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Conan the Barbarian

dir: Marcus Nispel

Honestly, I’m capable of being objective. I can be. Seriously.

I know you don’t believe me, but at the very least you might accept that I think it’s true.

It’s important to have perspective on various issues, be it elements of one’s own life, or the world in general. It’s especially handy when you’re trying to sift through the detritus of modern life as represented by pop culture and the world of sub-par art known as The Movies.

Having said that, let me now say this regarding the original film Conan the Barbarian that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and came out in 1982: It’s one of the single greatest movies of all time. It decapitates Citizen Kane, dismembers Lawrence of Arabia and rips the bloody, pulsing tongue out of Bridge Over the River Kwai.

It’s not only a great film, it’s one of the greatest achievements our species has ever been responsible for, up there with the pyramids, landing on the moon, and g strings.

You might laugh, or giggle a girlish titter and think, “Oh ho ho, how fucking funny. He must mean it ironically, or that it’s a camp classic, or he’s saying it as a set up for some punchline. I won’t get fooled again by his shenanigans.”

Well, you’d be wrong if that’s what you thought. And I don’t like saying stuff like that to you, the blessed and admired reader. I like keeping you onside, amused, well-disposed. Agreeable, even. The reason being, when I eventually ask for help smuggling out funds from Nigeria, I hope the request won’t fall on the deafest of ears.

No, I’m deadly serious: Conan the Barbarian is truly a great flick. Great music by Basil Polidouris, great physical presence in the lead role, great villain, great action, great dialogue, great witch fucking, great orgy scene mixed with cannibalism, great atmosphere, great everything. I can’t stress that enough: I’m serious. I’ve been around long enough, and been on the tubes of the internets long enough to know how meaningless saying all of this shit ultimately is, because it’s ridiculous to assert to other people that some subjective experience of yours should be a universally superb experience for everyone else.

All I can really say, objectively, so that it can mean anything to anyone else, is that it’s absolutely one of my favourite flicks of all time. There, I took three hundred and sixty five words to say that simple phrase. It’s positively succinct, for me.

So what would I expect, or demand, from a new film, released this year, called Conan the Barbarian?

Nothing. I expected nothing at all. I went only with my still-fervent love of the original film intact, and with no expectation that this flick would equal, exceed or diminish the place it has in my heart. As such, instead of being disappointed or enraged to the point of it harming my love of the earlier flick, all it’s really done is kept me distracted for a couple of hours, and reinforced how much better John Milius and Arnie’s effort was.

This is pure B movie swords and sandals stuff like it would have been in the 70s and 80s, except with overediting and lots of CGI gouts of blood all over the place. Eh, it’s probably more of a C movie.

I’ve got no problem with that. I was expecting nothing better. It’s been timidly adapted, with CGI allowing all sorts of visually violent atrocities, but it still seems tame compared to the original. Gone is the Nietschean worldview, gone is the majesty and awe, gone is the lustiness, and the mockery of the idiots that follow cults (ie hippies). There’s isn’t much of worth or note that any of that has been replaced with.

Jason Momoa certainly looks like the Conan of the stories, and has the build, and can move like the warrior of the tale. When he opens his mouth though…

He’s physically imposing, that’s undoubted, but there’s just not much there when he’s talking. Maybe it was too easy for him.

It’s possibly one of the supreme advantages they had in the earlier flick that Arnie didn’t really speak that well, back in the day. It forced/allowed them to build a compelling world around him, letting his taciturn and imposing physical nature do all the talking.

Unfortunately, Jason Momoa speaks fluently, so there’s that against the flick right there. He also speaks with a permanent sneer alternating with a leer, which, I guess isn’t that much of a problem.

As plots go, it’s not a reappraisal or redo of the 1982 flick, nor does it actually follow the origins exactly of the character as set out in the Robert E. Howard tales from the 1930s. I say this as someone who read every single goddamn one of those original pulpy stories.

