Friday, December 30, 2016

Cimmerian Week, part V: Hey, maybe all this movie needed was a beard, and a little eyeliner


It may not be entirely devoid of any good points, but taken as a whole, Conan the Barbarian '11 is just about as bad as a remake of a great film could ever get.

Directed by Marcus Nispel
Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood
With Jason Momoa (Conan), Ron Perlman (Corin), Rachel Nichols (Tamara), Nonso Anozie (Artus), Said Taghmaoui (Ela-Shan), Rose McGowan (Marique), and Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym)

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's ironic enough to be worth sharing, I think: I only began this journey through the cinematic history of Robert Howard adaptations because I finally started Game of Thrones.  Sitting there, a little underwhelmed at first, I said to myself, "Man, I'd much rather be watching Conan the Barbarian."  But now, as we arrive at the most recent of the Howard adaptations, I just can't help wishing I was watching Game of Thrones again.  As I slogged through the Hyborian Age, Thrones kept getting better.  But as for all these damned Conan films—they only ever got worse.

One day they'll make another one, though, and it's hard to imagine that any downward trend could continue from here—for this, the 2011 remake (or, technically, reboot) of Conan the Barbarian, is the Goddamned pits.  It was the first Howard adaptation to have been made without the involvement of the De Laurentiises; but that's hardly any excuse, considering that only half the De Laurentiis family's four Howard adaptations are any good in the first place (and they only get up to half, if you're willing to count Conan the Destroyer as "good").

And frankly Barbarian '11 is a film that has no right to be worse than Red Sonja or Kull the Conqueror.  It had a real budget, real actors, and, finally, a real commitment to being a real barbarian film.  (And this last item is not at all some trivial thing—not when every single Howard adaptation since Barbarian '82 had been content to keep their barbarian-related content within the confines of a PG-13 rating.)

Above all else, however, Barbarian had what looked like a real casting coup.  And now you know the other reason I mentioned Game of Thrones; it is because Thrones shares with Barbarian '11 a star.  This would be Jason Momoa, of course—who had, but four months earlier, demonstrated such a palpable knack for this whole barbarian thing, in his portrayal of Drogo, khal of one of the Dothraki hordes.

Drogo, obviously, is a little bit of a deconstruction of the old barbarian: he is strong, but not especially noble; his bravery is, generally speaking, coextensive with his vainglorious stupidity; and when he bites the dust, it's because he got an infection from a minor wound.  All told, his character exists entirely to service the arc of his woman, Daenerys Targaryen, who's gone on to outlive him by five whole seasons now (the self-made Khaleesi soon proving herself to be vastly more interesting than her Khal).  Nonetheless, I'll admit the whole affair felt like a minor waste of Momoa, whose physique could not be better-honed for the archetype if he were, in fact, the cover of a Conan novel come to life (a characteristic he shares with Schwarzenegger, to be sure, but Momoa even has the right color hair).  Naturally, I suspected Momoa would shine brighter still, playing a wasteland warrior with a little bit less baggage than the Stallion Who Failed to Mount the World.  And so I went into Barbarian '11 with optimism, even though I obviously knew full well that the consensus around the movie was negative.  And why shouldn't I have?  People had nothing but bad things to say about Barbarian's fellow latterday pulp adaptation, John Carter; and they sure as hell were wrong about that one.

Well, you can take a guess as to how it actually turned out: Momoa, is a mean, even toxic presence in Barbarian '11; and it's not entirely clear if that's something he just can't turn off at all, or if his Drogo simply happened to infect his Conan.

Now, this does not make him bad.  It may even be ideal for when he plays Arthur Curry, the bastard King of Atlantis, in the DCEU's Aquaman.  But it does make him a far-less-than-ideal Conan: his glower is functional enough when he faces his enemies, but the way he barks and leers at his leading lady, and treats even his own allies with contempt, comes perilously close to poisoning his Conan movie, even before you arrive at all the other things that are wrong with it.  (And these are absolutely legion, before you ask.)

