Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cimmerian Week, part II: "And I suppose nothing hurts you." "Only pain!"


Even though there are still things to love about this watered-down sequel, it's one damned hard comedown.

Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Stanley Mann
With Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), Tracey Walter (Malak), Mako Iwamatsu (Akiro the Wizard), Grace Jones (Zula), Olivia d'Abo (Princess Jehnna), Wilt Chamberlain (Bombaata), Pat Roach (Toth-Amon), Sarah Douglas (Queen Taramis), and Andre Rene Roussimoff (Dagoth)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Those of us who have tried to deconstruct Conan the Barbarian's majesty have tended to fix upon one thing above all else.  There are other reasons, of course, to help explain why the first Conan film was so impossibly great: its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger; its villain, James Earl Jones; and, naturally, its writer-director, John Milius, who made the unorthodox decision to approach such silly material with an abiding sense of solemnity.

But the best reason?  Obviously, that was Basil Poledouris' absolute triumph of a score, one of the 1980s' most accomplished pieces of film music (and, therefore, one of the most accomplished pieces of film music of all time).  Thus folks much smarter than me have been compelled to ask the question: does Conan the Barbarian even scrape against the underside of greatness, without Poledouris' help?

Well, in 1984, Dino De Laurentiis undertook a natural experiment to help clarify the matter, calling it Conan the Destroyer.  Milius is gone; Poledouris is still here; and I think it's more-or-less fair to say that Destroyer—taken all by itself—is not exactly good.

So: does Poledouris make it good?  He's certainly doing God's work trying—and doing it uphill too.  Destroyer's principal action theme, described without poetry as the "Main Title," opens up the film, and reappears throughout, serving as Destroyer's answer to "Anvil of Crom"; and it remains, for whatever reason, the piece of music from the duology that sticks most completely to my mind—and maybe that's nothing but childhood familiarity talking, but either way, I never think of Conan without hearing the blunt heroism and bombastic directness of Poledouris' Destroyer theme.  It's the single most apt composition in either one of the Conan movies, even if it's not necessarily also the "best," whatever "best" might mean in any context as rarefied as this one.

Overall, however, I'll conede this: Poledouris' second Conan score does remain the noticeably inferior one, chiefly because it's simply not nearly as emphatically present as it was the first time around—after all, quantity has a real quality all its own in a Poledouris score.  For this, I expect we have the film's own biggest and most completely-unanswerable structural flaw to thank.  But even then, the only possible way you could ever call Poledouris' effort on Destroyer's behalf anything less than great is if you were comparing it, directly and even unfairly, to the all-time classic score that preceded it.

The point is, it is easily sufficient to push Destroyer over the line between good and bad.  If we've learned anything about the Conan movies from this experiment, then, it's that they are totally reliant upon their mood and atmosphere—to which Poledouris and Poledouris' orchestra were always the most important contributors.

But Destroyer has a narrative, too, and that's where things start to go a little wrong.  The story is credited to Conan's comic book adaptors, Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas; and their feelings on what screenwriter Stanley Mann did to their story can perhaps be summed up by the fact that the pair subsequently felt okay about writing a Conan comic, based on their treatment, that changed the names of all the secondary characters, which neither they nor Marvel even attempted to tie to the film.  (This may also sum up how the public felt about what Mann did to Destroyer.  But let's not judge him more harshly than he deserves, for there was a whip to his back, wielded by none other than Signor De Laurentiis himself.)

Nevertheless, Mann's screenplay certainly scans—if I only leave out the unimportant parts (and especially if I restrain myself from mentioning the missteps), it frankly sounds bad-ass:

Months or years after the events of Barbarian, we find our hero Conan (along with his new sidekick, Malak) having made pilgrimage to the grave of his lost love, Valeria.  Conan shall not be left to grieve in peace, however, for soon that band of horsemen we saw traversing the wastelands during the opening credits appear, and they attack without provocation.  But it turns out they're only here to test his mettle—and, Conan being Conan, he passes with flying colors.

Especially the color red.

The instigator of the attack, Queen Tamaris, steps forward, and makes her desires known: she wishes to entrust the legendary warrior with a sacred mission—escorting her virginal niece Jehnna as she undertakes a mystic quest to obtain the missing jeweled horn of Tamaris' sleeping god, Dagoth.  In exchange, the witch-queen promises to resurrect Valeria with magic.  And Conan, blinded by hope, agrees.

