Conan The Barbarian

>> Monday, August 22, 2011

Do I even feel like reviewing this movie? Don't get me wrong--as much as I wanted to be skeptical, I actually liked the damn thing when I saw it with friends this weekend, notwithstanding its fairly evident flaws. I just don't know if I feel up to doing a movie review worth anything today, although I don't really feel up to much of a blog entry today.

This is--from my point of view, at least--the joy of writing a blog. If I were a movie critic for some big-time newspaper like the Sheboygan Tattler, I'd probably have to cut the first paragraph. But because a blog is, by its nature, self-indulgent, I can sit here and say that I don't know if I feel like writing about this movie, which wasn't all that good from an objective perspective and yet was an enjoyable experience from the subjective.

There is a probability that any movie about Conan of Cimmeria is practically unfilmable. You have a character, invented by pulp legend Robert E. Howard, who is basically a kind of prehistoric-age-of-legends superhero. He isn't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination--he's impetuous and often reckless--but he's also pretty self-evidently the biggest badass on the page he appears upon, cunning, bold, strong, fast; I've often imagined an NBA player's build might suit Conan well, but how many NBA players have any talent as an actor? What Conan isn't is a big, hulking, monosyllabic tank; casting, oh, I dunno, an Austrian bodybuilder in the role is probably about as terrible a miscasting atrocity as you could possibly commit, but there you go (honestly, casting a short, waifish woman as Conan would at least have some kind of crazy bug-eyed camp value or something). There's also a problem with the sorts of adventures Howard's creation has: CGI alleviates things a bit these days, but Howard's Conan wanders all over this prehistoric, mythic world full of ancient civilizations and savage landscapes fighting off Lovecraftian horrors with a variety of weapons ranging from improvised-whatever's-lying-around to swords and axes nearly the size of the guy wielding them, in whatever employment setting struck Howard's fancy when he sat down at his typewriter--i.e. Conan is a king in one story and a pirate in another, and then there are the stories where he's a thief, a mercenary, whatever. Anyway, point is, it can be kind of tricky to pull together a relatively coherent plot out of all these threads, and then to make the collapsing ruins and tentacled monstrosities and whatnot look as awesome as they look inside your head when you're reading this stuff. And speaking of reading, before I mosey on let me mention that Howard was arguably the best writer of his milieu: able to write nailchewing pageturners remarkably free of the purple prose and turgid plotting and sheet-thin characters that show up in so many of his pulpy peers' weird tales and amazing stories.

And the thing is, if you're going to do a Conan movie, you don't really have to be faithful to the plot but you do sort of owe something to the character. Hm. Well, it's tricky. I certainly have enjoyed James Bond movies where there wasn't a lot of similarity to anything Ian Fleming ever wrote. Then again, there's some point where you've taken so many liberties that it's a cheap trick that you're using the character's name at all, the only reason you didn't call him something else is that the suckers in the paying masses wouldn't go see a movie about an adventuring American travel agent/spy named Bernard Waggins but if you call him "James Bond" all over the poster you might con a few people too timid to ask for their money back.

This is all rumination to wind around to: Jason Momoa turns out to be a pretty darn good Conan, looking like somebody who could swing a sword around for a few hours and then climb a wall and shimmy his way in through a tight spot, get clobbered from behind only to stand up when he regains consciousness and do it all again. All of this is abetted, of course, by modern Hollywood's action film trickery--the wire fu techniques that the Wachowskis brought over here plus CGI plus the past couple of decades' improvements in fight choreography--but that's not a complaint. Momoa also has a fell smile and is a solid enough actor one can believe he's a smart guy who might be digging poems in his off time1 (sorry, Arnie).

This is one of the things the new Conan gets right. The Frazetta-ish landscapes with their cyclopean ruins and weirdly cosmopolitan cities-on-the-edge-of-nowhere is another. And I'm pleased to say there's a tentacled monstrosity towards the end of the movie that is perfectly Howardian: it's huge and (well) monstrous, but the bulk of it is never seen and the suggestion or implication is that it's a horror from a forgotten age that has been at the bottom of its timeless well forever and ever and its decadent "masters" simply took advantage of its location to build a vast terror chamber over it, which is exactly the kind of Lovecraftian touch that make Howard's stories not just sword-and-sorcery or precursors to sword-and-sandal epics but weird fantasy--they fit into horror as much as they fit into heroic, you know. There's just enough magic and there's a little bit of pirate movie, and these things are good and Howardian, too. If you like Conan and you like Howard, this movie isn't perfect but I think it's the best to date.

That said, for every two things they get right, they get about three wrong. The gods only know how that still manages to be an entertaining movie that I liked, but there you are. The CGI that lets them get the right look for the Hyborian Age sometimes fails them when it just isn't rendered that well. We saw the movie in 2D (which is how it was shot; the 3D was added in post-production), but that didn't make the "hey, this movie has 3D-ey bits" moments less irritating. Some magically-spawned sandmen are a neat idea that is poorly executed with a mix of live stuntmen and CGI sprites, neither of which (I'm afraid) are particularly convincing. A number of subplots, such as an implied incestuous relationship between the main villains, manage to find a sour spot between "not developed enough to be interesting" and "too developed to be ignored" and die there. And the less said about the main plot--there's an evil mask the barbarian tribes took from Sauron The Evil Wizard McGuffin and scattered in pieces round the world, and now the main baddie is gathering those pieces and wants to glue them together with the heroine's magic blood (hint: Super Glue or epoxy usually works better for that sort of thing)--well, less said about the plot, the better, and I've probably already said too much.

