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Empire Big Screen '11 Review: By Crom, 'Conan The Barbarian' Is Unbelievably Awful

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 16, 2011 10:00 AM
22 Comments
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For a good quarter of a century, since Arnie hung up his loincloth in 1984's "Conan The Destroyer," people have been trying to bring Robert E. Howard's pulp sword-and-sorcery hero back to the big screen, most notably in John Milius' unmade "King Conan," while The Wachowskis, Robert Rodriguez and Brett Ratner have also made various attempts at the material. Finally, he's returned for some rapin' and pillagin', thanks to Lionsgate and "Friday the 13th" director Marcus Nispel, with "Game of Thrones" star Jason Momoa as the Cimmerian. We caught the film's European premiere at Empire Big Screen tonight: was it worth the wait?

Emphatically, no. But we'll get to that in a moment. The film opens, after some scene-setting by the voice of Morgan Freeman, with l'il Conan being born in the heat of battle, removed via caesarean from his dying mother by his father (Ron Perlman, looking remarkably like an extra from "Battlefield Earth"). Soon he's left fatherless too, thanks to the efforts of bandit Zim (Stephen Lang), who's seeking to reunite the pieces of an evil mask, or something, in order to bring back his dead wife, a sorceress. A decade or so later, Conan has grown to Momoa-size, and is hunting Zim, now a feared warlord, who in turn is hunting a young monk (Rachel Nichols) who he believes holds the secret to his wife's resurrection.


Almost all of the stuff that works about Nispel's film is contained in that paragraph. Starting off your film with a shot of a womb being pierced by a sword from the inside is, at least, arresting. The villain is, at least, motivated by something other than wanting to rule the world (although he wants that too). And otherwise, Nonso Anozie ("Atonement") emerges the best out of the cast as the barbarian's best mate -- indeed, he would have made a far better Conan than Momoa, had anyone had the balls to cast him. So that's it. The small victories of "Conan the Barbarian," the 2011 edition. Because everything else is truly, truly awful.

Let's start with Momoa. We'd had some hope after his turn on "Game of Thrones" that the actor might at least stand out in the film, forgetting that he only spoke half-a-dozen words of English across ten episodes. He's fine at the sword-slinging, but delivery of dialogue? Not so much. And the rest of the cast aren't much better: Lang is on sneering villainous autopilot, reprising his "Avatar" turn with an unplaceable accent, while Rachel Nichols fails to give any personality to what is, in fairness, a role that's not so much underwritten as never-written. Worst of all is Rose McGowan, made up to look like a cross between Christina Ricci and an IMAX screen, and horrendously overplaying her part as Lang's sorceress daughter.

But it's not like you go to a Conan movie for the acting: you go to watch some heads being cleaved. Even there it falls short, however. It's not like there's a lack of action -- indeed, the film has little else, moving from battle to sword fight to battle to fight to battle to stagecoach chase to another sodding battle almost continuously, with little room to breathe inbetween, and with the end result being that you never care, because the stakes are never particularly high, and the wall to wall violence means that the pace feels glacial. Even the gore is disappointing, although it may be that we missed some of it thanks to the single worst, most impenetrably murky 3D conversion we've seen to date, resulting in much of the film's third act looking more like a display of shadow puppets than an actual movie.

Some of the blame has to go to the writers: the world is thin, the stakes are never clear (the characters don't change much from beginning to end), and what little dialogue there is (most of the film's noises are grunts and roars) includes gems like the Pythonesque exchange "I have a claim to you."/ "What?"/"Death!". But really, it's director Marcus Nispel who's got to take the hit here, something that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows his previous work. We could have forgiven the cheapness of the whole endeavor: the TV-level production values, the terrible CGI, the fact that virtually every scene seems to have been shot in the same Bulgarian wood. But what's really offensive is how anonymous it feels, and how entirely absent it is of anything approaching imagination or wit.

The director doesn't bring any of his music video chops here: it's thoroughly workmanlike stuff, and could have been made by anyone -- at least the original came from the barking mad John Milius, making it feel like something close to a passion project, rather than the paycheck gig this so obviously is for Nispel. The worst of it is how much he steals from other movies, and not even classics, but blockbusters from the last decade. The prologue, filling in back story, about a magical object being broken into many pieces and scattered around the world? "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (films that Nispel presumably loves, as he lifts from them multiple times). A mentor/mentee training fight on an icy lake? "Batman Begins." Fighting formless sand creatures? "Spider-Man 3." Yes, this is a film that rips off "Spider-Man 3." The fact that Nispel chose Morgan Freeman, of all people, to narrate is a good demonstration of the lack of imagination on hand.

There have been plenty of bad movies this year, but at least you feel that people were trying with, say, "Battle: Los Angeles" or "Sucker Punch" -- they didn't actually set out to make a bad movie. "Conan The Barbarian" just comes across as half-assed; a quick, cheap, cash-grab with nothing but contempt for its audience, something that would look shoddy even if it were the direct-to-DVD movie it so often resembles. And you should stay away from it like it was a horde of bandits coming to burn down your village. [F]

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22 Comments

  • Kull | August 18, 2011 7:51 AMReply

    It'd been so long since I last looked at the comments section of a post on this blog that I'd completely forgotten how wretched both the readers and staff can be toward one another.