The flick doesn’t go to any lengths in order to differentiate this fantasy world from any of the other countless fantasy worlds we’ve enjoyed or been tormented by on the big screen. In fact, as far as I can tell, it’s not set in the Hyborian Age: the time before the seas swallowed Atlantis; when evil sorcerers and slumbering gods threatened the good peasants of Kush, Aquilonia or Stygia. No, this flick is set in Generica, a mishmash general fantasy place that looks the same as all the other generic fantasy places, where every man is dirty and yells a lot, and all the women are bosomy and even dirtier.

What this flick doesn’t even get right is that Conan is not just a guy overflowing with pectoral muscles who runs around decapitating people with a sword: he is the pure masculine embodiment of the id, unconstrained by the myriad ways civilisation castrates the Nietschean superman, or the strictures of modernity, who rises from slave to king without qualms.

I would argue, to no-one in particular, that the first half-hour of this flick is solid. It honestly works well. Sure, it’s underpinned by a slightly goofy premise, having to do with some evil warlord pursuing pieces of a mask, but it has to do with Conan’s incredibly violent battlefield birth, and his even more violent childhood. Ron Perlman, the great Ron Perlman plays his father with all the required gravitas you’d expect or demand.

Conan’s people, fur-wearing Cimmerians, are a violent but not mindless lot. The father tries to get the kid to understand that there’s a time for berserker fury, and a time for emotional control. This, of course, is embodied not in the ‘riddle of steel’ referred to in the original flick, but in the ‘mystery of steel’, which dictates how best a sword can be forged.

Like with hot and then cold. And then something to make it pointy.

But the message for Conan is that he’s too much of a hothead, and he wants to fight all the time, which is a bad idea.

Hey, he’s a barbarian: what the fuck else would you expect?

So some evil megalomaniac wants to rule the world, and he needs parts of a mask to do so, and when he comes to Conan’s village and kills everyone except Conan, Conan vows revenge, REVENGE! in the most unique and rare of plots we’ve come to expect from Hollywood.

Yes, Conan wants revenge in the original one as well, but the villain there, Thulsa Doom, so ably and awesomely played by James Earl Jones, was all sorts of wonderful in the role. The villain here, played so disabledly by Stephen Lang, isn’t very compelling. He’s just a generic bad guy being generically bad.

By the time Conan tracks down and kills everyone who rolled with Khalar Zym, for so he is known, all those years ago, the only thing we’re looking forward to is the exit. He has zero chemistry with the love interest, played generically by some generic girl, and, in fact, isn’t even really that convincing as someone who’s dedicated his life to bringing down the evil Invader Zym. He’s somewhat more convincing as a guy with a really disagreeable tummy ache.

I didn’t even mention the thoroughly repulsive incest theme in the flick as it relates to Zym and his slinky stinky evil sorceress daughter (Rose McGowan), and I guess I don’t need to. Wait, I just did. Crom damn it…

I could go on and on and on listing all the other things that really didn’t work, or just how much better the other flick is, how better it is thematically and action-wise, but there’s no need. This flick has some mildly interesting action scenes, including some sand guys and a serpenty kind of octopus thing in a dungeon with no adherence to Occupational Health and Safety regulation, but that’s about it. There’s nothing to hang your hat on, no reason to rewatch it (or, arguably, to watch it a first time) outside of curiousity, and as such I’m not even angry about it.

I’m just disappointed. I’m not fanatically opposed to remakes, redos, reboots and all that bullshit as long as they justify their existence by doing something decent or novel, or even, in this case, bold and transgressive. Otherwise, it’s just the palest of generic facsimiles made by talentless photocopiers who aren’t fit to lick Conan’s sandals.

5 times what is best in life would be to crush these filmmakers, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their accountants out of 10

“I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” – this must be from that sequel to Eat, Pray, Love I’ll never get around to reading – Conan the Barbarian.