Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Here’s the thing: Jason Momoa is great as Conan. And the movie captures the heart and drive of Howard more often than it does not. When it does not, it’s because it slacks off into unoriginal, derivative sword-and-sorcery material that undercuts the movie’s own strengths.

But it does get more things right than not. Jason Momoa, I say again, is excellent. And not just him. Ron Perlman, Leo Howard (already catching high fives for his work here), and Rachel Nichols are fine, as well. There is real chemistry between Momoa and Nichols that adds an undercurrent to their scenes together. And Stephen Lang and Rose McGowan do well with what they’re given, too. I ached to have more about all of these characters, to have dialogue that was not on the nose, and that hinted at more inside these people. These are characters wanting to do more in this story.

It’s certain that the young men who wrote this script tried their best to bring Robert E. Howard to the screen; I lost count, for example, of the allusions made in the dialogue to this or that bit of trivia in the Conan canon. The problem, I surmise, is that we have sincere young men who have grown up in an environment in which derivative, mundane, mainstreamed sword-and-sorcery is commonplace, and so what sets Howard and Conan apart has been buried under tons of baloney barbarianism. Conan by this time, as a character, as a concept, is nearly as generic as Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan. The problem, though, is that the character, as created by Robert E. Howard, isn’t sufficiently familiar to the public, which time and again has been presented with a one-dimensional cartoon version of Conan. Jason Momoa goes back to the source material; his Conan is a tough, shrewd, pantherish, intelligent young man born to fight. This is Conan. It is the young Conan of Robert E. Howard, and it works. What critics don’t get—and this is what I mean by Conan’s not being sufficiently familiar to the public—is evident in the complaint made by many that Conan in this movie is so tough and brutal that he can’t be distinguished from the bad guys. Think of it: Howard was making precisely that point in his stories, that Conan is not a conventionally good character, that he is a fighter and a survivor in a brutal world. Howard was writing in the Depression, when popular fiction was full of many such unconventional protagonists, characters that succeeded with audiences precisely because they were not conventionally good. Conventionally good people had been kicked to the curb by the stock market crash, and popular fiction characters who were tough, morally ambiguous, thought for themselves, and stayed barely inside the lines meant a lot to a certain audience of readers. These types are no longer a novelty; we have had so many Dirty Harry pictures and spaghetti Westerns and cable series such as The Sopranos and Deadwood that you would think that the bright critics, at least, would get it.

I think the reason they don’t, or one of the reasons they don’t, is because Conan the Barbarian is honest about its primitivism, its deep emotions and ambitions, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. This movie is about people who wear swords and armor, when they wear any clothes at all, in an ancient world, doing what needs to be done without the pretense of their being noble Romans or proud Spartans, let alone being complexly motivated sheriffs or morally ambiguous detectives. (The lack of clothes has something to do with it; nakedness equals naked emotions and honesty—that is, the character can’t hide beneath a suit and tie or under a ten-gallon hat. This nakedness, in all aspects, makes many audiences and critics uncomfortable, I think.) In any event, this honesty is apparently still too much for early 21st century Americans, who prefer to react to this movie the way Howard biographer and Conan completist L. Sprague de Camp did to the original stories: de Camp regarded Conan as a juvenile delinquent—comparable, in the 1950s, to, say, a gangsta or thug today. You could take some of de Camp’s “Oh, horrors! I get the vapors when I regard this barbarian juvenile delinquent!” sentiments and place them neatly into most of the current reviews of Marcus Nispel’s picture, and the insertions would be seamless. “Oh, horrors! There is blood and there are many grunts in this movie! I am getting the vapors!”

