Sunday, August 21, 2011

Film Reviews: 'Conan the Barbarian'

Blade of gory

Bloody ‘Barbarian’ is an uneven chairman of the sword

By Kyle Smith
New York Post
August 18, 2011

Within the span of a week, Rick Perry begins to run for president and the remake of “Conan the Barbarian” hits theaters. Coincidence? Or natural running mates?

The original “Conan” was a sloppy, grandiose, unforgivable muckbath directed by the (I say the words lovingly) right-wing maniac John Milius. I watched it about four times to make sure it had no redeeming qualities. The reboot (re-sandal?) isn’t good either, exactly. But it has a certain commitment to its cause, and by that I mean it supplies the necessary flayings, slayings, beheadings and, um, a be-nose-ing, all of it dancing to the tune of those amusingly stilted He-Man declaratives — King James Bible cadences applied to comic-book visions. It knows it’s a B movie, and gets on with it.

Conan 2.0 begins with nearly a half-hour of the story of l’il Conan (Leo Howard), a boy born in battlefield carnage. As Mom falls, Dad (Ron Perlman, clad in what appears to be an entire yak) conducts a field-expedient C-section on Mom, whose last glimpse is of her man-child. And Conan? “His first taste was of his mother’s blood.”

As a man, Conan (now played by Jason Momoa, Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones,” whose Eddie Van Halen curls seem to glisten with detangling product), seeks vengeance on the evil lord Zym (Stephen Lang, the “Avatar” villain). Zym, joined by his witch daughter (an effectively creepy Rose McGowan, looking like the child of Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen and her ex-boyfriend, Marilyn Manson), will achieve ultimate power via a magic mask moistened with the pure blood of the descendant (Rachel Nichols) of the ancient sorcerers. Disappointingly, her name is, um, Tamara. As for Conan, his name is now pronounced like that of the ginger-haired talk-show host.

Tamara, the size of the average crossbow and the product of a literally cloistered upbringing, effortlessly slays hardened professional warriors on all sides until captured by Conan, who is a strict gentleman with her, and also frees some slaves out of a distaste for injustice. This is the kind of movie in which a dying murder victim murmurs, "I love you, son," instead of screaming, "Avenge me!"

Such liberal-arts-campus gesturing (the screenwriters attended Brown, Vassar and Northwestern, respectively) interferes with the flow. Conan is supposed to be a death-dealing Iron Age brute, not Abraham Lincoln. I was starting to wonder when OSHA inspectors would turn up to issue citations for unsanitary dungeon management.

And Momoa, beefy as he is, isn't really the right cut of meat for this part -- there's a little too much self-awareness glinting in his emerald irises. It would have been better to go with someone for whom speaking English does not come naturally. Like Arnold. Or Stallone.

But Conan does keep things roaring, using (for instance) a severed head as an ID card and slicing off a foe's nose (then jamming his finger in the crater). Director Marcus Nispel (who also remade both "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th") larks through piles of skeletons and frolics over bottomless pits of damnation. A couple of action scenes (such as a dull shipboard battle) are superfluous, and choppy editing mars many of them. Also, some nifty plot ideas -- such as cool dust monsters that the witch raises at will -- aren't well thought out. If these monsters are so invincible, why do the villains stop using them? Moreover, the good characters are way too bland compared to the much more interesting dual evildoers.

But deploying Morgan Freeman as the narrator is a witty touch (given that the original co-starred the previous godhead of narration, James Earl Jones). And you can't underestimate the vitality of a movie where manly men give orders such as, "We will cast our rivals into oceans of blood." Then there is this classic: "I live. I love. I slay. And I am content."

The presence of that line almost made me forgive the writers for omitting the classic motto of the original, a remark that begged to be repeated with gusto in the remake. What is best in life? Why, it's "to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women." Hear hear, and pass the grog.

Keep Hold of Your Head, Lest He Lop It Off With the Others

The New York Times
Published: August 18, 2011

A heavy-metal fantasia scrawled in red, “Conan the Barbarian” now comes with 75 percent more gore. That’s only an estimate, though to judge by the gruesome opener that features the title character as a boy gouging enemy flesh and lopping off heads, it’s a fair guess. Having entered a forest for a newbie warrior rite of passage, baby Conan (Leo Howard) has returned to his village and its leader, his brawny, bushy father (Ron Perlman, surprise), splattered in blood and dangling several severed heads from his wee mitts. They look like grotesque puppets or maybe yo-yos, but, really, they’re just playthings for a growing barbarian.

Soon after, Conan’s father and people are slaughtered, leaving him a boy with an ax to grind, a sword to wield, a destiny to fulfill, a franchise to revive. By the time the boy is a man, he has transformed into a luxury cut of beef played and often posed by Jason Momoa, a he-man with a glamour girl’s flowing mane and a chiseled chest with even less fur than a hairless Chihuahua. Mr. Momoa will be familiar to fans of the HBO show “Game of Thrones” as Khal Drogo, a ponytailed, clothing-optional warrior leader. In “Conan” Mr. Momoa doesn’t wear a ponytail, but he does flash plenty of flesh on his way to a showdown with a crazed warlord, Khalar Zym (a fine Stephen Lang), and Zym’s spawn, Marique (Rose McGowan).

