Although the sword-and-sorcery subgenre has experienced something of a revival of late, there is a glaring lack of evidence — aside from HBO’s Game of Thrones — to suggest that this has been a good thing. Days would surely be sunnier had Clash of the Titans, Season of the Witch and Your Highness never existed, but exist they do, and that’s something we must all come to terms with in some way or another. On the flipside, one might argue that it’s because these horrors exist that it becomes easier to appreciate a film like Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian, a remake of John Milius’ 1982 fantasy epic about a barbarian named Conan (who knew!). Much like the original, the new Conan is, well, watchable. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you think that sounds like faint praise, you’d be right: Nispel’s Conan is generic, mindless and often unintentionally hilarious. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t amusingly gruesome and occasionally thrilling as well. In fact, there were a few moments peppered throughout this action-packed epic where I actually found myself – *gulp* — having fun. But please, keep that to yourselves, because if there’s any pleasure to be had watching a movie like this, it’s almost certainly of the guilty variety. And having previously enjoyed Fast Five this year, I’m feeling guilty enough already.
I mentioned earlier that this is a remake, but that’s not entirely true. Both this film and the 1982 original are adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s fantasy tales from the 30s, and as far as I can tell, Nispel’s is more in line with the tone and mythos of Howard’s vision. The ‘story’, for lack of a better word, begins with Conan (Jason Momoa; Game of Thrones) being prematurely plucked from his mother’s wounded womb during battle, a scene that manages to be far funnier than the entirety of Your Highness without ever intending to be. Over the years, Conan becomes a promising young Cimmerian warrior under the mentorship of his father (Ron Perlman; Hellboy), but his training is cut short when the power-hungry warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang; Avatar) wipes out their village, killing dad in the process. This does not amuse Conan in the slightest, who spends the next decade pumping iron and guzzling protein shakes so that he’ll look damn good shirtless when he finally enacts his revenge. Zym, meanwhile, is busy trying to resurrect his dead witch of a wife, a process that requires the sacrifice of a pure-blooded monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols; Star Trek). Tamara would much prefer it if this sacrificial ritual did not happen, so she teams up with Mr C. Barbarian as he endeavors to separate Zym’s head from the rest of his body.
Rather than rehashing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mechanised rendition of Conan, Jason Momoa brings a welcome dash of humanity to the titular character, making his otherwise cheerless, misogynistic and mass-murdering qualities that little bit more palatable. Momoa also hacks and slashes with greater vitality and fewer tennis-playing grunts than Arnie, even if his biceps don’t quite compare.
After spending the first fifteen minutes developing the bond between Conan and his father, the three writers obviously grew weary of petty things like characterisation and plotting, opting instead to let Conan’s swinging arm resolve any remaining conflicts, and fill any remaining plot holes. The action, in spite of the rapid-fire editing and murky 3D, is appropriately grisly and intense, with one scuffle involving an army of teleporting sand warriors proving to be the most fun. Still, there’s only so many ways a sword can kill a man — and only so much CGI blood that can be shed in the process – until the action starts to become something of a chore to sit through.
But, like I said earlier, Conan remains watchable. And as someone who knows all too well what an unwatchable film is like to watch, that’s good enough for me.