  • JC | August 18, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    Whoever wrote this review your an idiot........... Go listen to your Paris Hilton music and suck more dick. Leave the reviews to people who like movies.

  • JC | August 17, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    Look, I see where you're coming from, but that's not the point. The details may be different but the essence of the character still remains. Conan in Milius' vision is still Howard's "noble savage" who sees through the hypocrisies and illusions of the so-called civilized world and represents the eventual triumph of the natural order. Empires and kingdoms will rise and fall but humanity will endure.

    I think some of the dissent regarding Milius' version stems from the fact that he drew from several different Howard characters to create the film's "Conan", including Bran Mak Morn and King Kull. Conan's backstory, for instance, seems to have been inspired by a Kull story wherein Kull states that he was once a galley slave and a gladiator.

    Anyway, the Wheel Of Pain scenes and the Pit Fighter montage are just so great that even if they represent complete desecrations of Howard, I'm still glad to be able to see them. : )

  • JC | August 17, 2011 5:22 AMReply

    I SAID....the character Conan in the 80s film incorporates elements of other Howard characters, so yes, it's NOT Howard's Conan. He IS a character who absolutely captures the essence of Howard's work and philosophy, and he's a perfectly sufficient VERSION of Conan. That's what an adaptation IS, it's creating a new work by synthesizing elements of a previous one (or several).

    And Milius' Conan may be IN the civilized world, but he's not OF it. It's too bad Milius' King Conan script never got made, where he explored all this a lot further....

    Anyway, I think you're forgetting a). The opening scene with Conan's father, the riddle of steel, and the death of his mother, which I suspect defines the character as much as any of the subsequent things you cited, and b). the Conan of the stories left Cimmeria, came to civilized lands thru his own curiousity, and quickly embraced as much of the civilized world as he could . Howard's Conan is a fairly canny individual looking to learn as much as he can, not this Queequeeg type primitive you seem to be describing....

  • Al Harron | August 17, 2011 3:38 AMReply

    "The details may be different but the essence of the character still remains. Conan in Milius’ vision is still Howard’s “noble savage” who sees through the hypocrisies and illusions of the so-called civilized world and represents the eventual triumph of the natural order. "

    How can Conan see the hypocrisies and illusions of the so-called civilized world when he's a direct product of them?

    He doesn't triumph through natural order, he triumphs because he's created and honed by civilization. He becomes strong because he's a slave forced into pushing a big wheel. He's a survivor because he's thrown into artificial fighting situations as a pit fighter. He's a great warrior because he's formally trained, disciplined and taught by civilized warriors. He becomes intelligent because he's educated with poetry and philosophy in a cage.

    Besides never seeing Conan directly comment on said hypocrisies and illusions (in fact, the only commentary I saw was Subotai's "so this is paradise" at Doom's orgy), if Conan really does feel that, then he's the greatest hypocrite and illusion of all, since his entire being is formed by the efforts of civilization. Perhaps his barbaric youth meant he was hardier and tougher than others, but that doesn't change the fact that adult Conan is completely defined by civilized men.

    It's harder to get further from Howard's Conan than that. But perhaps we're just going to have to agree to disagree.

  • Al Harron | August 17, 2011 2:32 AMReply

    "I think Milius’ and Arnold’s Conan (and Oliver Stone’s, let us remember), remains the best Robert E. Howard adaptation, and actually does capture the spirit of his writing and the Conan stories very well.Yes, Milius’ Conan isn’t precisely Howard’s Conan, but that’s all right; a good adaptation doesn’t have to be. Robert Aldrich’s Mike Hammer wasn’t purely Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, for instance, and the Coen’s Mattie Ross was different from Charles Portis’."

    If you can't see the massive difference in degree with what was done with Mike Hammer and Mattie Ross, and what was done with Conan, then I'm afraid I can't say anything else. When you have a character who is defined by the fact he was raised free in a harsh land outside the bounds of civilization with only his wits and guts to help him, and decide to turn him into a *civilized slave* who's formally tutored by professionals and forced to push a wheel for twenty years, then you haven't just made him "not precisely Howard's Conan," you've made him practically an inversion of Howard's Conan.

  • alan | August 16, 2011 11:31 AMReply

    julie,

    giving a negative review doesn't deprive anybody of credibility. having bad taste, like you, coupled with being a fucking idiot, does deprive you of credibility.

    fuck off,
    alan

  • julie | August 16, 2011 10:57 AMReply

    I'm going on record here. I went to the Premier at LA Live last Thur, I had low expectations and came out of it happily surprised. This was a good story, good directing, acting, IT"S CONAN, NOT A DANGEROUS METHOD. I enjoyed the action battles, which were bloody and fun. There were funny moments, mostly from Conan himself..

    I take issue with a big point, Conan himself. The marketing team forgot what makes a film like Expendables/Conan exceed expectations at the B.O,. the female audience. WOMEN LOVE MEN WITH HOT BODIES. (Don't forget us) .



