(by Dustin Putman
Marcus Nispel has found cinematic success not through an original artist's point-of-view, but via his continual mounting of money-in-the-bank remakes such as 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and 2009's "Friday the 13th." Those slasher revamps were respectable, if inferior, to their source material, and maybe that particular genre is where he should have stayed. Whatever verve Nispel exhibits from depicting people chased by masked psychopaths, he shows none of that in "Conan the Barbarian," a sword-and-sandals action-adventure so amateurish and asinine and rampantly unpleasant it might just drive viewers to seek out 2010's heinous (but comparatively competent) "Clash of the Titans" reboot just so they can replace a terrible memory with a less injurious one. Running 112 seemingly never-ending minutes, the film is a disaster from one end to the next. It has not a single positive element to call attention to, the only relief from one's sheer boredom, misery, and shell-shocked disbelief coming occasionally—but not often enough—in the form of unintended, ill-conceived hilarity. Article continues below
Loosely based on the 1930s stories by late author Robert E. Howard, Conan (Leo Howard as a child, Jason Momoa as an adult) is born out of great tragedy, literally torn from his mother's womb so she can catch a glimpse of her son and name him before subsiding from fatal village-pillaging wounds. Filled with desires of revenge—father Corin (Ron Perlman) was subsequently tortured and killed when he was a boy—Conan grows into a muscled, scantily-clad oaf, leaving his home of Cimmeria and setting out to kill those responsible for taking his family from him. His main target: Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), himself in the midst of reassembling the shards of the mystical Mask of Acheron and finding a Pure Blood so that he can gain powers beyond that of any mere mortal. If you're confused about the hows and whys, stay patient. It's all very complex.
1982's "Conan the Barbarian" is, perhaps, not the timeless classic some people may remember (soft-core sex scenes and laughing-stock hairstyles, anyone?), but there was a charm to it, a drive of creativity and inspiration carried down from the rousing music score, to the lush cinematography, to the cohesively conceived battle sequences, to Arnold Schwarzeneggar's no-nonsense but appropriately charismatic turn as the title warrior, to James Earl Jones' genuinely malevolent performance as the villainous, snake-shifting Thulsa Doom. Taking the general premise of Conan seeking vengeance for his parents' deaths but otherwise going off on its own tangent, 2011's "Conan the Barbarian" is so calamitously unprofessional it's as if half-minded vagrants found a dinged-up camera next to a few hundred bucks on the street, pulled together a cast of needy, out-of-work actors, and went to town. It's a vacant, sexist, soul-smothering trial of tribulations good for the occasional mockery up front before audience despair sets in at the staggering cacophony of shit onscreen. The cinematography by Thomas Kloss (2002's "Showtime") is hazy, grim, reliant on fuzzy filters, and just plain gross (with or without 3-D), resembling the effect of gazing through a filthy, muck-covered window. If that weren't unpleasant enough, the film wobbly moves between scenes without momentum or interest, and falls into the trap of the modern tendency to shoot action with choppy editing and a camera too shaky and close to its subjects for the goings-on to be anything but incomprehensible, dull-as-dishwater freneticism.
Furthermore, the film has no idea who its would-be hero is. As a child, Conan speaks so little that he could be a mute and no one would know the difference. There is no empathy built up for him, nor is there a vague attempt at empathy. As he brutally slaughters any outsiders who come close to him, the film positions him as the person to root for solely because the movie is named after him. In adulthood, Conan's an even bigger brute, one who still says next to nothing and is prone to shoving dirty old rags down women's throats if they ever come close to starting a conversation with him. Love interest Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a warrior princess hailing from the Shaipur Monastery, eventually teams up with Conan on his journey, and theirs is a romance fit for a prostitute and her abusive pimp. His terms of endearment to her are swoon-worthy—"You're a harlot," he spits at her on more than one occasion—making it not a surprise at all when their eventual sex scene arrives, full of billowing silk sheets and throbbing nude bodies. In a motion picture that looks like it was shot with a cracked lens through gauze and vaseline, wouldn't you know the most lovingly captured moment, bathed in breathtaking golden light, is Conan's bare buttocks as he luxuriates on his stomach in bed post-coitus.
