Review: Conan the Barbarian Fails

Conan the Barbarian begins with your classic nature vs. nurture argument. Is Conan, a boy born as his mom died in battle, doomed to a life of violence and grunts? The answer (spoiler alert) is yes, a fact the film continually points out. "Lookit," the movie says, clearly frustrated with you for not getting it, "this little fella Conan was brought into this world as his momma passed away from a rather large stab wound. Where do you see this guy's life headed?" And so, yes, NATURE is the clear winner, Conan's "nurturing" phase is spent killing grown warrior men as a teen. Not so different from life cycle of your average  Wire character when you think about it, though the mind wonders at the possibilities. If he'd been born in the water would he now be Conan the Dolphin? Would being born near a pizza oven have made him Conan the Mozzarella Maestro? Could we start birthing babies on a trampoline to up the level of our gymnastic programs? But no, these flights of fancy are not to be, because Conan was born on a battlefield, born of blood. He's a bad man, he was a bad teen, and when his poppa held him up on the battlefield, punctuated with a roar, one can assume he was a bad newborn. I don't know what he was before he was born, in his mother's womb, as she wielded a sword, fighting off adversaries. He might have been more introspective at that point, this pre-blood birthing. Conan the Pensive?

Ron Perlman (Hellboy) is Conan's dad. He's got plenty in the way of life lessons to teach young Conan, but unfortunately he only gets around to one before Conan's village is invaded by jerks. The lesson is this: a sword is forged by both fire AND ice. That's the mystery of steel, and Conan needs to get that through his thick skull before he can progress to be a fully realized Conan. According to dad, Conan's problem is that he's too much fire, he's all attack and no savvy, he's all "hit 'em up" and no "Hey, my name is Conan, how's it going?" Luckily for us, the audience, this fire vs. ice life lesson will basically never be mentioned again. So far as I can tell Conan's fiery ways continue unabated and serve him fairly well, especially if you consider the body count he racks up without even bothering to wear a shirt.

And oh, the battles. This is one extended battle, the "plot" jumping around from place to place only as a vehicle to provide a new backdrop for further sword play.  Morgan Freeman narrates, and you know you're in a new locale when the words come on the screen to tell you so. How did you get there? Why are we somewhere new? Don't concentrate on such trivialities, there's death to behold! Impaling, head crushing, nose chopping, arrows to the dome, all the hits, all the classics, played over and over, each punch massively amplified so that it sounds like a '67 Chevy hitting a brick wall. This Conan guy is a HELLUVA fighter, but he's not so big on the talkie. Even less is said than in Arnold's original version, and seeing Jason Momoa's take on this "remade" Conan made me think how much I enjoyed his work in Game of Thrones.

Still, there are bad guys, or really just the one main bad guy (Stephen Lang), who has a bad witch-daughter (Rose McGowan). The bad people want to raise their wife/mom from the dead, but to do that they need to gather all the pieces to a magical mask AND find a pureblood lady, as laid forth in the "Necromancy for Dummies" handbook. Where Conan comes into conflict with the bad people is that his father has the final piece of the mask ... and he becomes sweet on the pureblood girl. Revenge! Protect the pure lady! These themes run throughout Conan the Barbarian, sometimes at odds, generally simplistic, and often allowing Conan to grunt in a non-committal manner. So far as the bad guy and witch-daughter go, you're probably out there thinking, "Yes, but is incest at ALL hinted at? I mean, when trying to revive mom from the dead, isn't that just GOING to come up?" Indeed, Conan the Barbarian doesn't disappoint on this front: we the audience are left to consider whether it wouldn't just be more efficient to sign off on a father-daughter union instead of following all the necessary steps to bring mom back to life. Thankfully, a definitive answer is given, though I won't spoil that for you.

What I am going to go ahead and spoil is the dialogue. Partly because it's amazingly terrible, and I don't want you to have to pay to see the movie to be able to quote it to your friends. Here are a few of the nuggets of genius contained within Conan the Barbarian:

"This is something I must do alone."

"I live, I love, I slay ... and I am content."

"Not bad." (as grudging respect for a GIRL fighting)

"They all tell me their secrets." (Guy about to torture another guy)

What a nightmare. And what the hell happened to:

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Now that's dialogue! It's really something when you can't match the 1982 version of Conan for story complexity and cleverness, but here we are. Conan the Barbarian features decent action, but it's action completely lacking in context. The plot has no real logic, and none of the actors seem to be on the same page. Where McGowan overplays everything, Momoa is so minimalist as to almost be invisible. Not ideal. Buried deep beneath the muscles and mayhem there might have been a decent Conan film in there somewhere, but this particular take on the character never even gets started. Still, let's hope this isn't the end ... it's always nice to think of Conan out there, swinging away.

Grade: D-