But let's grant the man the tiniest bit of clemency: for surely he was directed wrong, too, with instructions to never provide the Cimmerian any emotions other than rage or (occasionally) smugness.  Otherwise, we'd be left with an actor that simply couldn't deliver those emotions, and I'd hate to say that about Momoa—although, thinking back to our old pal Drogo, I'm not sure there's much of anything but those two things in that performance, either.  Either way, the outcome for this motion picture is exactly the same: a Conan who feels neither fear, nor love, nor happiness, nor longing—that is, none of the little things that Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who had scarcely acted and could barely speak English, effortlessly projected throughout his first turn as the great barbarian.  In short, Momoa's Conan, heir to 80s bad-ass cinema, is too bad-ass for his own good—so bad-ass, in fact, that he's kind of tiresome.

This puts Momoa in good company, at least, with his film, for it is extraordinarily tiresome.

It does not start out that way, however—indeed, everything that is good about Barbarian is direly frontloaded.  It begins, as it ought, with a narrator ruminating about Hyboria, and Acheron, and other fake place-names that can be found in old books.  This time around, we get perhaps the most famous narrator there ever was, one Morgan Freeman.  (Incidentally, we haven't gotten to the good part yet: Freeman's bored check-cashing has far too often been interpreted as "soothingly wise," but even then, I don't know why anyone would think that tone was the appropriate introduction to a barbarian movie.  But Mako Iwamatsu is dead.  It's best we move on.)

Barbarian '11 takes us back to Cimmeria, and we even go back a little further than Barbarian '82, all the way to Conan's nativity itself.  In one of the film's very freshest ideas (and not the last halfway-decent idea that winds up mangled in its execution), we first see Conan within his mother's very womb, as a sword splits her belly open and Conan's father is forced to resort to a crude, manual caesarean, tearing the infant from his dying mother.  Like I said, great idea, profoundly bad execution.  The CGI fetus looks less realistic than 2001's Starchild; and—the last time I checked anyway—there is not usually a native light source inside a woman's uterus.

The silver lining to this botched gesture, however, is the promise it makes: that Barbarian '11 will be true to its R-rated barbarian roots.  It could be gorier than it is (and be better for it), but in the Barbarian that exists, we still get decapitations, dismemberments, and one really cool part, where young Conan hacks off an evil raider's nose—and then another, perhaps even-cooler part where he finds the same bandit years later, and fingers the hole.  I think I mentioned that Barbarian '11 isn't totally bad.

So let us attend to those evil raiders.  After spending some time with Conan in his northern idyll, a band of black-swathed riders descends upon his village.  Inevitably, they kill Conan's father, in a rather good scene—to his credit, Ron Perlman does not allow himself to be wasted, despite the rote smallness of his role.  After that, our villains take off for parts unknown, having gotten what they came for in the first place: a piece of an ancient ceremonial mask, enchanted by Acheronian magic, that shall allow their leader, Khalam Zym, to resurrect his wife and become a god.

In the meantime, Conan grows up in dissolution, becoming a warrior, thief, and pirate, etc., in turn, but always nursing his thirst for vengeance.  With Barbarian '11 being far more plot-driven than its predecessor, his opportunity comes almost an hour earlier than it did in Barbarian '82.  Soon enough, we find Conan tracking Zym down, and interfering with the other big part of the fiend's master plan—namely, the kidnapping of a pureblood descendant of Acheronian sorcerors, whose body can therefore become the vessel of the dead witch that Zym still loves and won't let go.  You can pretty much connect all the rest of the dots of this film's story from there, except perhaps for the part where Zym ultimately fails to wake the sleeping evil, thereby ridding this already too-long film of anything useful, like a nice reversal right before a triumph-over-impossible-odds climax.

This script can't even get genre hackery right, man.

