Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Conan the Barbarian" (2011)

Starring Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols and Stephen Lang
Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood
Directed by Marcus Nispel
Rated R - Violence, language, sex, nudity
Running Time: 112 Minutes

"Conan... What is the best in life?"

"To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women."

The original "Conan the Barbarian" film was no great classic. Rather, it's a camp classic; a cheesy, but fun, sword and sorcery romp that launched the career of action legend Arnold Schwarzenegger.  So it is rather appropriate, then, that the 2011 version is thoroughly absurd, ridiculous and over the top.

Conan (Jason Momoa, of 'Stargate Atlantis' fame) was "born of battle."  Like, literally - his pregnant mother was run through during a battle, and his father Corin (Ron Perlman, of 'Hellboy' fame) just cuts open her stomach and pulls out the baby.  Conan grows to be a fierce warrior, not backing down from battle and thriving where others turn tail and run.  But one day, an army, led by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, of 'Avatar' fame), invades his village, seeking the final piece of the legendary Mask of Acheron.  His army slaughters Conan's people, eventually leaving only Conan and his father alive.  Corin sacrifices himself to save Conan, who sets off into the wilds to get revenge for his father's death.

Years later, Khalar has built an empire and even though he has the complete mask, still needs a "pureblood" in order to complete the ritual that will turn him into a god and give him ultimate power over the Earth.  His witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, nearly unrecognizable) uses her powers to locate a young woman named Tamara (Rachel Nichols, looking hot) and Khalar's army goes to retrieve her.

Meanwhile, Conan runs across one of Khalar's goons and recognizes him from years earlier, discovers what Khalar's next move will be, and sets off to complete his revenge.  He happens upon Tamara as she's being attacked by Khalar's men, and rescues her.  Conan relentlessly tracks down Khalar, cutting a bloody path through his armies and henchmen while also trying to protect Tamara from a horrific death at Khalar's hands.

I'm not even really sure what to say about this version of "Conan the Barbarian."  John walked out of the theatre and all he could say over and over again was, ""  This film starts with us witnessing Conan's mother being stabbed through the womb... from inside the womb.  It only goes uphill from there.  This film is loaded with over the top, grotesque imagery like this.  Conan tortures a man with no nose by sticking his fingers in the hole, and there are many, many vicious deaths by various sharp implements and blunt-force trauma.

Conan barely speaks other than to grunt and to let out howls of rage during his many, many battles in this film.  Momoa is certainly capable of performing stunts and action, but I have no idea if he's capable of doing anything more since the script never gives him the opportunity.  Though, having seen Momoa on four seasons of 'Stargate Atlantis,' I'm inclined to believe not.  Even Conan's most emotionally charged moment of the film, the death of his father, is given to a younger actor portraying Conan as a boy in one of the film's better scenes.

There are several secondary characters who aid Conan in his quest, but I can't remember their names.  Their characters are basic, but the actors portraying them are lively enough to deliver their simple dialogue with a sense of fun.  Rachel Nichols does her best to seem like Tamara isn't just a damsel in distress, though mostly she is, even if she gets in some of her own kills; this is obviously what eventually draws Conan to her - that she can be a warrior in addition to a woman.  But it's all very basic and simple, and the film has no space to breathe between lengthy fight sequences in order to explore any of these ideas.

Seriously, I'm not sure there's a space of more than few quiet moments at a time in "Conan the Barbarian," it's just a constant and unending sequence of fights and battles.  The good part is that these are mostly rather entertaining, though some better than others.  There's a supernatural element to the film that only appears occasionally, but one of the best is a scene in which Marique sends some kind of sand warrior creatures after Conan and Tamara; each time Conan or Tamara kills one of them, they go back into the dirt and are instantly reborn.

What makes the fights more impressive, though, is how realistic they seem.  And by realistic, I mean that while there's obvious CGI enhancement to certain parts, for the most part, this is actually real stuntmen performing real stunts.  More so, while there is a lot of fast editing and hand-held camera work, I didn't really feel lost watching them, even in the larger, more chaotic battle scenes.  The worst offender is a battle against some kind of tentacled sea serpent creature... thing... late in the film.  It's shot rather dark, with computer generated tentacles whipping everywhere, water splashing.  I imagine in 3D that this entire sequence would be entirely unintelligible. 

So the fights are decent, even impressive at times, but they're really all this film has to offer.  After a while, it starts to get a bit repetitive, however.  By the climax, I'd seen Conan cut so many people to shreds that I was hoping for something different.  The story is too simplistic to matter and the characters might as well not even have names.  Stephen Lang is decent as the villain, but not nearly as much as he was in "Avatar."  And his powers don't seem to make much sense.  He spends decades trying to put this mask together so he can have ultimate power, but once he finally gets it Conan is able to best him fairly easily and he never displays any kind of superpowers that we were expecting.

This version of "Conan the Barbarian" won't go down in the history books like John Milius' earlier film, but it's a decent enough distraction.  With a couple of beers in us, we enjoyed ourselves, though neither of us were under any illusions that "Conan the Barbarian" 2011 is a good film.  If you're looking for some hack-and-slash over the top violence, by all means, check out a matinee of "Conan the Barbarian" to sate your bloodlust.  Just don't bother hoping for story or character.  At best, you'll be bored.  But it's by no means the kind of incompetent disaster that, say, a "Resident Evil" film might be.  It's just empty.

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