Monday 29 August 2011


(Marcus Nispel, 2011)

It begins with Morgan Freeman, of all people, delivering what should be a portentious, even magisterial voiceover. This is the voice of a "chronicler", more storyteller than historian. But Freeman has his eyes fixed firmly on the paycheck, and he sounds as warm and laid back as he always does. Its as if hes reciting a shopping list, and its a good indicator of the problems which run through this film.
Utterly lacking in any of the Epic grandeur or philosophical and political subtext of John Milius' 1982 take on the character, Nispel's Conan the Barbarian is much more unambiguously a B-Movie. That is no bad thing, indeed, it suits this genre and this character. But the problem is: it is not a great B-Movie.
It gets some things just right. Jason Momoa looks the part as Conan, meaning he can ride a horse wearing only boots, a loincloth and a sword on his back without looking utterly ridiculous. He is physically charismatic and believably destructive in the action scenes, more Robert E Howard's fast, powerful animal fighting machine than Schwarzenegger ever was. But his emotional range is limited to glowering fury and glowering desire with a couple of instances of loutish contentment in-between, and he always seems just slightly too American for the part.
Stephen Lang gives it his all as the villain - Rose McGowan is probably the best thing in the film as his steel-clawed Sorceress of a Daughter - and his intensity makes him watchable throughout.
The prologue, featuring the ever-dependable Ron Perlman (seemingly born to play Barbarian Warriors) as Conan's father, is the best section of the film, establishing Conan's "origin" and personality, and setting off the plot in a spare, enjoyable fifteen minutes or so. The story then, should feel like a major cornerstone in the heroes life, but instead it feels like the middle film in a long-running franchise, as if we've missed out on a series of more interesting, more exotic adventures.
It features a couple of good action sequences, but for the most part Nispel directs them for maximum visceral impact - the influence of "chaos cinema" obvious in his shot and editing choices - so that they are choppy and barely-coherent. The look of the film is also grim; a dirty palette looks like it was filmed through a filter of excrement, and the score isbull and forgettable.
What it does capture is some of Robert E Howard's feverish intensity, the sheer energy and passion of his pulp storytelling. Here that is manifested in a slightly demented quality; the violence is gory and hyper-exaggerated, the sorcery creepy, the wenches beautiful, the combat joyous. Conan cleaves off heads, tortures an enemy by sticking fingers into the hole in his face where his nose used to be, and generally pulverises anything that gets in his way. And believe it or not, that feels like Conan, as he should be.

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