In the ancient times of the ’80s, a hero rose on the silver screen, his coming heralded with steel and operatic battlesong. His name was enough to spark terror in the hearts of camels. He was Conan the Barbarian, known to earthly mortals as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Whether it is with fond nostalgia or eyerolls at the cheese, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian is our most pop culture-ensconced vision of the Cimmerian warrior king. In reality, the legend of Conan began as a pulp series of short stories in the 1930s, written by the talented and tragic author Robert E. Howard.
Since the ’30s, Conan has faced down comics, novels and the legendary ’80s movie, but now he goes up against a reboot in the new Conan the Barbarian. Does our hero prevail? Sort of — though one cannot doubt our hero’s fierce masculinity, not even the manliest of warriors can overcome a shoddy script and limpid storyline.
On the fantasy continent of Hyboria, Conan grows up as a happy-go-lucky barbarian preteen, who gleefully decapitates marauders and can only be faulted for his overzealousness in spreading carnage. Until the ferocious warlord Khalar Zym (Stephan Lang) slaughters his village and murders his father (a self-parodying Ron Perlman).
But Zym’s not just in it for the glory. He really wants to resurrect his murdered witch-wife and gain ultimate power, with the help of his daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), sorceress of daddy issues. But necromancy has to wait, as Conan still needs to grow up.
Some 15 years later, Conan (Jason Mamoa) is a strapping young man who has had a lifetime of wild, abs-enhancing adventures. When he crosses paths with Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a beautiful monk who Zym needs for his wife’s resurrection, vengeance for his clan pays its dues.
In Conan’s quest for revenge, the film makes gleeful use of its R rating — skulls smash upon rock, horses get punched out, bones snap against clubs and limbs fly through the air in showers of gore. More questionable issues, like Zym and Marique’s creepy relationship, are explored more often than in a PG-13. But to ask the film to delve into anything deeper than the hole left by Conan’s sword is asking far too much of this action flick.
The acting is far from poor. Some may remember Mamoa as the taciturn warlord Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Once again, he’s a rippling testament of strength and power, with a manly charisma similar to Dwayne Johnson’s. Of the cast, he makes the best of lines that, at their most optimistic, can best be described as cheesy.
Besides Mamoa, Nichols is equal parts feisty and flowery as Tamara. It is refreshing to see a character who, if hunted by anyone less than a crazed megalomaniac, could probably take fine care of herself.
Yet why she falls so fast for a grizzled warrior whose discourse includes “Come here, woman,” takes pages of character development we never see. Lang and McGowan also try their best as one-note villains, but corny dialogue takes down their efforts faster than Conan ever could.
A sword and sorcery film without fighting is unfit for a warrior of Cimmeria. Conan gets plenty of chances to shatter skulls and sever limbs but fights blur as the film carries on. One CGI-heavy battle against a monster serves no point other than to highlight effects that will look even worse when upgraded to 3D. Meanwhile, though Conan visits many cities, all but most resemble nothing more than cliché set pieces.
Despite a floundering screenplay, Conan has its fun parts. There is something entertaining — and perhaps cathartic — about an attractive man in minimal clothing slaughtering his enemies. The disappointment sets in when one realizes what could have been. A visceral tale of a warrior always balanced on a precipice between heroism and savagery — that could have been an all-star film. When Conan is asked what is best in life, he would answer, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
All honorable pursuits, but the film has higher expectations.