    Regarding everyone slamming Conan in 3D, I watched Harry Potter in 3D to me it was not necessay ... nor is Conan but it was fun to see snowflakes and heads come at you ... ,

    so in the end .. Please stick to just giving us information on projects - Your opinion, though interesting to you, makes you looks less credible. (Think before you write)

  • The Playlist | August 15, 2011 11:49 AMReply

    @P862010

    To say we only like Art House films is to say you know punctuation and how to write proper sentences.

  • JC | August 15, 2011 11:40 AMReply

    I think Milius' and Arnold's Conan (and Oliver Stone's, let us remember), remains the best Robert E. Howard adaptation, and actually does capture the spirit of his writing and the Conan stories very well. Yes, Milius' Conan isn't precisely Howard's Conan, but that's all right; a good adaptation doesn't have to be. Robert Aldrich's Mike Hammer wasn't purely Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, for instance, and the Coen's Mattie Ross was different from Charles Portis'.

    Anyway, I read a draft of this new Conan a while back and regardless, Conan's character was not closer to Howard's concept, and neither was anybody else. The script was truly laughably bad. I couldn't figure out if they had the rights to the stories, or just the character of Conan, because they took virtually nothing, as far as I could see, from the original stories. For which I presume the shade of Bob Howard, in some high up writer's Valhalla, is most grateful!

  • Martin | August 15, 2011 10:18 AMReply

    Whether this film is bad or not judged solely as a film (which thankfully this review seems to have done), the fact remains that for all the first Conan movie's virtues (like the Basil Poledouris score), it's an awful adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan. Characterizations and themes are turned on their head if not ignored, and Howard's Conan was a very different guy from Arnold's.

    Noticeably missing from the review is a comparison to the Howard stories. Advance reports claimed Conan's character was better represented here than in the old movies. Well, let others do that.

  • Mark | August 15, 2011 8:02 AMReply

    Surprise surprise. This looked like a complete bomb from the moment Nispel was hired. Nobody is going to outdo Milius' s version.

  • vkatnyte | August 15, 2011 7:02 AMReply

    omg. I really cannot believe that its THAT BAD..c'mon now..I mean even the original was somewhat hokey at times and overly drawn out..I liked Nispel's previous work "Pathfinder" and thought that had alot of Conanesque looks to that even though it dealt with Norse warriors and when I herd he was directing i actually thought if anyone (at that time)could direct that film,it should be him however based on your review-maybe the helmer of Games of Thrones should've instead.. ...But I think your review is off in the fact that folks who are fans of the books as well as the comic books and that type of genre will actually like it much more than what you've made it out to be..As a guy who loves to go to the movies, I'd expect to see blood and guts and alot of headbashing in a Conan film- and really who expects a great script in all of that??Yeah, maybe more character development in the Conan area might be what was missed and sorry if it wasn't up to par, but damn that was harsh..

  • Carl | August 15, 2011 6:01 AMReply

    Ho hum,ain't seen the film yet but this does confirm my suspicions.At least Conan is a living,breathing mass of muscle in the Howard's books.They cannot ruin that no matter how they try.Hey,somebody saw the Conan idea & thought it would be a good way to make a blockbuster movie...again.
    People get too greedy,they change things to appeal to a larger audience.Maybe somebody will come along & realize the full potential of the Conan stories & give an accurate portrayal.It is still a possibility.

  • Daniel | August 15, 2011 4:41 AMReply

    I've hated everything I've seen that Nispel directed. He's f***ing incompetent at creating any sense of depth or character, which means that you can never get invested in anything that happens in his flicks. Sounds like that's exactly the problem here.

    I hate bad directors with a passion. Why don't they stop making movies? For the good of humanity.

  • padre | August 15, 2011 3:55 AMReply

    You have broken my heart.
    I might have to see this anyway because I had such hopes for Momoa. Perhaps I need to see those dreams crushed with my own eyes?

    Strike another promising young male lead off the very, very short list remaining.

  • [A] | August 15, 2011 3:36 AMReply

    Ouch!

  • Martin | August 15, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    the characters don’t change much from beginning to end

    Well, that's true for Howard's Conan stories, since they're relatively short (except for one) and episodic. They're not novels (except for that one), and so individual ones don't have character arcs (for Conan at least). He evolves through many stories, not in just one.

  • P862010 | August 15, 2011 3:27 AMReply

    this is play list everyone a site that only likes art house indie films

    me i am not surprised by your bias review

    as you shit on it going in

  • Mr Anonymous | August 15, 2011 2:44 AMReply

    Had a feeling this was going to be shit. Glad i was right! Razzies 2012 here we come!

  • zxcvb | August 15, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    *the original "Conan the Barbarian"

  • zxcvb | August 15, 2011 2:13 AMReply

    The thing that made the "Conan the Barbarian" work was how strangely slow, spare and raw it could be. Closer to "Lancelot Du Lac" than "300." Well, that and timeless/campy exchanges like:

    --Crom laughs at your four winds! He laughs from his mountain.
    --My god is stronger -- he is the everlasting sky! Your god lives underneath him.

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