Conan the Barbarian is an unnecessary, but often entertaining adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s series of stories about the Cimmerian warrior who was “born of battle.” And to the film’s credit, it doesn’t feel like a full remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger take on the character. This Conan is actually smarter and even more action packed than the beloved films from the 80s, but under the direction of Marcus Nispel (who was also responsible for the reboots of Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) sometimes the film can be excessive even by the standards of the character.
The film opens with a young Conan learning the ways of the warrior from his father (Ron Perlman) before watching him be tortured and eventually killed by a bloodthirsty warlord named Zym (Stephen Lang) and his mystical daughter Marique (a nearly unrecognizable Rose McGowan). Zym seeks to resurrect his dead wife through the power of a mask created by the necromancers to harness the powers of pure evil (or something like that since the actual powers of the mask are pretty vague), and together he hopes for them to enslave the world. In order for the mask to work, Zym must have the blood of the last remaining descendent of the necromancers (played by Rachel Nichols). A now grown Conan (Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa) is out for a Robin Hood like quest to protect the young woman and exact revenge in his own barbaric way.
The performances suit the material well, but Momoa is almost too good as Conan. Fans of the Schwarzenegger films might be disappointed that Momoa’s Conan is far smarter and much more tactically-minded. Fans of Howard’s stories, however, will probably be excited that the character is much more battle savvy. Either way, his performance is very good. Perlman almost runs away with the film despite only being in the first twenty minutes. He gets the film off on the right foot all on his own. Lang is suitably slimy and Nichols is very good at standing around and looking pretty, but it is McGowan who will probably get the biggest career boost from the film. She seems to be having an absolute blast walking around with Freddy Krueger nails and smirking with evil glee at her destruction.
Visually, Conan is also quite nice to look at. Made with a lot of practical sets against CGI backdrops, it has a decidedly well thought out production design, and it is filmed in a brightly lit manner. The fact that the film is more bright and colourful means it lends itself well to the 3-D conversion process, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It might be the first time I could ever say that a film is neither helped, nor hindered by being in 3-D. The action sequences are numerous, with one occurring almost like clockwork every five minutes, and they are quite possibly the most flamboyantly gory battle sequences on screen this year.
The main problem with the film sadly also lies with these action sequences. At 116 minutes the film is far too long and Nispel really doesn’t have anything new to add to these sequences after the first hour. Just as the film should be ramping up in intensity, it actually slows down because the fights begin to all look the same. It all gets a bit tiresome seeing the same thing every five minutes without adding any depth to the story or at least staging something a little differently. The film does pick up again at the conclusion with a pretty great final showdown between Conan and Zym, and it does send the audience home on a high note. With some trimming or more imagination Conan could have been a minor classic. There is fun to be had in this incarnation of Conan, but it isn’t very consistent. Thankfully, there is more to like here than there is to pan.