Review: 'Conan the Barbarian' An Uninteresting Story of Man & Sword
by Jeremy Kirk
August 21, 2011
The willingness to zone out during Conan the Barbarian comes within the film's first 10 seconds. An over-long, unnecessarily explanatory voice over setting up the world in which the action takes place is cliche enough. When it's done by Morgan Freeman, you know you're dealing with a film that has no interest in originality. So you zone out, lose interest, stop listening to what's being said and start wondering how many zeros Freeman's paycheck had in it. That's a problem, especially when it comes before a sword is swung or a head is lopped off. Granted, Conan the Barbarian has that in abundance, but like that opening narration, it's never interesting, serves hardly a purpose to the "story" at hand, and pieced together by director Marcus Nispel, lumbers through without focus or excitement.
The moments after that banal intro tease at a more intriguing design. From Freeman's voice we see Conan as a fetus, still in his mother's womb, and we learn this warrior-to-be was born on the battlefield. His father, Corin, played by Ron Perlman, cuts Conan out of his wounded mother so she can see her son before she dies. It's a brutal scene, one that seems rather gutsy - poor choice of words - for a Hollywood film, but it at least amps you to the possibility that this is going to be one gritty movie.
Sadly, from there, it feels tame. The story moves quickly to Conan as a young boy, a violent and very strong boy who seems will one day be as fearless a warrior as his father. All seems in order for this young boy to grow into a grand ruler until a warlord, played by Stephen Lang, and his men intervene, destroys the village, and murders everyone in it except for the young boy. Vengeance on the warlord is sworn, and Conan, who eventually grows into Jason Momoa, seeks that vengeance with brilliantly bloody results.
It's not tame in the sense that it's bloodless. Conan the Barbarian is very much an R-rated film full of gory deaths, grim details, and the most topless women seen in one film in quite a while. But it's tame in the sense that it lacks an absorbing quality, something that grasps hold of your attention and refuses to let go. Nothing like that opening battle scene. When Conan swings his sword, blood gushes. When he bashes someone against a rock, it looks akin to a ripe tomato being slammed against a wall. But it's never exciting nor does it ever elicit a sense of fun.
Much of that comes from the film's lack of structure. Always charged to its peak, Conan the Barbarian's idea of duality in any character is that they're either screaming or bleeding. Outside of those opening moments when Conan as a boy watches his father die, no conflict arises, at least none that isn't rushed through and solved with a minimal amount of working through. When Conan realizes he needs to go somewhere, we cut to that place with the barbarian arriving. Outside of the vast landscapes and structures - brought about impressively with top-notch design and admirable computer effects - there's hardly any real scope to Conan's world.
The same could be said for the action. Nispel does a fine job keeping it all in focus. There are even some nicely composed shots and well choreographed stunts thrown in for good measure. A carriage chase early on is about as exciting as it all gets. But the film as a whole views action scenes like saving points in an adventure game. They serve no purpose to what's going on, they don't move anything forward, they just seem like the thing to throw in every 10 to 15 minutes.
Momoa builds Conan with muscle and charm. Here's an actor who uses his charisma to its fullest even when the character he's portraying has little in the way of connectivity to the world or the other characters. There are relationships built. Conan has friends who periodically help him, usually in the most convenient times possible. The connection between the barbarian and Tamara, played by Rachel Nichols, a member of a peaceful group who is taken by the nefarious warlord for her "pure blood", is obvious and unexciting. No, a film like Conan the Barbarian doesn't win or lose because of its character's relationships, but something more weighty might have made all the finely crafted action more interesting.
The villains of the film work. Lang brings the perfect level of grimace and sneer to his character. It might be time to put a moratorium on these fantastical villains who want to be a God, though. Isn't gold and power, two things the warlord holds much of, enough? Rose McGowan plays the warlord's daughter, a witch with enough creepily boisterous moments to almost make McGowan appear as if she's putting effort into it. Look through the Kabuki makeup and metallic claws, though, and you'll find the actress doesn't have much to offer.
With action that peaks early in its brutality and a story that never gives the notion of a direction, Conan the Barbarian is as scattered as a hail of arrows being flung at something unseen. It flails from action piece to action piece, never bringing up a true conflict for its protagonist or toying with a notion of complexity. Even the end careens to an ultimate let-down, nothing as grand as you would expect or hope for from such a fantasy-based story. Witchcraft and giant monsters are teased, and some of that rears its head, but it's ultimately a film about a man and his sword. The man might be somewhat interesting, but the sword is far more dull than hoped for.
Jeremy's Rating: 4.5 out of 10