The film, tarted up with 3-D and introduced in voice-over by an understandably uncredited Morgan Freeman, is partly an origin story and partly proto-mythopoetic men’s movement gibberish involving good versus evil, the usual swords, sorcery and flagrantly bulgy masculinity. The original Conan was created by Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), a bullied Texan turned bodybuilder and fantasy writer whose Conan stories were published, starting in 1932, in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. In the decades following Howard’s death (he shot himself after hearing that his ailing mother had slipped into a coma), the Conan universe grew to include books written by Howard imitators, comics and two movies starring the bodybuilder turned governator of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Momoa has some awfully big biceps to fill.

He rises to that task with a pumped physique made for ogling. Thankfully, he also shows glints of self-awareness that can make hypermasculine blowouts like these more watchable and were largely missing from Mr. Schwarzenegger’s wide-eyed turn in the first “Conan the Barbarian” (1982). That film, directed by John Milius from an Oliver Stone screenplay that Mr. Milius retooled, opens with a quotation from Nietzsche and grows more lugubriously overblown from there, despite some freaky sex and Conan clocking a camel. The new movie, directed by Marcus Nispel from a script by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, is less intellectually overweening: Instead of a slave who becomes his own master, as in Mr. Milius’s flick, this Conan runs off to a dude’s own adventure, pirating included.

Mr. Nispel, whose résumé includes a few other slick redos, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” doesn’t add anything obviously personal to this “Conan,” which was probably just what the producers ordered. What he does bring is the gore and plenty of it (those severed heads are simply the sanguineous beginning) as well as some wit and surprisingly O.K. performances, Mr. Lang’s unsmiling turn being the standout. Although meticulously kitted out in fetish boots and a shaved head, Ms. McGowan registers less like a dominatrix of doom and more like a Bjork-inspired pinup, her press-on metal claws drawing fatal lines and laughs. She’s pretty and pretty ridiculous, but the digital sandmen her character summons up to fight Conan, which burst out of the ground like rockets and explode into dust, are nifty.

“Conan the Barbarian” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Lots of death and a little sex.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Marcus Nispel; written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; director of photography, Thomas Kloss; edited by Ken Blackwell; music by Tyler Bates; production design by Chris August; costumes by Wendy Partridge; produced by Fredrik Malmberg, Boaz Davidson, Joe Gatta, Danny Lerner, John Baldecchi, Les Weldon and Henry Winterstern; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

WITH: Jason Momoa (Conan), Rachel Nichols (Tamara), Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym), Rose McGowan (Marique), Saïd Taghmaoui (Ela-Shan), Leo Howard (Young Conan), Ron Perlman (Corin), Steve O’Donnell (Lucius), Raad Rawi (Fassir), Nonso Anozie (Artus), Bob Sapp (Ukafa) and Milton Welsh (Remo).

When We Need Our Barbarians

From pulp to Arnold to modern day, a history of Conan the Barbarian

By Brian Phillips

The most famous photograph of Robert E. Howard shows him looming like a gangster: suspicious eyes under a white fedora, tough mouth over a sharp suit. It's a face that belongs on the cover of a crime pulp — maybe Black Mask, in which Dashiell Hammett serialized The Maltese Falcon in 1929, or Spicy Detective, which launched in the year the photo was taken, 1934. You look at the picture and think of cops, mobsters, speakeasies, tommy guns, and gang molls. It's startling to realize that Howard, who was one of the greatest pulp writers of his era, did his best work for the fantasy-horrory Weird Tales, in which he published 17 stories about his most enduring creation, Conan the Barbarian, between 1932 and 1936.

But then Conan was always a sort of American jumble. Howard spent his whole life in West Texas, most of it in a tiny oil-boom outpost called Cross Plains, and he forged his hero's character by combining "various prize-fighters, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers and honest workmen I had come in contact with." Conan's birthplace, the shadowy land of Cimmeria, was suggested by the Texas landscape. Howard populated the rest of his Hyborian Age not with European history and folklore — the airbrushed post-Tolkien world of castles and elves and dragons — but with weird shards from his own peculiar obsessions. He mixed Southern tall tales with occult legends, Greek myths, ancient empires, Cossacks, cowboys, Indians, and Huns. Even in the mongrel world of the pulps, this was something else — the fantasy kingdom as 12th century melting pot.

