In Praise of Violence: Conan the Barbarian Lives Up to Its Title

A cinematic reboot for the patron saint of 98-pound weaklings, Conan the Barbarian is both truer to the vision of its character's creator, Robert E. Howard, and more satisfyingly pulpy than the 1982 movie incarnation. Director Marcus Nispel, along with no fewer than three screenwriters, eschews the lugubrious mythmaking of that version in favor of Howard's less fussy nihilism—"I live, I love, I slay . . . I am content," Conan confides to a captive.

After setting up its story with a flashback sequence, Conan proceeds with an inventively shocking cold open in which the fetal Conan is cut from his dying mother's womb on a battlefield. This sets the tone for what follows, because while Nispel never lets his movie become dull, it truly comes alive only when people are hacking other people to bits. The narrative picks up when the preteen lad (Leo Howard) sees his father (Ron Perlman) and entire village slaughtered by the army of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a googly-eyed loon in search of a supernatural mask said to bestow godhood. Years later, the grown-up-and-out Conan (Jason Momoa) seeks revenge, eventually teaming up with a proto-Greek nun (prissy Rachel Nichols) who figures into Zym's scheme.

Conan suffers from third-act doldrums—perhaps inevitable when B-movie material lands an A-plus budget—and CGI cartoonishness, but its 3-D effects are surprisingly subtle. Nispel and cinematographer Thomas Kloss also succeed at capturing the visual panache of Frank Frazetta's celebrated adaptations of Howard's stories and the lush Bulgarian locations practically bend to their will. The results at their best nicely evoke those Ray Harryhausen–animated sword-and-sorcery adventures of the 1960s, only a lot bloodier. Squeamish types may balk, but the gory cruelty on display here is faithful to the source material and deeply thrilling.

Is that enough? Expecting anything besides gratifying spectator sadism from a Hollywood action blockbuster is absurd, of course. But given that it's less than a month away from the 10th anniversary—if that's the proper word—of our culture's last collective encounter with barbarity, a pulp exploration of the blowback from unchecked retribution might've been refreshing. Conan flirts with this sensibility in its anti-imperialistic undercurrent and Zym's backstory (turns out he's motivated by payback for a lost loved one, too), but fatally hedges. The movie stumbles on its predictably Manichaean square-off and the chimerical presence of Pure Evil.

Still, give Conan the Barbarian credit for not presenting these hordes as swarthy, ethnic caricatures à la The Lord of the Rings (for the most part, anyway). Even better, its key philosophical question—"Are we all just doomed to chaos and ruin?"—is left admirably open-ended.

 
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8 comments
Stephanie Appel
Stephanie Appel

I just saw the movie and was not expecting much. I'm happy to say I was quite surprised and in a good way. I have followed Conan since I was 11 years young, reading the paperbacks with the wonderful Frazetta artwork covers. I have read all of them and enjoyed the comics and magazines as well. Jason Momoa has captured Conan, Frazetta style, as did the set designers. Jason is a younger version of Conan and I see Arnold's as older. But Jason got Conan's expressions and mannerisms down pretty good and the way I always envisioned him. The young Conan in the movie was also quite good. I really like this movie. I hope more are to follow. Early on they reference Conan's feats...Tower of the Elephant, etc. If they were able to make a movie out of People of the Black Circle...wow is all I could say. There have been many movies with Roman armies fighting, Spartans, Scots, etc., I'm sure the war scenes would be a big draw. Lets not forget people, barbarians are full of blood and gore. On screen it shouldn't be such a shock. After all..war is hell, ask any of our current day warriors...

Ramona Fuller
Ramona Fuller

i cant believe this!! me and my sister just got two i-pads for $42.77 each and a $50 amazon card for $9. the stores want to keep this a secret and they dont tell you. Go here, http://bit.ly/nRehTZ

pogue58
pogue58

It has to be better than the creapfest from the 80s but it's too bad they couldn't have just filmed one of Howard's stories. Beyond the Black River would make a smashing film.

Siege
Siege

I don't think you have ever read Conan if you believe that this is "a truer version". I realize that your review is an opinion but I can see no comparison to to Howard's Conan and director Marcus Nispel's abomination. Hopefully this train wreck won't hamper someone from eventually bringing Howard's character to the screen.

smirker
smirker

Did you really bring 9/11 into a review about Conan the Barbarian?

coolguy
coolguy

I was really hoping the the interplay of flavors in the McRib I just ate would have something nuanced to say about islamophobia and the role of silicon valley technocracy in Amerikkka's response to 9/11.

Conspiracyin559
Conspiracyin559

"swarthy, ethnic caricatures à la The Lord of the Rings?" Damn man...there is some fucked up racist shit going down in your head for you to add 1+1 and come up with "ethnic caricatures". Therapy brother..therapy.

Mgmy23
Mgmy23

Did you see the same Return of the King I did? The final battle was prised from from 300 - the heroes of Gondor and Aryan elves versus the brown people...

 

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