Conan The Barbarian – Film Review

Will he slay you? He’ll have a bloody good go…


Release Date: 24 August 2011
15 | 112 minutes
Distributor: Lionsgate UK
Director: Marcus Nispel
Cast: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Nonso Anozie

“Wo-man! Come here!” grunts Jason Momoa’s Cimmerian barbarian at one point during this sword ’n’ sorcery fantasy update. This elicited a wave of titters from the audience who watched the film with SFX. The weird thing, however, is that they were uncertain titters. Was it supposed to be a funny line? It didn’t seem to be intended as such, as it was delivered as seriously as every other line in this action romp. And that, right there, is a bit of a problem…

The 1982 version of Conan The Barbarian is looked on as a classic not because it’s any good – it isn’t – but because it told a ridiculous, cheesy story with all the gravitas of Tolstoy’s War And Peace. To put it bluntly, it was so po-faced it was bleedin’ hilarious. The 2011 model of Conan The Barbarian has retained this, again delivering a film that takes itself so seriously it’s in danger of slipping into self-parody.

But what worked in 1982 might not work in the 21st century, when we like our heroes to wisecrack and snark, to understand irony and occasionally acknowledge how daft their actions are. Director Marcus Nispel has taken a huge gamble by keeping his Conan mostly humour-free, refusing to tip a nod and a wink at a crowd who may have turned up at the cinema expecting a little more than almost two hours of slaughter and carnage. While the spirit of the film is reasonably in keeping with Robert E Howard’s much-loved tales, it may fail to click with an audience who demand more from a lead character than the ability to swing a sword and frown a lot.

That said, when it comes to swinging a sword and frowning a lot, you can’t deny that Momoa is pretty good at it. He’s certainly a better actor than Schwarzenegger ever was, and his fight scenes are suitably epic. The main problem is that there are just too many of them: by the end of the movie you’ve heard so many soldiers going “Rawwrrgh!” before being dispatched in an explosion of gore that you’ll be seeing them in your dreams for weeks.

Forget the carnage: what of the story? It riffs off the plot of the original film, with young Conan (who this time is born on the battlefield, cut from his wounded mother’s belly by a father who somehow knows how to perform a Caesarian one-handed and without looking) witnessing the destruction of his village and the death of his dad before embarking upon a lifetime of revenge. As his dear pa, Ron Perlman sports a beard that resembles Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones tentacles in Pirates Of The Caribbean, so it’s hard to take him seriously even though, as always, Perlman gives his all. Leo Howard deserves a mention as a kick-ass little Conan, while Avatar’s Stephen Lang is effectively menacing as barbarian-killing warlord Khalar Zym. Conan also encounters a warrior monk in the shapely form of Rachel Nichols, who gives good scream when required (quite a lot), and former Charmed witch Rose McGowan rounds off the cast as another witch, Marique, who staggers around on platform heels and generally oozes goth-witchery like she’s having the time of her life.

It’s a good cast and they work hard with what little material they have -particularly Momoa, who seems to have been born for this role. Sadly, though, there’s absolutely nothing in the story you haven’t seen before, with not a hint of a twist or a surprise along the way – barring one gut-wrenching moment involving a missing nose that we won’t spoil for you (if you’re squeamish, take a sick bag).

In all fairness, the Conan stories have been copied, adapted and parodied ever since Howard first unleashed his Cimmerian on the world in 1932,  so you have to bear that in mind – it’s hard to look original when you’re working with such well-known material. Screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood (the first two responsible for the unfortunate A Sound Of Thunder, the latter for the awkward Halloween: Resurrection) have done a fairly decent job keeping Conan Conan, for the most part. For that they deserve some kudos.

The design of the film is pleasing, too, with CGI cities looking like Lord Of The Rings cast-offs, while some shots imitate Frank Franzetta’s iconic Conan paintings. The Hyborian world is commendably gritty and visceral, a style director Nispel honed to the max in the risible Pathfinder in 2007 (at least it was good for something). And, over-abundance of fight scenes and a totally superfluous tentacle monster aside, the film zips along nicely.

So is Conan The 21st-Century Barbarian worth going to see? We’d say yes. As a fantasy movie it hits all the right notes, dripping with guts, gore and familiar tropes; it’s certainly not a film you have to concentrate on following. If that’s your thing, you’ll love it. If you want something a little subtler or postmodern, however… boy, are you in the wrong place. Although the film is called Conan The Barbarian. If you expected a many-levelled psychological drama, it’s not like you weren’t warned.

Jayne Nelson