Given these singular origins, it's a little remarkable that Howard's grim-visaged, bronze-muscled barbarian has proved so lastingly popular. Conan has spawned — in addition to the new movie, out today in 3-D — cartoons (Conan the Adventurer, Conan and the Young Warriors), comic books (including the classic Savage Sword of Conan, which ran for 235 issues starting in 1974), TV series, fiction by writers ranging from Poul Anderson to Robert Jordan, at least seven video games (including the massively multiplayer Age of Conan, which bills itself as "the sexiest and most savage MMO in the world"), and, of course, the two 1980s blockbusters that launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and made a generation of suburban kids dream about crushing their enemies, seeing them driven before them, and hearing the lamentations of their women (whatever those sounded like).

As with Sherlock Holmes, Batman, and James Bond, every generation seems to get the Conan it wants. The question is why we want Conan at all. Howard's stories, written at the jolting speed of most pulp fiction, lack the deep-focus world-building of The Lord of the Rings, the poised cynicism of Michael Moorcock's Elric saga, and even the complex recurring cast of A Song of Ice and Fire. So what is it about this moody, shirt-optional relic of Depression-era fantasy that makes us keep the franchise fires burning?

"The Tower of the Elephant" (1933), which was the third Conan story Howard published in Weird Tales, is set in Arenjun, the "city of thieves" in the exotic, gypsy-like kingdom of Zamora. The young Conan goes to the tower of the sadistic sorcerer Yara to steal the Heart of the Elephant, a magic gem that sustains Yara's power. After sneaking into the tower, an adventure that includes poisoning multiple lions, Conan encounters a terrifying creature: a blind, chained prisoner with the head of an elephant and limbs ruined by torture. The broken thing explains to Conan that he belonged to a group of aliens that settled on the earth millennia ago; now he has been tricked by Yara into giving up his power. At the creature's request, Conan kills him, cuts out his heart, bathes the magic jewel in his blood, and uses the jewel to trap Yara. As the barbarian walks away at the end of the story, the tower shatters and collapses to the ground behind him.

There's an awesomeness quotient here that accounts for a part of the story's success. But what's really striking is how grim "The Tower of the Elephant" is. In sharp contrast to most heroic fantasy, there's no overriding moral order, no dichotomy of good vs. evil, no trustworthy authority that makes everything make sense. Yara is evil, but Conan is a thief, and the elephant creature is simply unfathomable. The world — and this is common to all the Conan stories — is essentially an anarchy of situations; what happens just happens, with no final judgment or possibility of redemption. You climb a tower, you discover a gruesomely tortured elephant-headed alien, you cut its heart out. Maybe you decide to get revenge on its behalf. On to the next adventure.

What's the appeal of all this? The Lord of the Rings was the perfect fantasy for WWII-era Europe, the story of an external evil defeated by a courageous alliance. The Conan stories address a more insidious threat, the decay of civilization from within. Science fiction and the western took opposite tacks to create frontier adventures for a world with no more frontiers; Howard created a sort of nightmare inversion of both, a world in which the ragged edge of civilization is always rolling backward. "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind," he wrote in the Conan story "Beyond the Black River." "Civilization is unnatural. … And barbarism must always ultimately triumph." It wasn't a cheerful form of escapism — Howard killed himself with a gunshot to the head in 1936, when he was 30 years old — but it was weirdly suited to a Depression America whose guiding institutions were widely perceived to have failed.

What's more, it was an easily updatable vision. You can see this in the construction of Conan the Barbarian, the first of the Schwarzenegger Conans, which was released in 1982. An early draft of the screenplay was by Oliver Stone, whose nose for American collapse was already unerringly strong. The director, John Milius, was also the screenwriter who had penned both "Go ahead, make my day" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." His post-Vietnam, Cold War-ready Conan battles flower-waving hippies and drone-like cultists, a solo Republican wreaking havoc in a world where the socialists have won. "Feels like a sequel to Red Dawn," I jotted in my notes when I rewatched the film recently. Later I realized that Red Dawn was Milius' next movie.

We can take this further. Milius was the Coen Brothers' inspiration for Walter Sobchak, and Conan is clearly the epic Walter would have made if he'd been given $50 million. That's not just because half the dialogue could fit in The Big Lebowski — "a couple of years ago they were just another snake cult" — or because, at one point, Schwarzenegger punches a camel in the face. It's also because, like Walter, the film is confused and alienated by the direction of American culture and has nothing to fall back on but the bogus dream of a warrior ethic, a hyper-Nietzschean cartoon of actualization through violence. Walter throws a bowling ball at a nihilist; Conan chops off James Earl Jones' head.

The Conan franchise didn't succeed in spite of its tie to Depression-era Texas. It succeeded because of it. Its beginnings in Howard's tough, weird environment let it build, and then continually renovate, an awesome story around a strain of American neurosis — the idea that civil society is about to collapse, and then it's just you and the road and your sword. That's a fantasy that tends to spring up in hard times, obviously, when cultural decline is combined with a suspicion of collective action. It's probably unrealistic to hope that the new Conan will justify itself in terms of the debt-ceiling deal. But either way, Howard's sullen killing machine, with his "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth," will keep winding his bizarre path through American history. Case in point: President Barack Obama collects the comic books.

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