on the hunt for the one, last remaining mystically empowered bone-shard that will complete a helmet-mask. Per Morgan Freeman’s earlier voiceover narration, the helmet-mask will give the owner godlike powers, including the power to resurrect the dead, something Khalar Zym wants to do desperately (he misses his recently executed witch-wife). Conan survives, unsurprisingly vowing revenge on Khalar Zym.

When we catch up with the adult Conan (Momoa) two decades later, he’s in no apparent rush to find and defeat Khalar Sym. For reasons knowable only to Nispel and his screenwriters, Conan never bothered to find out Khalar Zym’s name. Apparently asking around for a local tyrant resulted in nothing but dead ends. In the meantime, Conan keeps himself busy, attacking a slave caravan (he’s morally opposed to slavery), then enjoying the bountiful thanks of the female ex-slaves at an ancient rave/orgy filled with gratuitous T, but minus the gratuitous A. Still, Conan more or less hungers for revenge. After finally getting a lead (and a name), Conan heads for Khalar Zym’s last known location.

Apparently, Khalar Zym and his now grown-up witch daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan, nearly unrecognizable) have spent twenty-odd years searching for a so-called Pureblood, an almost non-extinct ancient lineage. Combined with the bone-shard helmet-mask, a Pureblood will give Khalar Zym the power to resurrect his long-dead wife. Conan arrives at an ancient monastery (everything’s ancient in Conan’s world) just in time to save Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the last surviving Pureblood, setting up the eventual, inevitable confrontation between Conan and Khalar Zym, but not before Nispel crams five or six more set pieces, each directed with, at best, minimal competency, and, at worst, incoherent sub-competency.

At 112 minutes, Conan The Barbarian is a long slog, made all the longer by an inept, meandering storyline (changes in location are signaled by immediately forgettable white-typed callouts), sub-banal dialogue, and sensory-pummeling, repetitive action scenes. As Conan, Momoa has the physicality, athleticism, and maybe the charisma required by the role, but, given the aforementioned dialogue deficiencies, it’s almost impossible to tell whether he has anything talent, let alone skill as an actor-performer. As Khalar Zym, Lang brings a surprising amount of seriousness and gravitas, but even Lang, an experienced actor with decades of performing behind him, can’t save the faux-serious dialogue from eliciting a steady stream of laughs from moviegoers.

We may, eventually, get another Conan film, whether a sequel to Nispel’s attempt to bring Conan back to the screen or, more likely, an entirely new take five-, 10-, or even 20-years from now. Or maybe an enterprising producer will bring the “Young Conan Chronicles” to the small screen. Anything, after all, is possible, especially where a nearly century-old pulp property is involved.

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