Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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Conan the Barbarian 2011Starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard

Directed by Marcus Nispel

In the interest of full disclosure, I will go ahead and say that I’m not exactly well versed in the vast mythology created by writer Robert E. Howard for his character of Conan the Barbarian, a noted figure in pop culture who still resonates with fans worldwide even after 80 years. Sure, I’ve seen the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie with Arnie Schwarzenegger as well as the follow-up, Conan the Destroyer, and one of my mom’s old boyfriends introduced me as a kid to the bold artwork created by legendary artist Frank Frazetta that celebrated the iconic Cimmerian warrior, but beyond that I don’t really know much about what Howard’s original Conan short story collection entailed.

That being said, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from director Marcus Nispel’s reboot of the Conan franchise except that Jason Momoa, who was set to step into the titular character’s shoes, was definitely easy on the eyes and that the movie was shot in 3D.

I went into Conan the Barbarian completely in the dark as to what to expect (Was it another sequel? Was it a reboot?) and found it to be an epic, balls-out action flick that is by far the most brutal and violent film of the entire summer. It has a decent story at its core, and while it isn’t absolute perfection, I did find myself entertained throughout most of Conan the Barbarian, even if the flick does run about 15 minutes too long.

At the beginning of Conan the Barbarian, we are introduced to our protagonist’s parents in the midst of an epic confrontation on the battlefield. Nine months pregnant and still kicking ass, Conan’s mother gives birth to the future warrior basically in the trenches while bodies are dropping right and left of her moments before she dies. Left to be raised by his loyal father, Corin (Perlman), young Conan (played by Howard) displays very early on in his childhood that he’s destined for greatness as a barbarian. He’s more of a warrior than many of the men in the village twice his own age (wait ’til you see what happens when the young Conan faces off against a pack of savage tribesman who try to attack his village), and his skills with a sword are only outshone by his eagerness to fight anyone who happens to be around.

One day Cimmeria is ambushed by malicious warlord Khalar Zym (Lang), who is on a quest to retrieve the last missing piece of the Mask of Acheron in his effort to gain absolute power over the world of Hyboria. After conquering most of the villagers of Cimmeria, Zym, his sorceress daughter, Marique (McGowan), and his henchmen corner Corin and his progeny in their home and force the willful leader to give up the piece of the mask or see his son and the rest of his people destroyed. Corin makes the ultimate sacrifice since he knows Conan’s future as a fierce warrior leader had already been ordained, and the young barbarian is left a vengeful orphan looking to even the score with Zym.

The film transitions to a few years later, when we meet a much older Conan (Momoa), who has been traveling the vast landscapes of Hyboria looking for his Zym. Along his journey Conan’s quest for revenge soon turns into an epic sword-clanking showdown against Zym and Marique as the maniacal warlord finally locates the last “pureblood,” a descendant of Acheron whose blood holds the key to Zym’s plans for immortality and power over the world around him.

It’s during this showdown at a remote monastery that Conan learns that the last pureblood happens to be Tamara (Nichols), a young monastery student and martial arts expert that starts off as Conan’s rescuee and eventually evolves into both his love interest and fellow ass-kicker in the film’s third act. Because once the lethal father/daughter team of Zym and Marique begin the ritual to invoke the power of the Mask of Acheron, Conan needs Tamara and her abilities to level the playing field.

As someone with very little expectations going into Conan the Barbarian, I found myself both entertained and continuously surprised by how much I continued to enjoy myself throughout the film as a whole.

Director Nispel has built quite a reputation as the “Remake King” with previous efforts Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for Platinum Dunes, but with Conan he proves that it is possible to maintain a respectful balance between homage and reinvention, and perhaps the missteps in his previous reimagingings may have had more to do with Platinum Dunes than his efforts at the helm.

In Conan Nispel has done a masterful job of creating a gritty and realistic world that feels more like a documentary than a fantasy film, and I applaud his approach of shooting practically rather than relying on green screen studios, which would have been far easier to do than filming in Bulgaria over several months. That extra mile pays off and gives Conan a sort of “historical documentary” feel that blends well with the fantastical aspects of the story.