Still, the problems with Barbarian have very little to do with its plot, which is perfectly fine: the Bad Man Wants Power, the Other Man Wants Vengeance, And They Fight, And There Is Also a Girl.  (Indeed, there are two girls: Zym's daughter, Marique, serves as the villain's chief lieutenant, and—for whatever this praise is worth—she's at least equally memorable.)  The problem is not that it is plot-driven, but that it fills this plot with nothing much in the way of character, or meaningful incident, while also going on and on and on forever, apparently just to fill out a nearly two-hour runtime with the rest of the production's FX budget.  (Not that it ever looks especially good, mind you: the film's abiding mode is using crap CGI as a backdrop for a busted chaos cinema aesthetic.)  It begins to sputter the moment the real plot gets kicked off, when Conan rescues the priestess.  And let's just get it out there: this Tamara, Invader Zym's weak-kneed would-be sacrifice to his dead wife, is an eye-rollingly bad partner for Conan, both in terms of Barbarian's perfunctory romance (capped off with some admittedly-heartwarming 80s-style sex wrestling), and in her contribution to the adventure.  If she weren't a pile of ash, Valeria would be spinning in her grave.

But at least Tamara is a permanent fixture on Conan's quest.  Obviously, there's no Conan film that completely escapes its genre's episodic predilections; but Barbarian '11 succumbs to its own nature even more completely than ever before.  Conan deploys his sidekicks randomly, depending upon the special needs of the scene; and thus do the pirate Artus and the thief Ela-Shan simply wander in and out of the movie at the barbarian's beck and call, never even properly rising to the status of "mere archetype," let alone "actual character."

Meanwhile, on the receiving end of Conan's fury, the screenplay almost gives Zym and Marique something interesting to play—and Stephen Lang, occasionally, does try very hard to find it.  He spends the first half of the film desperately implying that it's love and vengeance driving him, rather than dull megalomania, and keeps fighting until his dialogue can no longer be opposed, whereupon he surrenders, and his character degenerates into literally nothing but shouting and bug-eyed reaction shots.  By contrast, Rose McGowan isn't trying to be good in any conventional way; but she might come off better than her scene-partner anyway, simply because she's more successful at breaking her way out of a lousy part.  But it's still nothing special: too busy losing half of her performance to lesbian-and-incest-inflected camp, and the other half to her atrocious Borg Queen makeup, McGowan would only be an acceptable supporting character in a movie that was already good; explosively bad acting, unfortunately, was never going to save a movie this weak.  With this pair of actors working at cross-purposes to each other (and to the script), the honest critic has to count Lang and McGowan as the least effective villains Conan ever faced.

And yet if the story that fills out our plot is already ramshackle as hell, then the storytelling that relates it all is even more threadbare still.  Simply put, Barbarian '11 is atrociously made; to say it's unworthy of Barbarian '82 would be to imply it's even comparable, and that's just insulting to John Milius; let's say instead it's unworthy of Conan the Destroyer, which is still insulting to Richard Fleischer, but at least gets the meaning of my message across.

Action is captured in shakycam, then sliced to ribbons in the editing room.  As for magnificent vistas of Hyboria, that's something this director doesn't even bother with.  The epic is missing (even if the blood and tits aren't).  Barbarian's director, Marcus Nispel, is perhaps best known for a pair of slasher remakes that no one wants to admit to liking.  But I'll cop to it: his reiteration of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty damn good.  But what works for Texas Chainsaw was hardly going to automatically work for Conan the Barbarian.

Even if both films can be accurately outlined as "scenes of severed limbs and endless sweatiness."

