Movie Review: Reboot With A Vengeance

Conan the Barbarian (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Jason Mamoa). Who is this “Arnold” person you keep talking about?

Film: Conan the Barbarian
Starring: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman
Written by: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Directed by: Marcus Nispel
Genre: Fantasy, action, loincloths-for-some, metal-brassiers-for-others
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B


Conan the Cimmerian (Jason Momoa) has been wandering the lands for years searching for the man who killed his father Corin (Ron Perlman). That man, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), has in that time gone from simple bandit to feared conquerer, sewing terror alongside his daughter, the witch Marique (Rose McGowan). When Conan comes across the young monk Tamara (Rachel Nichols) running from Zym’s forces, he sees his chance to finally confront Zym and take vengeance. However, Zym needs Tamara as a sacrifice for a ritual that will give him access to massive amounts of dark power, and there is much more at stake than a roaring rampage of revenge.

One thing should be made clear from that start: this is in no way a remake of the 1982 film starring that bodybuilder who became that actor who became that governor. It’s a reboot of a Conan film franchise that draws on the original works of Robert E. Howard for inspiration, not on a pair of 80s films. In fact, it hews much more closely to the Howard stories (while not being specifically based off one) than the original films ever were. It’s an unapologetically R-rated film, with epic struggles often resulting in loss of limb and captive wenches often resulting in perky bosoms.

Not pictured: wenches. Pictured: perky bosoms.

At the helm of the film is Marcus Nispel, who knows both reboots (2009’s Friday the 13th) and sword-swinging warriors (2007’s Pathfinder). He’s a highly competent director most of the time, if not particularly visionary, but action scenes can sometimes be confusing and chaotic. That’s a problem if your film is largely composed of action scenes. Nispel handles one-on-one fights well, but his camera becomes more incoherent as more combatants are added. The battle in the opening sequence featuring Zym’s soldiers and Conan’s villagers is impossible to follow or sort out. Nispel has a good eye for visuals, though, and the film looks appropriately epic and lush; Bulgaria is an excellent stand-in for Hyboria. Nispel’s use of 3D is well-executed for the most part, being of the “immersive” type and not the “holy crap, things flying at the screen” type, although a late-film battle with a tentacled monster sometimes comes out muddy and blurry even with the 3D glasses on.

The weakest part of the film is likely its script, which isn’t entirely a surprise. The script—written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood—isn’t horrible, but it very rarely rises above the level of a mid-80s sword-and-sorcery film. It’s not as campy as that, and it wisely avoids giving Conan too many “witty” one-liners, but the dialogue often seems particularly overheated and silly, and the plot (as it might be called) revolves around an object that could easily be called magical MacGuffin +5. The cast manages to get around it with varying degrees of success, but nobody falls flat on their face and into a spiked pit of tortured metaphors (like that one right there). The script also wisely front-loads the background and motives of the film in an opening montage narrated by Morgan Freeman, freeing the cast from having to stop in the middle of a scene and explain what’s going on (although it probably would have involved explaining why Conan just cut that guy’s head off).

It’s the script! We’re doomed!

The music often does a lot of the dramatic work for the words, but that’s quite all right. Tyler Bates’ score is a massive rush of orchestral fanfare and thrilling drums, even if he tends to abuse the concept of sforzando. (Tyler, it’s a turbo button; you don’t hold it down for more than a second.) It’s not as militaristic as his score for 300, which it’s reminiscent of, and is very much in the mold of other epic fantasy films. It won’t make anyone forget the classic Basil Poledouris score of the original film, but it’s a beyond-solid work of textured, vibrant music that may become a classic in its own right. At the very least, it will be very popular as background music for your next Dungeons and Dragons game.

“But, Johnny,” I hear you saying (I have excellent hearing), “what about that tower of muscles and smolder with the sword?” I am happy to report that Jason Momoa is an excellent Conan, easily making people forget about whats-his-name. Schwarzengruberfluber or something. This Conan is closer to Howard’s Conan than Arnold’s ever was, if only because Momoa can speak in complete sentences. Momoa’s Conan is articulate, intelligent and a master of combat, just as Conan should be. He’s charismatic and magnetic, with a rich, seductive baritone and a powerful, but not overwhelming presence. And yes, there is a brief butt shot, and yes, it was so mighty that even the straight men in the audience gasped.

And, really, will YOU be the one to disagree with him?

The supporting cast is all fine. Stephen Lang plays another megalomaniacal bad-ass with a wavering accent, scarred face and pumped arms as he did in Avatar, but he’s great as Zym. It’s obvious that he enjoys his work, and he relishes every boiled-over threat and bellow coming from Zym’s lips. Rachel Nichols does well, although the concept of Tamara—a woman who can hold her own in a fight, won’t take lip from Conan, and refuses to prance around in a metal brassiere—is often more interesting than the character. That’s largely a result of the script and not of Nichols’ performance, although she does tend to come out as the most monotone of the named cast. Ron Perlman is…well, Ron Perlman, and he’s excellent at it. Is there any film out there that does not benefit from the presence of Ron Perlman? If so, I don’t want to know about it.

The stand-out of the cast, sometimes even more than Conan, is Rose McGowan as Marique. Granted, Marique has no choice but to stand out: of the few women with more than one line of dialogue, she’s the one with the Amidala-as-Grace-Jones hair, the chalk-white skin, the facial tattoos, the silver talons and the bordering-on-incest relationship with her father. Like Lang, McGowan seems to enjoy every moment she has on screen, either slinking around like a predatory animal or charging into combat with a scream. Marique is for all intents and purposes one freaky mamma jamma that you do not want to mess with, and McGowan displays that effortlessly. Mark my words: this Halloween you will see more than one Marique out and about, and one of them might actually be a real girl.

She’s a very kinky girl, the kind you don’t take home to Mother.

Is this film a better adaptation than its 1982 predecessor? Yes, without a single doubt. Is it a better film overall than its 1982 predecessor? Yes, but not by as much of a degree. It’s not as campy, and it’s much wider in scope and vision, but it’s also a bit louder and lacks a truly defined plot. Can this Conan beat up that Conan? Well, it depends. Physically, they’re complete equals, but Jason Mamoa looks like Lawrence Olivier compared to Arnold. This is a Conan that shows time and again why the character is so popular and iconic, and why both fanboys and characters are willing to follow him to the gates of hell and back, a Conan so exciting that you forget about that tired, cliched dialogue he just spouted. There are plenty of stories still to be told in Conan’s universe, and this film is an excellent opening chapter. 

Plus, you know…Jason Mamoa. Muscles. Swords. ‘Nuff said.

Conan will return in Conan 2: Barbarian Boogaloo!

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and looks rather fetching in a loincloth if he does say so himself.<a href="; title="imageimage