Film Review: Conan the Barbarian

Jason Momoa improves upon the dubious acting skills of Arnold Schwarzenegger (the original Conan) in this otherwise undistinguished remake.

Arnold Schwarzenegger still owns the role of Conan the Barbarian, even after abandoning it more than a quarter of a century ago. The success of the Conan reboot will depend on whether fans of musclebound men with lots of hair and little clothing find Hawaiian-born Jason Momoa (of TV’s “Game of Thrones” and “Baywatch: Hawaii”)—a relative unknown, but no more so than Schwarzenegger was three decades ago—equally charismatic as Robert E. Howard’s noble savage.

Momoa, who was all of three when larger-than-life bodybuilder Schwarzenegger first slipped into a pair of itty-bitty leather go-go shorts (loved the cunning fur trim around the thighs) and conquered the moviegoing world, is a better actor than his predecessor. Granted, that means little more than that he can act and is unencumbered by either a Hollywood-Nazi accent or muscles so massive as to make him lumber like a water buffalo when called upon to run. But those things add up to something: Schwarzenegger looked fantastic in the stills from John Milius' 1982 version, but his performance—and I use that term loosely—verged on locker-room camp.

The new Conan’s screenplay begins with the inevitable portentous prologue, which tells of a darkly magicked mask so evil that the ancients’ ancients broke it into pieces and entrusted far-flung warrior clans with making sure the parts were never reassembled. Then it’s on to the future one-man-army being cut from the womb of a dying warrior princess, raised by his hard-but-just father (Ron Perlman) and orphaned as an adolescent (Leo Howard) by warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who’s ruthlessly acquiring the mask's scattered pieces in hopes of yoking its power to his overweening ambitions.

The movie ends when Conan has vanquished the dark demons that chain him to a vengeance-driven past, and it’s a perfectly structured series kickoff, if not one intimately rooted in the source material, to judge by the “based on the character of Conan as originally created by Robert E. Howard” credit. But whether that’s what it takes to make this new version resonate for 21st-century moviegoers as Milius’ slice of cartoonish Nietzschean bombast did in the greed-is-good era of dog-eat-dog corporate raiders remains to be seen.
Most of the story—admittedly slight between the arc-defining opening and climax—concerns itself with young Conan of Cimmeria’s transformation from a thick-skinned, thoughtless vagabond who lives to loot, kill and carouse with pirates, thieves, slaves and wanton women to a man who could be king. The impetus is vestal virgin (for a time, anyway) Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the vessel of a pure, all-but-extinct bloodline that holds the promise of either a bright future or the onset of Hell on Earth. Khalar Zim and his witchy daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan)—whose relationship is way too close for comfort—intend to sacrifice her to sinister gods, reactivate the power of the mask and bring on the darkness.

There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with this new Conan, beyond the fact that that there’s nothing particularly right with it, save a mid-film fight sequence involving a horde of warriors conjured out of sand: Its inventiveness faintly echoes Jason and the Argonauts’ skeletal army spawned by dragon’s teeth. Director Marcus Nispel and screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, whose collective credits comprise such remakes, sequels and pastiches as Sahara, Halloween: Resurrection, The Crow: Wicked Prayer, A Sound of Thunder, the new Friday the 13th and other competent but undistinguished genre efforts, understand the mechanics of pulp fiction while being collectively deaf to the throbbing of its thrillingly vulgar heart. And that's a shame, because the graceful, faintly feral Momoa could grow into a truly compelling Conan given another movie or two within which to refine his characterization.