A ruthless warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) lays waste to entire Cimmerian village, wiping it from existence. He seeks the final missing shard of an ancient mask that will aid him in his quest for immortality. A young boy named Conan (Jason Momoa) emerges from the ruins of the village as its lone survivor. As the years pass, he grows into a battle hardened and powerfully muscled barbarian. Through his travels, he has not forsaken his vendetta against Khalar Zym. When the warlord sets his sights on Tamara (Rachel Nichols), Conan intercepts the young monastery novitiate in hopes of administering final justice for the slaughter of his people and the murder of his father (Ron Perlman).
Conan the Barbarian bares no relation to the two previous Conan films that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a supposedly brand new take on the famous pulp character created by writer Robert E. Howard. Director Marcus Nispel, who helmed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes for Platinum Dunes, applies his dreary aesthetic to the world of sword and sorcery. The results are a decidedly far cry from the vision that John Milius had for the character. They are also infinitely less satisfying.
Conan the Barbarian is easily the most relentlessly ugly film of the summer. Cimmeria is rendered with ashen hues that look all the worse beneath the insufficient lighting. Every shot looks like bland flashback. The hand held shots robs the film of any epic grandeur it might have otherwise had. Even the costume and set design seem to lack imagination. John Milius’s film adopted an ancient world aesthetic that seemed to recall a plethora of mythical realms and histories. Nispel prefers to simply cover everything in sludge and grime, making all of the armor and costumes indistinct.
While the action isn’t completely incompetent, it offers nothing memorable or eye catching. John Milius offered well-choreographed swordplay and wonderfully staged set pieces. Nispel allows geysers of blood to spew forth anytime a character is so much as grazed by a blade. For all the carnage on display, none of it has any real impact save for a couple of mean spirited moments that feel borrowed from a torture porn extravaganza. Instead of quickening the pulse, the violence has a numbing effect not too dissimilar from Nispel’s slasher pictures.
As Conan, Jason Momoa offers ample ferocity and physicality. Unfortunately, he doesn’t saddle these qualities to an actual performance. While Shwarzenegger was hardly a master thespian, he brought a sense of self-deprecating humor to the proceedings that made his rendition of the character appealing. Arnie’s Conan murdered and pillaged with an understated glee. He was like a kid with huge muscles and a zest for life. Momoa has the savagery down, but lacks anything in the way of actual character. There is only an empty bloodlust behind his eyes. He may as well be Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers.
In yet another unfavorable comparison to the Milius iteration of Conan, that version had wonderfully realized villain in the incessantly creepy Thulsa Doom. James Earl Jones totally committed to the role, creating a character that was both charming and loathsome. He was (quite literally) a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Khalar Zym is more in the mold of Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, only much less scary. His daughter Marique (Rose McGowen) is actually more interesting, but is reduced henchmen status.
Conan the Barbarian operates on the same level as an expensive straight to DVD production, and not a particularly good one. It lurches forward from one violent set piece to the next, with no sense of purpose or enthusiasm. It’s only true saving grace is the voice over narration by Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to believe that this film had been in development since 2000, and had passed through such notable hands as the Wachowski Brothers. Since reboots are all the rage in current Hollywood, I hope this version of Conan dies a quick death at the box office. May the franchise be resurrected by someone who has something approaching an actual vision for this character. Crom is surely hanging his head in shame right now.