I’m a huge, huge fan of the previous Conan the Barbarian films and so despite having heard some very dubious feedback about it’s quality, I felt it was time for me to see this re-imagining of the Conan tale based (apparently) more closely on the original stories, partly because I just love Conan as a character and partly because I actually welcomed a more modern, adaptation.
Initially though the film seemed well designed and Ron Perlman sets it off well, I could tell it was going to be overly long winded as from the offset, it begins with a legend to set up the premise that occurs before even the birth of Conan. By the time we’ve been through said birth, the teen years and finally gotten to the adult Conan, there’s been a confused muddle of storyline followed by a huge gap that makes it hard to identify with our fully grown hero when he finally appears in the guise of a happy pirate. As the plot winds it’s laborious way forward even the very nice and smashingly gory action sequences begin to become meaningless as the screenwriters, without the relief of any charisma or relationship development whatsoever, attempt to stuff years of meandering adventure, relationships and meaningless side plot into a two hour film. And then the actors are weakly directed, making resulting film a dull, shallow borefest that other than the odd moment of brilliance glinting through the fuzz, I didn’t much care about it.
There was something a little off about the acting largely down to poor casting and direction, I felt. Jason Momoa, I have to say, is an awesome choice for Conan, he’s a charismatic, earthy actor with ability, charm, humour and incredible looks to take on the iconic role, but unfortunately weakly directed his performance lacks some of the bravado or levity that it deserved, it’s bubbling there in the actor but never seems to be allowed to the surface. Poor direction on the part of Marcus Nispel who’s weakness as a director does seem to be in his handling of actors and perhaps in attempting to remove any hit of the cheesy smell left from the earlier films, he’s actually crushed all charisma out of the performance altogether. A real shame as I’m a big fan of Jason Momoa and had he been allowed and encouraged to breathe and have fun with the role, he’d have been extremely compelling. As it is, he still makes a likeable Conan and fights his way expertly naturally through some pretty awesome action, but a lot of what would have made him more human is missed out on. Rachel Nichols is stunning but again, is left (by a quite terrible script choices for her character) without having the tools at her disposal to make the most of her role or acting ability, though what she does is done very nicely and with strength and again, she's adept during the fight scenes.
Other parts are, unfortunately, less well cast, Stephen Lang makes for an odd Khalar Zym and though around the same age as Perlman, actually comes across too elderly and weak to seem like a serious arch enemy, not aided by his witch daughter played by Rose McGowan who despite being a good actor in general, is badly miscast in this strong role and can’t even carry her revealing costume convincingly, never mind pose a threat to our hero and heroine. Nonso Anozie was underused (he’d have been a good choice for Conan himself as he can carry strong roles very well) as was Said Taghmaoui and the two characters made for disappointingly unconnected side kicks and stole whatever camaraderie might have bonded them to Conan in a believable way.
The whole foundation of the thing is a complete muddle, and misdirected to boot, and that throws some very good potential under the bus and results in a movie that is too long with not enough happening and all the focus in the wrong areas. The fight scenes, though truly exceptional and with one especially beautiful Harryhausenesque VFX sequence, are so unending and out of context with the momentum of the film that they become tiresome and unrewarding. I'm reminded of something Shane Black said about action needing to really drive the plot and reveal the characters, not just sit aside from the two. Never a truer word spoken as far as I'm concerned and the meat of the problem in this movie adaptation.
Overall it’s a tragedy of ultimately rushed development, script doctored hastily during production and not quite reaching the dizzy heights it was aiming for with it's budget. I could have totally loved this film, I really could. I found a fair amount to like in it but I mostly wanted to take it straight back to an edit suite to see if it could at least be put together better than it has been, and really I just wanted to re-shoot it from scratch and fulfil all that unreached potential I saw in it.
All in all, while I’m glad I did see this film and that I found it just about well made and interesting enough to stick through to the end, I think I’ll be remaining loyal to the joyously cheesy Arnold Schwarzenegger version of the Conan tales from now on, which despite their camp humour and slightly rubbery snake scene, had believable plot that worked well and built momentum, had majesty and mythos to it, and on that strongly scripted foundation gave us true chemistry between likeable characters, and done simply, without fuss or deviation from the storytelling. And that’s why those films will last on and be loved long after this ‘re-imagining’ has been forgotten. I'm sad Jason Momoa won’t get the kind of springboard from this that Arnold got in his time.. I don't think he deserved a flop. Never mind Jason, you were great in Game of Thrones!
Me.. well, in the back of my head, Conan the Barbarian didn't utterly disappoint but didn't make the grade either and is on my list of things I’d like to re-make properly whenever someone would like to give me the job. :)