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Conan the Barbarian
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman, Bob Sapp

Written By: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood Directed By: Marcus Nispel

The Short Version

This is one of the most unfairly panned movies of 2011.

Unusually enough, the more familiar you are with Robert Howard’s stories, the more likely you are to appreciate this movie.

The action almost literally never stops.

Conan the Barbarian is all about swords and asskicking with a little bit of sorcery, pure and simple.

Set aside your preconceptions and get ready to rock with Conan the Barbarian.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Once you pop, you can’t stop.  Snack away, my friends.

Pairs Well With...


Preferably served by a topless wench.

“I live.  I love.  I slay.  And I am content.”

It’s a close call, but I think I had more fun with Conan the Barbarian than I did with any movie that I saw in a theatre thus far in 2011.  Having just watched it again at home, I haven’t changed my mind.

I admit that I’m quite surprised by this myself; in this era of remakes, I certainly wasn’t expecting anything out of this one.  However, what I discovered upon watching it is that someone finally bothered to read Robert Howard’s original stories before adapting this one for the screen, and put the true spirit of those pages up for all to see.  I can only conclude that the naysayers haven’t actually read the original material, because really, the only difference is that the sex in the movie is consensual, which (rightly) is the one concession that modern society demands.  Other than that… yeah, Robert Howard would be able to look up at the screen and recognize his muscular boy, all right.

And his muscular boy kicks some major ass.

Our story begins in the midst of a battle, as a pregnant woman is dealt a fatal blow.  Not yet dead, she begs her husband, the village chief (Ron Perlman, Hellboy), to hurry the birth of her child so she can see it before she dies.  He does, and ask her to name her son with her dying breath.  Her son’s name, she decrees, shall be Conan.

Years later, Conan is already a fine warrior even while still a boy, but his world is forever changed when a warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, Avatar) raids the village for a priceless magical artifact, murders Conan’s father, and burns the place to the ground for good measure.

After the passage of twenty more years, the adult Conan (Jason Momoa, “Baywatch”) has not forgotten the injustice done against his father or his people, and he still seeks revenge against Zym.  As we catch up to him in the movie’s present, he finally learns how Zym may be found, and it seems that finally, the moment for vengeance is at hand…

Look at the title of this movie, folks: Conan the Barbarian.  See that last word there?  Good, because it’s important, and some people seem to miss it.

The world of Conan the Barbarian is one of subsistence civilization, an early Dark Ages where the magic is real.  It is a world of hard fought battles where one’s abilities with sword, axe, and dagger mean not just glory, but survival.  It is a world where social niceties have nothing to do with knowing which one is the salad fork – you eat with your hands or your dagger anyway – but where social niceties have everything to do with being loyal to those who have done service or been loyal to you.  It is a world where wenches bare their breasts, and men bear their arms.  It is not a world of painters and thespians.  It is a world of barbarians, and it reflects wonderfully the world created by Robert Howard in his stories.

As is true of the stories, the action rarely stops in Conan the Barbarian.  This is a world where one’s character is defined and developed by deeds much more than it is by words, and so that’s the philosophy that the filmmakers take.  Yes, it most certainly does happen to fit in nicely to the philosophy of “Short Attention Span Theatre,” but in this case, it also happens to fit in nicely with the philosophy of Robert Howard’s original world.  When Conan takes a shine to the woman Zym is after, Tamara (Rachel Nichols, Star Trek), he doesn’t whisper sweet nothings into her ear; he gives her a weapon and trusts her with his life to fight alongside him, and when she is captured, he goes to epic lengths to save her, but neither one ever says “thank you” or anything of the sort aloud.  They don’t need to.  That’s not the kind of society this is.  You want to prove you’re a man?  You don’t bluster about it.  You decapitate some Picts out in the forest when the other boys run, and let their rolling heads do the talking for you.  And thanks to director Marcus Nispel (Friday the 13th), that scene and others like it look good.  The combat is frenetic but still possible to follow so the audience can enjoy it, and the blood flows with much crunch-augmented freedom.  When heads get bashed in, they get bashed in.  There’s even a nose removal for a taste of something different, and a very gross irritation of that wound later on.  If you like some gore to go with your combat, then Conan the Barbarian is not going to disappoint.

There is also, as there should be in this world, some sorcery to go with the swordplay, and that in turn results in the audience very neatly being given the opportunity to enjoy both old school and modern fighting sequences.  Most of the fighting is old school brute force and finesse and “there’s no such thing as a wire out on the steppes.”  But when you’re dealing with warriors made of sand created by the kiss of a witch, they get to play with physics a bit, and so audiences who have gotten used to that sort of thing get to see the impossible maneuvers common to modern action when the sand fighters come out to play.  There’s fun to be had for all!