So now there were three.  But Tamaris sends Jenhna's personal bodyguard, Bombaata, to journey alongside them, in order to defend Jennha's hymen from the barbarian she so very obviously and desperately wants to mount.  (And thus Bombaata must be played by famed inseminator Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain; and although I elect to be amused by this irony, it's not even the slightest bit clear that anybody actually involved in this film thought there might be anything funny about it.)  Their party soon grows to five when Conan recruits his old friend, the wizard Akiro; and eventually it gains its sixth and final member, when they rescue the warrior Zula from a lynch mob.  They travel to the crystal cathedral of an ancient wizard, Toth-Amon, seeking a key; from there, they journey to the vault where the horn of Dagoth is kept; and ultimately their quest takes them back to Tamaris, and right into a war with her waking elder god.

It does not take much experience with narrative to figure out several key facts about this plot: first, that Tamaris is consummately wicked and is lying about Valeria; second, that the biggest reason Jennha's maidenhead must remain unpierced is because Tamaris needs a virgin's throat to slit upon Dagoth's altar; third, that Bombaata and Conan shall come to blows; and, finally, that waking up a sleeping deity is one incredibly bad idea.  It is to Mann's screenplay's credit, then, that it makes no effort to pretend that even a child might have failed to get completely ahead of it (and this is still true, even though it therefore requires our beloved barbarian to be moderately stupid, too).  Thus, there is always a certain minimal level of momentum to Destroyer, which not even its fiercely episodic quality can obliterate—because we know that even if our heroes are successful in his quest, one last doom still awaits them at the finish.  On the other hand, it arguably turns Destroyer into an exercise in waiting for the good part.

It takes 90 minutes.

Of course, in a better film than this one, impatience wouldn't even come into it—Jehnna's quest is surely interesting enough to serve as a solid D&D campaign made celluloid, which is all any barbarian movie ever had to be.  But there are reasons why Destroyer is the film it is; bad ones, yes, but reasons nonetheless.  You can respect De Laurentiis without loving every decision he ever made.  But when it came to Destroyer, the decisions probably didn't even make sense back in 1984.  Obviously, in hindsight they look even worse.

The very worst move was refusing to wait for Milius to finish Red Dawn.  Abandoning Milius and his vision of a Conan trilogy, DDL nabbed Richard Fleischer instead, before the old workhorse could die on him.  In fairness, this almost seems reasonable.  Fleischer, after all, was the director behind 1958's Vikings, and, as far as Milius himself was concerned, Vikings was the barbarian movie ur-text.

So: handed the keys to Milus' kingdom, we can honestly say that Fleischer really does not do a terrible job with it, at least when it comes to framing his warriors and wizards and their magical battles.  Unfortunately, Destroyer is enjoyable mostly in fits and starts, and it's rarely stirring: the result is hardly ever the millenia-lost legendarium Milius had dug out from our collective unconscious three years earlier.  Destroyer is more of a throwback to the fantastic swashbuckling of the 20s and 40s—in other words, Destroyer is occasionally gorgeous, and often very, very pacey (not to mention overtly and clumsily vignettish).  And that's a pretty marked contrast to Barbarian's opening hour-long picaresque, which was impressionistic and grand and rigorously deliberate, immersing you completely in the atavistic immediacy of Conan's barbarian life.

Not to put to fine a point on it, then, Destroyer can at times be boring—it is 30 minutes shorter than Barbarian, yet somehow feels longer.  And it is never more boring than during those many long intervals (which, to be fair, probably only feel longer than they are) where Fleischer is forced by Mann's script to have his characters actually interact (at length!), as if these were people he were dealing with, rather than the uniform population of aphorism-spouting archetypes who filled out the cast of the first film.  And so, even when Destroyer gets a good action setpiece going, there remains a curse upon the movie, wrought by the evil wizard Mann.  It's a curse which Fleischer either couldn't dispel, or simply didn't notice—and that curse, of course, is talking.

The biggest sin that Destroyer commits, therefore, is to forsake high adventure for a lower sort—a character-driven pell-mell too annoying and bland to completely cohere.  Take Grace Jones' Zula as a key example: Jones is magnetic as hell, and she is wasted from the very moment she's introduced, in a role that amounts to little more than a piece of set decoration which sometimes gets a close-up.

And if Malak is already a yammering idiot on the page—and, oh, he absolutely is—then Tracey Walter's desperately mugging delivery of all of Malak's rancid jackanapes makes him worse than he even needed to be.  As for poor Mako, we find him caged within his wizardly shtick, and while there's nothing terrifically wrong with it, it's clear that he and Fleischer alike are trying to play Akiro's grunting and chanting for its camp value, only failing.  Meanwhile, whatever complexities you might imagine afflict Bombataa—torn between his duty to Tamaris and his loyalty to Jennha, which is sometimes sort-of apparent in Chamberlain's performance—are abandoned entirely, probably because a character arc for this plot device was simply too ambitious for a screenplay of this calibre to handle.  But you could just call it novice acting, and the most salient quality Chamberlain brings to the table really does boil down to "man, this professional basketball player is enormously fucking tall."  But then, in some ways, this means Chamberlain's performance is the film's most consistently effective, tying with Sarah Douglas's Tamaris, whom Destroyer requires to be 1)eeeeevil and 2)busty, two things which Douglas undeniably pulls off.  Schwarzenegger is still probably the best in show—and give the man this much credit, at least, he's the only one here whose gag lines might actually make you smile.