Leading lady Rachel Nichols' character is just impossible and I'm not sure she'd be all that good even with a better script. One of the things that's a little odd about Howard--and I'm not sure how much I want to get into this--is that his sexism and racism are a bit peculiar and don't map onto contemporary idea about such topics; that Howard almost certainly thought a certain sort of Northern European male was heir to a certain kind of robustness and vigor is sort of obvious from his writing and not at all inconsistent with his time (the first part of the 20th Century) and place (Texas); and yet Howard nonetheless seems to have had this idea that this European male type's birthright wasn't something he had a monopoly on or couldn't lose, and so you end up with a few badass women in a few of the stories (for instance) and more than a few wussy European males who have had their virility crushed by civilization's influences. Anyway, the point being that Nichols' character, Tamara, is certainly Howardian enough when she's driving a sword into some reaver and giving it a nice twist, but mostly she runs around screaming "Eeeeek" which, aside from making her not much of a Howard heroine, makes her as annoying as hell and there's more than a few moments where you want her character to die in a fire.

As with the 1982 Conan The Barbarian, the makers of this one insist on giving us a whole backstory about Conan's childhood, which still bewilders me. Howard never gave us one, and while it may not seem like a big deal that others have gone back to fill in those details, you have to bear in mind that part of the awesomeness of Conan is the way he typically rolls into a story sort of like the Man With No Name2 in a spaghetti Western, wrecks up the place and rolls out. Giving him a past really answers questions nobody should actually care about. However, I also have to admit that while the Kid Conan stretch of the movie is a horribly misguided idea, Leo Howard (Kid Conan) is pretty good and Conan's old man is played by the magnificent Ron Perlman, an actor who really ought to be cast in every movie ever made as a matter of Federal law. I also have to concede that although I really don't like the fact that the Kid Conan bits are in this movie, they nonetheless feature some of the movie's best scenes, including a whole sequence where this little kid delivers a righteous smackdown to a group of hapless Picts and then brings their heads home, a scene which more than makes up for the filmmakers totally stealing a subsequent scene from Batman Begins.

Again, funny how that works. The list of things wrong with Conan The Barbarian outpace the list of things that are right about it, and yet this one might even be a movie for the DVD collection at some point. I think I wrote earlier in this piece that it gets two things right for every three things it fucks up, and yet on the balance, it's actually a really enjoyable film. Aside from all of Nichols' screaming, that is. They really needed to put a sock in that.

I'm going to say you oughta go see this one.

Conan shook his lion head. "No, Prospero, he's beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo's songs will live forever."
-Robert E. Howard,
"The Phoenix On The Sword"

2Clint Eastwood's character is named Joe in A Fistful Of Dollars (or at least that's what the bartender, Silvanito, calls him--maybe he calls all gringos "Joe"); Monco in For A Few Dollars More; and "Blondie" in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (though this might merely be a descriptive nom de guerre). "The Man With No Name" was a marketing thing some guy at United Artists came up with when they picked up the first movie for American distribution, notwithstanding that he apparently has a name, and which stuck through the "sequels" even though it's pretty obvious when you watch all three that Clint Eastwood is playing three different-albeit-similar characters who all, indeed, possess a name in each movie.

"Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Proudly Helping People Win At Trivial Pursuit Since 2007."


Janiece Monday, August 22, 2011 at 5:19:00 PM EDT  

We liked it, too. Although every time Conan drove his broadsword into the ground, I cringed. Like a smith's son, raised to have appreciation for such a fine piece of weaponry, would abuse it in such a fashion.


Eric Monday, August 22, 2011 at 5:38:00 PM EDT  

I got a smile out of that whole silly business, Janiece: apparently scabbards weren't invented until well after steel was.

vince Monday, August 22, 2011 at 5:46:00 PM EDT  

I was debating seeing this, as I like the Howard stories and many of the stories written by others about Conan. You and Janiece have helped me decide - I'll see it.

Tom Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:08:00 PM EDT  

Not only was Howard from Texas, but from extremely small town Texas. Even today Cross Plains doesn't have a traffic signal. It's about 30 miles from from my sister's place. My mom talked to some of the old timers there, and they told of a drunk, half-dressed Howard acting out Conan scenes with a big sword, spouting dialog and everything. Very interesting to put Howard and Conan together with Cross Plains, Texas.

Eric Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:42:00 PM EDT  

Tom, you inspired me to hit up Cross Plains on Google Maps. They actually have Street View for the main drag.

Which, after looking at it: wow.

I kinda hate to say it, but getting drunk and half-naked and waving a sword around looks like the only thing for a man to do down there. I mean, I imagine there's only so much cattle feed you can buy before that gets old. Wow.

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