‘Conan the Barbarian’ is the jock of the summer — big, dumb, prone to fights

Jason Momoa in 'Conan the Barbarian' — Photo courtesy of Simon Varsano / Lionsgate

Conan the Barbarian is probably a franchise that didn’t need to be revived. The 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film and the original stories served their purpose and are well remembered by fantasy fans. The 2011 remake, starring Jason Momoa as the man born of blood, is passably entertaining. It features a great deal of violence, actors doing their campy best and a short running time. You can’t fault a film for meeting low expectations.

Conan the Barbarian begins as many superhero/iconic character movies do: with the hero’s birth. In many ways, the film is an origins story, telling us how Conan got so damn violent. It turns out that he was born on the battlefield amid the treachery of war. As his dying mother leans against a rock, Conan’s father rips open her stomach for a homemade Cesarean section. The scene is gruesome and highly unbelievable. Conan’s father, Corin (Ron Perlman looking like Santa Claus’ deranged brother), merely cuts into his wife’s belly without even looking. Get this guy a license as an OB-GYN because little Conan comes out without a nick on him.

Flash forward to our barbarian’s adolescence. With his father now the tribal leader, Conan (played in this stage by Leo Howard) has the chance to prove himself with different feats of strength. When he dispatches a murderous horde in the woods, Corin realizes his little boy has the force … er, I mean the cajones.

Flash forward one more time and we find Conan all grown up, sporting a six pack and getting into drunken bar contests with his friends. He’s a bad-ass warrior at this point, and Momoa brings a believable ‘big-man-on-campus’ aspect to the role (I’m not sure if that’s a compliment).

The main conflict of the 113-minute feature is when a villainous man known as Khalar-Zym (Stephen Lang) seeks to capture the last part of a bone mask that will give him the power to rule all of Middle Earth … er, I mean Hyboria.

Khalar-Zym is a nasty man who wants to attain the status of a god. Helping him with the mission is his daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), an even nastier person who sports metal claws on the tips of her fingers. To complete their transformation and grab hold of world power, they need to find a pure-blooded woman to resurrect the body of Khalar-Zym’s wife. There’s never any explanation of what pure-blood means, and why they need the blood to complete the transformation.

They find their match in Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a lovely young lady who needs to skip town or suffer the consequences. There to help her is Conan and his crew. It doesn’t hurt that Conan is seeking his own revenge: Khalar-Zym is the man who killed Conan’s father right in front of the little barbarian’s eyes.

The movie, directed by Marcus Nispel, feels like an extended episode of Spartacus on Starz or Game of Thrones, the HBO series in which Momoa also stars as a barbarian. Me thinks he’s being typecast.

The action and violence are impressive. There is a lot of blood and carnage packed into less than two hours. There’s one scene where Conan sticks his finger through the chopped-off nose of an assailant. It’s difficult not to cringe.

The acting is probably appropriate for the movie’s obvious cheesiness. Momoa never oversells the part, and this helps him pull off both the battle sequences and the more intimate scenes with Tamara. Lang and McGown are like Boris and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle. They laugh. They kill. They have a relationship bordering on incestuous. Their camp factor wouldn’t work in any other movie, but in Conan the Barbarian it feels just right.

The screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood apparently pays homage to Robert E. Howard’s original characterization. The finished product is a movie and main character born of blood (and cheese).

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Conan the Barbarian

  • 2011

  • Directed by Marcus Nispel

  • Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood; based on the original character of Conan by Robert E. Howard

  • Starring Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Rose McGowan and Ron Perlman

  • Running time: 113 minutes

  • Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity

  • Rating: ★★½☆

  • Click here to purchase Conan the Barbarian on DVD.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

One thought on “‘Conan the Barbarian’ is the jock of the summer — big, dumb, prone to fights

  • August 26, 2011 at 8:37 am
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