Finally, we have to talk about Jehnna, who spends the entire film trying to solve the riddle of Conan's steel.  (And knowing Olivia d'Abo's actual age—fourteen—gives Destroyer an aggressive streak of grossness that it only barely survives, and possibly solely because I didn't notice anything wrong with it the first time, back when I was fourteen.)  Either way, when Destroyer barfs up its absolute worst scene, it's inevitably going to involve Jennha's blossoming sexuality.  So there are few better examples of performers dying onscreen than in this bit of "comedy," older than Conan's own Atlantean sword, wherein Jehnna interrogates Malak about the Facts of Life.  (It's likely more horrid than that description already makes it sound.)  This scene encapsulates almost everything that's wrong with Destroyer—while everything else can be summed up in the scene wherein Conan deploys his barbarian might to bend steel bars with his bare hands, and instead of Poledouris providing a roaring backdrop to this incredible feat, we have Malak.

So, with somewhere between two and five characters explicitly marked out as comic relief—including, obnoxiously, Conan himself—it's apparent that Destroyer is supposed to be the funny Conan movie.  You know, for the kids.  That's the biggest tell, bigger even than the switch to a PG rating, that De Laurentiis was actively engaged in sabotaging his own movie, in pursuit of an audience whose desires he'd badly misunderstood.

But there are compensations.  And not just Poledouris' score, although that is the major one.  Sometimes these compensations are ribboned through with Destroyer's flaws: both its cruddy chintziness and its flailing attempts at kitsch intersect during the battle with Toth-Amon in the crystal palace—and, somehow, it's still kind of awesome.

These are the moments where Destroyer transcends its own limitations; it may take unleashing a Lovecraftian murderbeast to get Mann's screenplay to shut the fuck up—but by an incredible stroke of fortune Fleischer has precisely such a beast.  At long, long last, the gravity of Poledouris' score and the suspense of the sacrificial ceremony drag this film back into what Conan the Barbarian managed to do in almost every frame: present its mythic barbarian and his enemies as purely physical forces, struggling in a misty prehistory that's been defined by grotesque magic, religious zealotry, elemental loyalties, and rivulets of hot blood, running all over Conan's cold steel.

And thus does Dagoth's designer, Carlo Rambaldi, require our commendation, for his work virtually redeems Destroyer in the final hour (even if Poledouris hadn't already kind of done that).  It is a wet, gross, biological thing, and even if it looks the tiniest bit stupid (and even if Andre the Giant, uncredited, can clearly scarcely move within Rambaldi's contraption), there will always be a profound pleasure in watching a musclebound barbarian battle a god who woke up on the wrong side of the ritual slab.  (Even then, the best moment of the whole film, I suppose, must be the instant right before the dread deity's metamorphosis.  Dagoth's idol, heretofore an immobile statue with a Mona Lisa smile, turns its head in a way that the stone it appears to be simply cannot do.  We really do see the end of the world in its marble face—and what Fleischer and Rambaldi squeeze out of this single image is the genuine, spine-tingling creeps.)

It is, altogether, one excellent last scene—by some impossible miracle, Fleischer even manages to make a joke land.  Or, at the very least, Poledouris does, cleverly sanctioning our white-hot contempt for Malak when his orchestra smashes out that great hero theme as the most stringently ironic counterpoint to the thief's own rather-less-than-heroic contribution to the battle.

Ohhh, Malak.  In some alternate universe out there, there's a version of this movie where you were actually enjoyed!

It finishes out a movie that has only occasionally even risen above mediocre—indeed, which was sometimes plain-and-simple bad.  But there are worse things that trashy B-movies with A-minus budgets can do than end on such an intoxicatingly high note.  Destroyer deserves its reputation as an unworthy sequel, that much is true; and as for the amount of material in the film that even comes close to matching its vaunted predecessor, that can be measured in minutes, and counted without even using all your fingers.  But those minutes are unforgettable, and for the man who wanted one more round with Schwarzenegger's Conan—even if he must take Conan in a degraded, decadent form—it's enough.

Of course, this isn't quite the last time we'd see our favorite Austrian pick up the sword, is it?

Score:  6/10

Other reviews in this series:
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Destroyer
Red Sonja
Kull the Conqueror
Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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