And yet, the sorcery element is balanced so as not to overwhelm the value of all of this swordplay and make the audience wonder why the magicians don’t just smite the world and be done with it.  (Though if you’re paying attention to the plot – as yes, there is a very clear and coherent one, which makes me wonder if some critics who panned Conan the Barbarian for a lack thereof actually bothered watching the movie – you get a fair enough explanation of the complexity of the task, as well as the fact that the magicians are sure as hell trying.)  There’s just enough there to make the world feel epic – for it’s always more epic when something mystical beyond everyday experience shows up – and to make for some very interesting moments.

Stepping into this world as Conan is Jason Momoa, who is frankly a perfect choice for the role.  He understands who his character is, and acts accordingly.  For those who already forgot, it’s called Conan the Barbarian.  This is not the sort of role that has casting directors calling for Gregory Peck or anyone who has been knighted for thespian contributions to society.  He’s a musclebound barbarian, with “the heart of a king and the loyalty of a bloodhound,” as his friend describes him, and Momoa gets that.  No, he doesn’t read his lines like someone playing Hamlet, nor should he be doing so.  He speaks as we expect Conan would speak, and he acts as we expect Conan would act.  Really, he doesn’t do a single thing wrong here.

One must also take note of Ron Perlman, however brief his time on the screen may be.  Regardless of his place in the casting order (there are rumors that many names were put forth before his, including Dolph Lundgren), he plays the role of Conan’s father wonderfully, and indeed, with all of the style befitting the father to a legend in an epic tale.  One has no trouble at all believing that the Conan we see in later life is the son of the hard but caring man played by Perlman.

Threatening to steal the show whenever she’s onscreen is Rose McGowan (Planet Terror), who you may have a hard time recognizing as the witch, Marique.  She laps this role up with gusto, playing it up for all the creepily gothic sexiness it’s worth and then some.  McGowan is genuinely fearsome as she slinks around, and proves to be at her most menacing when she smiles during kill scenes.  It’s obvious that she is having a blast with this part, and she proves to be a most memorable villainess indeed, to the point where the movie might have been even better if she had been given the lead in that department.  (Nice callback to Freddy by dragging the finger knives on the wall, by the way.)

Rachel Nichols also plays her part well as Tamara, the more “civilized” fish out of water who nevertheless shrinks neither from Conan nor from others who challenge her.  Yes, she needs rescuing, but she’s capable of doing her fair share of the work at it.  This actually represents a tough gig: most of the time, actresses get the “damsel in distress” or “I’m so tough I can take care of it all myself” pigeonholes, and nothing in between.  Nichols balances these two wonderfully, and shows once again that her gorgeous looks aren’t the only reason why audiences keep clamoring to see more of her.  (Speaking of which, if you think you saw more of her during the sex scene, you didn’t.  You’ll notice that you can only see naughty bits when you can’t see her face.  Alas, even though some of the scene really is her, she apparently has a nudity double.  This is my first complaint about the film, because I always find the use of doubles for anything other than safety purposes – i.e., stunt doubles – ridiculous.  Play the part or don’t.)

Moving on to my single biggest complaint about Conan the Barbarian, Stephen Lang is ridiculously miscast as Khalar Zym.  In a cast that otherwise works from top to bottom, he is the one piece that just does not fit.  Sure, Lang gets the asshole part of the role down fine, but he’s just not believable for even one second as a necromancer, or as a swordsman.  This is a guy who needs to play a villain with a gun if he’s going to play one – more to the point, he needs to play someone quintessentially American, which is of course as far off from this movie as one can get – and the world of Conan simply is not his.  He does what he can, but nothing can change the fact that he’s miscast.  Fortunately, he does bring just enough – and the rest of the movie is excellent enough – that the film suffers as minimally as possible from this particular blunder.

Beyond this, I have but one issue with Conan the Barbarian, and that’s the obviously computer generated hentai take on the Dweller sequence.  CG tentacles are just not epic, and really, that’s all that needs to be said there.

As for the rest of Conan the Barbarian, if it isn’t quite epic, it is certainly legendary in its presentation and a wonderful realization of Robert Howard’s fantastic world from so long ago.  This is a movie that deserves far more props than it got, and a satisfying action adventure that takes the terms literally.

Bottom line, Conan the Barbarian is bloody fun that’s high on action and true to the written works that inspired it.  It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s just one hell of a ride, and one hell of an adventure, and one hell of a lot of fun.  Now pass the mead, wench!

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

More From The Bar! | 300 | John Carter | The Viking Queen | Highlander |

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