Nispel is just so bad at large-scale action.  The smaller any confrontation is, the better it inevitably turns out: so the vengeance Conan takes in a prison, or the relatively-constrained melee in the hold of a ship, are enjoyable, watchable moments.  But if the action goes even so much as medium-sized, his storytelling chops are shattered against the scope of the filmmaking challenge: Barbarian '11 can be summed up well enough by the magical battle against Marique's conjured sand-zombies, who run around, trying to murder Conan and Tamara, while Conan and Tamara hack at them with swords—and it is not clear, even as the scene ends, what their powers and properties are supposed to be, or why hitting magic monsters made of sand with swords seems to actually hurt them.  By the time you've even provisionally comprehended this scene, you've long since lost your interest in it.  Then a pile of crates blows up, of course—because I guess prehistory was just full of explosive materials.

Actually, I shouldn't be so bold: because, really, nothing could encapsulate Barbarian '11 more than its beyond-fucked climax.  It's the most easily-detestable action scene I've seen in years, taking place in some kind of non-euclidean horror-realm, where you can't stop falling through the floor.  It is geographically and dramatically befuddling, to the point of absolute numbness.  Eventually that numbness crystallizes into frozen hatred—both for the scene itself, and for every scene to come before it.  It feels like a battle raging into eternity inside a video game where no one ever bothered fixing the egregious wall glitches; but in fact, it is only the death of cinema you're seeing here, witnessed in real time.  And all along, Tyler Bates' score wails and wails, reminding you that, like Mako, Basil Poledouris has been dead for years.

There is so much that could have been fun and good and right in Barbarian '11.  On occasion, the stars align, and it even does do something right; but it never, ever lasts beyond a single beat.  It is a terrible film.  Conan the Barbarian will surely not die alongside it—but this film already had its burial five years ago.  So let us thank Crom, for once.  Because Momoa and Nispel's misshapen idea of Conan will, itself, never live again.

Score:  3/10

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


  1. Yeah, I felt like this was written as a 'Barbarian' movie, not a 'Conan' movie. It tells an adventure story without capturing any of the whimsy or humanity of the Conan character. He's not just a fighter and reaver. We don't see him as a thief, nor do we see any of the promised gigantic melancholies or gigantic mirths. I also felt like the story was a little too built up and intricate, and would have preferred something a little simpler to all that backstory about a crown broken into a bunch of pieces that don't really matter because they all get recovered off-camera.

    You're right. John Carter is a great movie. Perhaps the greatest adventure film since the turn of the century. The haters are the same kind of person who bitched about Star Wars in 1977.

    1. Yeah, between this and Rogue One, it really does put me in the mood to spin John Carter again; it's only the best space opera of the 21st century, after all, unless I'm forgetting something. (Okay, I am: Serenity, but that kind-of doesn't count. It is entirely impossible for me or anybody to evaluate that movie as its own film, rather than an unprecedentedly glorious series finale.)

      You make a good point about the mask. (Some villainous quest, right? I don't even know why the mask is in the movie, other than an opportunity for VFX.) You put it extremely well regarding Conan, too: he's just so flat. And if he's less flat than everyone else in the movie, that's just damning for everyone else.

  2. I think that the key problem with this film is that it hears “Conan the Barbarian” and thinks ‘Peter Jackson’ rather than ‘Sergio Leone’.

    One suspects that the key to making good Conan movies is aiming for rollicking adventure rather than Epic Fantasy.

    1. I dunno, Milius kind of manages both--Flesicher kind of manages both--but I think "Peter Jackson" is spot on. I have not read a lot of Robert Howard, and none of his Conan, but I'm very familiar with Lovecraft and somewhat familiar with Clark Ashton Smith and the rest of the gang, and Barbarian, Destroyer, and even Red Sonja to some small degree do have a kind of early 20th century American fantasy fiction vibe--there's a sense they all grapple with a horror of deep time, that they half-believe in prehistoric civilizations lost to apocalypses, and definitely believe in cyclical history, finding Conan or Sonja in the anarchic valleys between golden ages--whereas this isn't even Tolkien encyclopedic world-building as such, but just 100% the form and flavor of a frictionless 21st century American fantasy blockbuster with a superficial relationship to old literature. And I suppose there's some that are good, but I don't know if I love any of them.