For those of you who grew up loving the original Schwarzenegger films, you’ll be pleased to know that this version of Conan the Barbarian doesn’t really feel like Nispel was trying to remake those classic films at all. In fact, fans of the original movies should experience a lot of what they want to see in a flick about their favorite barbarian but will also see that Nispel has managed to pack in quite a few surprises throughout Conan as well so that both long-time fans and newcomers alike should find the film a very satisfying experience.

The entire success of whether or not a Conan the Barbarian remake would actually work sat squarely on the (broad) shoulders of star Momoa, and he proves here with his portrayal as the Cimmerian warrior out to destroy Zym and his plans for world domination that he’s most definitely a natural on the big screen.

A hulking presence that exudes both unbridled energy and a bravado riddled with confidence, Momoa also demonstrates with his performance in Conan the Barbarian that he’s a worthy heir to Schwarzenegger’s throne and delivers a performance that should no doubt turn some heads in Hollywood. Personally, I know I’d show up to see Momoa again if his plans for a Conan sequel go through because I thoroughly enjoyed the thought and energy put into this project. Momoa not only looks like he was born with a sword in his hand, but he is also poised to be the next action star once this film hits theaters everywhere on Friday.

What also impressed me about Conan the Barbarian were the female characters. At its core Conan is very much a testosterone-fueled action film, but both leading ladies, Nichols and McGowan, don’t shirk away from kicking a little ass themselves. Nichols goes into full combat mode during several sequences, and McGowan’s approach is a little bit more subversive; she uses a snake-like approach during battle that turns out to be just as lethal as a full-on sword fight would ever be.

As Tamara, Nichols has great chemistry with Conan star Momoa and builds on her impressive action-heavy resume after her recent roles in flicks like GI Joe and Star Trek. McGowan, who still remains one of my favorite actresses to come out of the 90s, once again delivers a delightfully wicked performance as Marique that often borderlined an homage to Freddy Krueger himself. McGowan is a solid actress when she’s playing a good girl, but I always enjoy her more when she’s playing the bad girl, and in Conan she’s never been more fiendish or more entertaining.

The look of Conan the Barbarian itself is pretty spectacular. While I’m not exactly sure if the film was shot in 3D or converted in post, but either way the 3D looks great, and I’m happy to report that Nispel and his crew rely heavily on practical effects and use CGI only minimally. In fact, I think Conan has the best looking blood I’ve seen in a 3D flick in a while, to the point where I’m honestly not sure whether or not they used blood gags or if Nispel has found a way to elevate the look of CG blood.

Another aspect I really enjoyed about Conan the Barbarian is that the movie is infused with a lot of horror genre homages throughout. There are little nods to The Mummy, zombies in general and the aforementioned Freddy Krueger as well as a few more that I’d rather not ruin for you if you’re planning to catch the flick this weekend. In terms of action and brutality, as mentioned above, Conan is by far the most violent film I’ve seen all year, and that only made it a better film-going experience for this writer.

Just to give you an idea of how balls out brutal the action is- if you tried to make a drinking game out of just the movie’s beheadings, you’d be drunk within the first 20 minutes and after the first hour, you’d probably be a sloshy heap of booze lying on the theater floor passed out cold with popcorn stuck to your face. If you’re a lover of insane action and gritty violence (like myself), Conan should definitely keep your attention throughout its 112-minute running time.

Speaking of running time, my one issue with Conan the Barbarian is that I felt like the film ran about 15 minutes too long, which sort of left me feeling a bit underwhelmed with the huge showdown between the titular character and Zym in the movie’s final act. If they could have trimmed a bit out of the rather meaty second act, perhaps I wouldn’t have found myself looking at my watch toward the end.

It’s been about 27 years since we’ve seen Conan on the big screen, and I can’t think of a better reintroduction for the iconic character to new audiences than Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian. The movie looks like a living Frank Frazetta painting brought to life by an incredibly talented group of actors and a gifted director at the helm that somehow managed to create one of the better straight-up action flicks of the year while still incorporating an engaging story that should no doubt prove entertaining to the masses.

Oh, and Momoa’s hotness factor certainly didn’t hurt either.

3 1/2 out of 5

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