If this piss-poor lead role is any indication, former "Baywatch" hunk Jason Momoa (2004's "Johnson Family Vacation") would have been better off staying at the beach than delving into a feature film career. Is he capable of more than grunting, flexing his muscles, and waving his long hair? One would never be able to answer that question here. Save for name-calling and a few one-line statements so foolish as to thoroughly baffle—"I live, I love, I slay, and I am content" is his self-described motto—Momoa doesn't speak as much as he just runs around with blank expressions on his face. The entire film hinges on his anger, his devastation, and the need to avenge his parents' murders, but he walks through each scene as if in an emotionless fugue. When bidding farewell to Tamara at the end, whom we are supposed to believe he's fallen in love with, he says, "Live well tomorrow, until we meet again," with the roughly equal commitment and passion one might say thank you to a grocery store checkout clerk. As lead enemy Khalar Zym, Stephen Lang (2009's "Avatar") is so indistinct that he's wholly an afterthought—a far cry from the impact James Earl Jones made in the original film. As baddies go, even Rose McGowan (2007's "Grindhouse"), as Khalar's all-forehead sorceress daughter Marique, leaves a bigger impression. And, as Conan's father, Ron Perlman (2011's "Season of the Witch")—like Momoa, like nearly every male actor in the movie—spends most of his time screaming at the heavens with his arms upraised, sometimes holding a sword, sometimes without.
"Conan the Barbarian" was written by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer (2005's "A Sound of Thunder") and Sean Hood (2002's "Halloween: Resurrection"), three men who, divvying the work up between them, couldn't have spent more than a half-hour session each on the project. What they and director Marcus Nispel have conspired to make is so creatively bankrupt, so mind-numbingly moronic, so awe-inspiringly empty, that it's a wonder the film exists at all. Exist, it does, however, and poor souls suffering through it will be sure to feel every painful moment of it. "Conan the Barbarian" is the kind of movie one has to shake their head over. Who is it for? The action is a senseless botch job without a focal point, or any point. The fantasy aspects are negligible, not even a shadow of the 1982 film; indeed, the only authentic fantasy is the idea that audiences of any kind could walk away happy with what they've sat through. No one will be able to get anything dramatically out of it, since the figures on the screen have the emotional breadth of comatose gnats. And as for the visuals, let's be nice and label them as ceaselessly dreary. Even the very, very sporadic shot with potential—like the sight of a ship being carried down a sloping cliffside path—is done in by its lack of basic skill. "Conan the Barbarian" runs just short of two hours, and cost a reported $90-million to make. Watching it is liking looking at strangers through a kaleidoscope soaked in mud and swamp water. Amazing. Utterly amazing.Special Note:
The near-constant deficiencies of the 3-D format have been repeated ad nauseum by yours truly, but "Conan the Barbarian" may very well stand as a new low. There is nothing - NOTHING - in this film that looks like it has depth or multiple dimensions. Conan Hates 3-DWatching entire scenes without the brightness-draining glasses on revealed no blurring of the image whatsoever, a tell-tale sign that it's not only fake post-converted 3-D, but bad, ineffective, virtually nonexistent 3-D. Disregarding the quality of the movie itself, watching it in this form is a dark, depressing experience, one that you, too, can have if you go to the theater and pay an additional premium surcharge on top of the already overpriced ticket. How can studios get away with swindling audiences like this? How can anyone involved on the technical side of these needless 3-D pics not see that their work is being squandered, the details within the image fading and the lighting of the scenes dimming to the point where most of what is on the screen is putrid and indistinguishable? I'm tempted to suggest there might be a valid lawsuit that could come out of this faux-D waste of celluloid, but the simple fact is moviegoers hold the power. Will they continue to support these lame money-snatching attempts, or will they instead choose to send a message loud and clear that they've caught on to Hollywood's charade, and they're not going to fall for it anymore? Whatever you do, DO NOT see "Conan the Barbarian" in 3-D.