Sword, sorcery without Arnold
By John DeFore
Friday, Aug 19, 2011
German-born director Marcus Nispel, whose remakes of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th" were bigger hits than idea-starved studios should have hoped for, rehashes another generation-old genre staple in "Conan the Barbarian."
If indeed there has been a community of film buffs yearning for a "Conan" reboot, they could hardly be hoping for a more appropriate slab of beef to play him than Jason Momoa - a Hawaiian with muscle tone to make Frank Frazetta weep and perpetually flared nostrils that, one suspects, can smell an enemy's blood long before it spurts from severed arteries.
Those nostrils do a lot of Momoa's acting, to be honest. As right as he is looks-wise, Momoa falls short in attitude: He speaks in one of those trying-too-hard baritones heard in young jocks whose greatest fear is being called gay. Combine his vocal delivery with the obligatory misogyny ("Woman! I said come here!"), and you come dangerously close to Fratboy the Bar-brawler-ian.
Momoa is upstaged by Leo Howard, the 14-year-old actor who plays Conan as a boy, convincing us of the character's innate savagery as he single-handedly slays four marauders before his clan has even decided he's old enough for a sword. That clan is led by Conan's father, Corin (Ron Perlman), who is killed in front of the boy by would-be warlord Khalar Zym. (Perlman has often performed under heavy makeup, but the dreadlock-carpet of a beard clinging to his face here may be his greatest acting challenge yet.)
Zym's agenda is the usual sword-and-sorcery stuff: Collect all the hidden pieces of an ancient mask, find the "pure blood" damsel Tamara to sacrifice, use his new magic powers to revive his wife (a witch who was burned alive), rule the world and try not to weep every time he sees what a freak-show his daughter - Rose McGowan, laughably portraying a witch-in-training - has become.
While Zym wreaks havoc across the land, Conan grows mighty and seeks revenge. We meet him years later, as he slays one fantastically ugly Zym henchman after another and finally catches up to his father's killer. The plot really isn't worth discussing beyond that, but it includes plenty of action scenes, including a fun one in which magic sand-warriors explode from the ground to chase Conan through collapsing scaffolds.
Nispel falls into familiar traps throughout the film: framing battles too tightly to follow them, incorrectly assuming we want an "epic" that runs nearly two hours and building to a climax that is ridiculously staged (Conan and Zym fight atop a wooden wheel as it falls toward a fiery pit) while insulting the hero's strength by suggesting he'd have a hard time pulling slender Tamara to safety.
You can bet Arnold Schwarzenegger would never have stood for that last mistake.
Contains sexuality and some nudity interspersed with enough gory violence to justify the movie's title.