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Conan the Barbarian (2011): Solid Redux

By Ryan Mason · August 22, 2011

When remembering the Arnold Schwarzenegger career-making original, only a couple things come to mind: that awesome score, and that opening of Conan in silhouette sitting on his throne as the narrator set the scene for John Milius’ swords-and-sorcery saga. I think James Earl Jones was in there along with plenty of Arnold’s goofy wide-eyed stares as he sliced into some poor, vanquished foes. Maybe some bizarre beast at the end inside a palace? And Arnold fighting through a bunch of mirrors? Or was that the sequel?

Either way, in a world where Hollywood remakes just about everything, Conan the Barbarian is one property that could handle an update more so than, perhaps, the not-yet-a-decade-old Spider-Man. Like the recent Clash of the Titans redux, Conan will come with its share of fans of the original who will study this with a scrutinous eye. For the average viewer though, the question remains: how does this fare on its own? Surprisingly, not so bad.

Look, Conan delivers exactly what it’s selling: an action-packed, bloody battle-fest with a solid lead in Jason Momoa as Conan, an enlightened tough-yet-gorgeous Rachel Nichols as Tamara, and another villainous turn by Stephen Lang as the evil Khalar Zym. It’s a guys’ flick, replete with unlikely-modern buxom babes sans clothing, Red Shoe Diaries-style medieval sex, and enough carnage and adventure to keep even the worst ADHD-addled viewer reasonably entertained for nearly two hours. And thankfully for the rest of us, director Marcus Nispel (Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) manages to slow things down just a touch (bringing it down from 11 to 9 on the Spinal Tap scale) for screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood to toss in a handful of character development to keep things from being simply a visual feast with zero substance.

Conan 2K11 starts out like a knockoff of Lord of the Rings, substituting the rings strewn about the kingdom – one per tribe – with the fragments of an evil mask of bones that, once all together, give the wearer of the mask unmatched power over the whole land. Naturally, we pick up the story when there’s only one bone left to find and it’s hidden in young Conan’s homeland of Cimmeria. Although instead of becoming an epic road trip to destroy the bone and save all of Hyboria a la Frodo and Samwise, Zym gets the bone with the help of his witch-daughter Marique (played later by Rose McGowan) and slaughters the entire village including Conan’s father (the fantastic Ron Perlman), leaving the movie essentially a one-man-against-the-world revenge tale as Conan only has one thing on his mind: avenging his father’s death. By the time that Conan has grown into the hulking behemoth that is Jason Momoa, Zym has evolved from a run-of-the mill power-hungry warlord into a full-on demigod.

Speaking of Momoa, he ably steps into the familiar loincloths of Conan after his turn as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. It remains to be seen if he has any range outside of medieval period pieces, but if not, he’s found his niche as the genre continues to gain steam. I’d like to see him pull a Schwarzenegger and do what The Rock never quite managed to pull off: become a legit action star, as Momoa has the chops and charisma; his Conan is rough around the edges – I mean, he is a barbarian after all – but always likeable.

The rest of the cast is fine, too, including Rachel Nichols as Conan’s love interest. She’s the damsel-in-distress, but manages to exude enough modern-woman strength so as to not be simply a pretty face needing a man to save her. What made it really work, though, was Stephen Lang as Conan’s ultimate foe, who exudes just the right amount of evil shadow lord megalomaniacal over-the-toppery without actually going completely over the top. Either he’s learned how to harness his wicked scowl and gruff growl from the absurdity he showcased in Avatar, or Marcus Nispel did a better job reining him in than James “I’m the King of the World” Cameron. (For the record, no, I don’t think Nispel is a better director than Cameron.)

What nearly tanks the film, however, is the 3D. In a word: atrocious. There’s literally no reason for this movie to be in 3D other than to pilfer more coin from our already recession-depleted pockets. It’s so bad that it’s practically false advertising to be labeling it as such. I’ve been a vocal opponent to the 3D craze even though I’ve been pleasantly surprised lately by other genre fare like Final Destination 5; sadly, Conan couldn’t continue the hot streak. It’s evident that they didn’t bother shooting this in 3D and only later added it in post because there just weren’t many moments at all that even lent themselves to being accentuated by the third dimension. And the few times that would’ve made for eye-popping 3D fun were squandered, like when a flaming rock rolls through a village at the camera – did it pop out like it was going to run all of us over in the theater? Nope, not even close. And with all the swordplay, you’d think that we’d be dodging the swings and jabs of the blade along with the characters, but it never happens. Mainly the 3D just adds depth to the scenery, but even then it’s extremely subtle. And Conan the Barbarian isn’t a movie that has any business doing anything with a subtle touch.

But, the real failure of the 3D is that it made the film so unnecessarily dark. 3D already cuts down the amount of light in the projection as it is, but this was absurd. More than once I pulled the glasses up so I could see the screen better because it was so dark that I couldn’t tell what was going on through the thick lenses. And usually when you do that, it’s worse because then you’re seeing double-images from the 3D elements, but most of the time I didn’t even see that because there were no 3D elements! Total fail in the technology department on this one, meaning, if you’re going to venture into theaters for this fable, be sure to see it in 2D or not at all.