I reckon if you’ve grown up over the last 30 years you’ve likely been exposed to the world of Conan The Barbarian by now. Most likely via the 2 Arnold Schwarzenegger films. That’s all well and good but they aren’t the best interpretations of the Conan mythos. But that’s also part of what makes the world of Conan so much fun. Depictions of Conan have ranged from the high fantasy babes and violence of the Robert E Howard books and future Marvel comics to the fun for all ages adventures of the 90s cartoon Conan The Adventurer and the late 90s TV series. It’s best not to watch that series though. No interpretation of Conan has really been that close to the source. The new film maybe isn’t that perfect a depiction of the source material to be fair but it’s central choice of Jason Momoa as Conan is, in my opinion, pretty spot on. So what else does the film get right? Click the link to find out.
This Conan is an origin story as you’d expect, because obviously no-one saw the original films or read the books or comics and so they have no idea who Conan is. If they did then clearly they lost their memory of his origin, which has been told multiple ways anyway. This interpretation of Conan starts with his birth on the battlefield via a slightly silly emergency C-section. I suppose this informs us that he is born of battle and blood or something. It would make for a memorable intro for the right reasons had it not ended with Ron Pearlman holding a rubber baby to the heavens shouting “COOOONAAAAAAN!!!” Yeah, this is THAT sort of film. A shouting at the sky when enraged type of film. It happens at least twice in the first 20 minutes. Anyway, what follows is pretty straight-forward. Young Conan is full of rage, he forges a sword with his father Corin (Ron Pearlman’s character) and his Cimmerian village is attacked and its residents slain. Naturally he vows revenge. The attackers leader, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, the baddie from Avatar) is after the fragments to complete a mask that will bestow necromantic powers on him. He gains the last part in this opening sequence.
Fast forward 10 years or so and Conan has become Jason Momoa from Stargate Atlantis and Khalar Zym seems to have spent the years just waiting for the cameras to turn back on so he can go find a pure blooded girl to sacrifice to feed the mask so it might give him them powers. See I accept that it would take years to complete such a plan but the pure blood girl, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), lives at a monastery. Zym is guided there by his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan settling in a side role after the Red Sonja film never happened). Now this monastery is where the masks power was created and where people were sacrificed before. What I don’t get is why wasn’t this the first port of call for Zym. He knows descendants of the masks creators live there it seems. Also a place of such importance to his plan would surely be under his control already. Anyway, she escapes, meets Conan after receiving a convenient prophecy tells her she would and they set out stopping Zym or something.
The plotting of the film is really it’s biggest issue. Its haphazard, littered with holes and half finished elements and characters that are really just there to fill archetypes. There’s at least 2 fight scenes which have no actual bearing on the plot at all too. There’s even a sex scene that happens at exactly the moment you expect it to with so little real build that the scene leading to it feels like the characters were pushed together, actually they kind of are, and told to get jiggy wit it. This suffers from the old thing happening for the sake of things happening issue. It’s not a constant problem though, most of the action and events are weaved together well enough. It’s just that when they aren’t they feel awkward and fall somewhat flat. Another plot element that falls flat is that early on Conan forges a sword and is told he’ll be able to claim it one day when he if worthy. The sword is stolen by Zym and when Conan gets it back he just takes it from Zym and carries on fighting. No moment of wonder when he finally claims his own sword back. No big moment. He just gets picks it up.
To the films credit though Stephen Lang makes for quite a good villain. He feels like a threat, as he should, and looks entirely badass with his cool double bladed Swiss army knife like sword. On the flip side to Lang’s antagonist role is, of course, Conan The Adventurer… warrior without fear. Jason Momoa does a fine job of playing that role. He looks a hell of a lot more like the Conan described in Robert E Howard’s stories than Arnie ever did. He’s leaner, moves like a Panther and has just the right amount of gravel in his voice to stay the right side of Bale’s gravelly voiced Batman. The women are there to either be semi naked or evil, a task they do quite well.
The action itself, whilst skipping about various levels of pointlessness, is well choreographed and shot. Not too much of the dreaded shaky cam and in the case of one fight against a group of sand people… no not those sand people… it can get quite inventive. Thankfully the violence is nice and bloody too. There’s no sword slashes that result in a lack of injury detail here. There is a lot of digital blood spurts though. Dunno what the problem is with good old fashion in camera blood these days. Was actually surprised that Conan was only a 15 here in the UK. Seen less gory similar 18 certs before now.
I do have a few issues with the way the film has been shot and edited. Firstly the shooting. Clearly they intended to make this film a 3D release, which they did. There’s a lot of things pointing to the camera on display for example. But it was shot in 2D and post converted to 3D. Why shoot for 3D with all the usual 3D gimmicks but shoot with 2D cameras only? Seems counter productive. It means then that when someone watches the film in 2D, as it was shot, we get a lot of distracting knives and fingers with forced shallow focus coming at us. Avengers made the same mistake too. This is a case of the 3D side of the film effecting the 2D viewing, which is gonna be the way this film is viewed most often anyway. As for the editing there’s a few sloppy edits, especially during basic conversation scenes. Some edits even mess with your perception of the locations with characters seeming to move about them between cuts.
Now while this film is far from perfect, or even good, Jason Momoa is a likeable entity on screen and the parts that do work do so quite well. It shares a lot of issues with other films director Marcus Nispel has made such as Pathfinder and the Friday The 13th remake. It lacks cohesion and is padded with filler that could have been exorcised in favour of better storytelling and character interactions. Side characters come and go with little reason for example. You never get what they’re relationship to Conan is really about other than they like him with only the briefest back story. Oh and this is one of those films with Morgan Freeman narrating it at the start… why? I dunno, because his voice is like a silky smooth layer of cream melting on top a hot rum and raisin cake maybe? I’d be hard pressed to say that there isn’t enough here to satisfy Conan fans. Some might really enjoy its brand of big dumb fun. I just wish it had been connected together better.