The baggage of generic sword-and-sorcery intrudes time and again in this picture, and it weighs the movie down. Many of the one-liners are lame. The thief character is a direct lift of the Tracey Walter Malak character in Conan the Destroyer: this was a weak character then, and it remains weak in this movie. A couple of times characters look up at the sky and, in despair or heartache, roar. This bit worked well the first time, when Christopher Reeve did it in Superman in 1978; it hasn’t worked since. Let’s everyone agree to drop it. Also, the conceit that the world is a battleground for good versus evil is trotted out without any necessity for it at all: why not just have two antagonists fighting each other? We don’t talk about good and evil when we make movies about the Spartans or about the Picts fighting the Romans. We do it with derivative sword-and-sorcery pictures, however, because we have been trained by the success of the Tolkein books, and its commercial inheritors, to regard fantasy melodramas as exercises in good versus evil. Howard was smarter than that; however, simultaneous interest in, and the subsequent popularity and success of, The Lord of the Rings and the Conan paperback book collections, beginning in the late 1960s, yoked these two entities together in the public mind under the banner Fantasy, and joined at the neck they remain. Look: Howard wrote men’s adventure stories with touches of true weirdness, which was sometimes very unsettling indeed, and thereby created a new type of fiction. Tolkein, a scholar and linguist, fabricated a fantasy milieu that drew upon Northern mythology. So his wizards and elves and munchkins are very much borrowed from the realm of fantasy and cultural mythology. 

That element of weirdness is lacking in this movie, but it wasn’t in the Schwarzenegger pictures, either, although the Milius movie wanted to go there in a few places. Too bad. On the page, such a leap into the abyss, such a hint of cosmic unease or supernatural menace, distinguishes some of the best sword-and-sorcery fiction from unoriginal or less imaginative stories because this element has its roots in a philosophy and is not simply a stylistic exercise.

To be honest, this movie felt to me as though there were two drafts of the script in contention with each other, and someone mooshed them together. The hypothetical stronger script has the opening about the Cimmerian village; this stronger script also would explain why the Stephen Lang character has a giant octopus monster under his castle—clearly, there is some connection between it and the monstrous mask he brings back to life and puts on his face. The stronger script would also be the one that slows down occasionally and lets the actors do what they want to do, which is to spend a quarter of a page or half a page once in a while talking to each other. The weaker script has the leaden one-liners (including the embarrassing “No man should live in chains,” which could have come directly from that goofy syndicated TV show of ten years ago or whenever it was), and it rushes things along. Still—as much as I like the opening, that wonderful sequence set in Cimmeria, it does feel as though it is from a different movie. If it were cut out, we could spend more time on the story proper, which is where this movie wants to be, with Conan as a young man adventuring in the world. 

The special effects are fine, although by the time we get to the ending, we are given another physically impossible, video game-derived set piece in which things fall and twist and crumble in blinding speed, reducing the characters to puppets acting out an adolescent fantasy. Conan deserves better than this. Remember the ending of Rob Roy? Nobody was jumping around trying to do fifteen things at once while dancing above a giant fiery cavern. Next time, resist the temptation to indulge the fanboys and instead give us a climax that adds to the characters and doesn’t reduce them to one-dimensional, reckless damned fools. 

One final gripe: the actors all pronounce Cimmeria as “Simmeria.” Damn it, I’m sure that it should be “Kimmeria.” And they pronounce Acheron as “Asheron.” Surely (or Churely) that “ch” is a “k” sound.

So with all of these complaints and nits being picked, is there anything good about the movie at all? There is—and it is the performances of Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols, as well as some of those scenes that must have been written in my hypothetical stronger draft of the script. The pirate ship scene is pure Howard and as enjoyable as anything he himself might have seen on the screen when he was a kid—in the silent movie version of The Sea Hawk, say, or Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate. Some of the background matte paintings, too, of glorious incandescent cities, have that misty throwback feel to earlier periods of filmmaking. The tug of war between Momoa and Nichols really transcends the barbarian bully versus spunky girl cliché: these two have chemistry together. Stephen Lang and even Rose McGowan, given the superficial material they have to work with, do well with it. We need to know more about Khalar Zym’s wife and why his feelings run so deep—these are not pleasant people, after all, and we need to understand them, particularly because he is a very powerful warlord of some sort, and how did he get that status?—but Lang does what he can with what he is given. It is another instance of my wanting the characters to have been able really to come to life, and the script held them back. And, of course, if the whole movie had been about Leo Howard and Ron Perlman and the Cimmerians, I would have been content with that. Their performances are wonderful. They do have stuff to work with, and they bring it home. 

And I keep coming back to Jason Momoa, who now owns this character. He nails it, he gets it, he is Conan. I say, lose the derivative, LOTR-inspired high-fantasy trappings and the imitative Hercules superficialities and, next time, we will get a stronger movie. You know how a lot of people liked the original X-Men but some critics thought it weak in spots? The sequel topped it, and then some. Please let’s see that happen with the second Conan movie.

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