Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Conan the Barbarian

Note: Conan the Barbarian is the most recent film to take on the classic Robert E. Howard character popularized in film by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  However, this reviewer will not do any comparison work to the older iterations of the films, the serial novels, or any of the numerous comic book versions.  This movie will be reviewed on its own merits.

          Conan the Barbarian does a number of things very well straight out of the gates to let the viewer know that they are in store for a Man Movie.  The movie starts with a small narration from a surprise gravitas-imbued actor.  We then see Conan born, cut by a sword out of his mother’s womb on the battlefield… because she is badass, his father is badass (the ever-present  and awesome Ron Perlman), and we need a reason to know Conan is badass even as an infant.  The next scene goes on to show a child Conan out-badassing basically everyone ever ever.  Point of the story is: Conan is a badass.  That is all.
          In fact, in an odd decision, the first 30 minutes of the movie are Conan as a child.  The actor playing young Conan doesn’t really have much of a handle on how to be a badass (how many kids really do?) so he plays the character with the same low-slung scowl as the kid down the street who tortures squirrels.  While we were all rightfully fearful of our own primary school psychos, it’s pretty safe to say that none of them grew up to wield a hot topless woman in one hand and a gigantic sword in another… while carrying a full tankard of ale hanging from their mammoth cock.
Little Conan has been making blowtorches from aerosol can in the woods again...
          That said, the obviously well-Man Movie-informed writers and director pulled a couple more textbook maneuvers to help set the tone of the movie.  Firstly, they showed that they weren’t afraid to show some blood and gore.  When someone gets nailed by a sword or arrow, there are spurts… not fountains on the level of a 70s Japanese samurai film, but good enough.  There is also a fantastic mini-motif of nose mutilation, and an instance of someone head-butted with a severed head (we know, that’s awesome).  The filmmakers also introduce us to the antagonist’s minions very early on in one of the classic roll call styles, wherein each has a featured fight sequence during one of the first battles.  This ably sets up multiple villains with personality, that the viewer has an emotional stake in seeing fight and die.
          The titular barbarian is respectably played by Jason Momoa, or as he’s better known, the guy on Game of Thrones who keeps talking about a horse fucking things*.  Respectably only because Momoa never really pans out as a leading man; he is far too brooding and understated for his star to burn bright enough.  But the rest of the movie is strong enough to carry him through.  The movie succeeds in having multiple well-done fights, including two good monster scenes, despite one of them being an almost seemingly-requisite octopus creature.  It also has a fantastic trick riding horse-chase scene where even the extras are rad and doing stuff like jumping 180 degrees around on their saddle in order to shoot people with arrows.
Fantasy movies need octopus fights like 80s beat-em-up games need an elevator level.
          But there are letdowns and disappointments in the movie as well.  There is a strong promise of continued nudity towards the beginning of the film, where it seems as though every young and attractive actress will be performing sans-blouse.  But that doesn’t hold and we’re only treated to a pair again just prior to the start of the third act.  Along those same lines, one of the two main bad guys is Rose McGowan as a witch.  Her character likely would have been best served as a sort of evil sexpot, but she is instead in heavy makeup and a baldcap with no eyebrows in order to make her look foreign and sinister (and if that weren’t enough boner repellant, there is a creepy implied incest scene thrown in as well).  And there is an uncalled-for tonal shift for an oddly tender love scene that comes off as lip service to whatever wives and girlfriends were dragged to the movie; it plays like a Playgirl/Red Shoe Diaries moment and allows the audience a glimpse of Momoa’s chiseled posterior.
Dear Rose, Thank you for giving our penis nightmares.
          All told, however, this movie was a fantastic surprise.  It shows heavy evidence of studio suit tampering, and was a pretty significant box office flop.  But this movie has strong writing and direction, combined with a cast mostly able to handle the material… not to mention a time-tested character who largely stays true to his roots.  Conan says at one point, “I live, I love, I slay… and I am content.”  So are we, big guy, so are we…

* There are actually a couple Conan alums in Game of Thrones.  It is sometimes a bit distracting.

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