It was 2011 and after the fantasy genre had long been resurrected by the twin forces of a group of Hobbits and a bespectacled wizard kid, the big screen was long overdue for some down and dirty sword swinging, bicep flexing action. Step forward fantasy’s greatest barbarian Conan The Cimmerian, a long hair charismatic beserker who first sprung from the mind of pulp author Robert E Howard in 1932 and was immortalised in 1982 by the rippling muscle definition of a broad sword hefting Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Squaring up to John Milius’ admirably hard-edged take was an enjoyably stupid sequel which kept the violence but exchanged the copious amounts of grit with a highly camp attitude that was content to see it’s star wrasslin’ with caped bodybuilders in rubbery Halloween masks, but since then, attempts at the character had been notoriously thin on the ground. Enter: Millenium Films, the movie making factory that’s been keeping Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Butler in employment with various violent and politically questionable action franchises, whose credentials seemed perfect to rebirth this legendary character back to the silver screen with guttural utterances and gouts of blood.
The deranged warlord, Khalar Zym, has been on a bit of a tear of late, decimating kingdoms and villages alike in order to get his bloodstained mitts on the various fragments of the “bone crown”, a mystical piece of headgear that looks like a tiara designed by H.P. Lovecraft, built by Leatherface and has the ability to return his witchcraft wielding wife back from the dead. One such village flattened by this man’s quest to by the perfect hat for his spouse is that of young Conan’s, a gifted warrior who’s head cleaving skills are matched only by his volcano-like rage which his father strains to temper until he’s unhelpfully murdered.
Maturing to the shape and size of crowd pleasing beefcake Jason Momoa, Conan contends himself with roaming the land and violently freeing slaves when he isn’t spending his downtime stealing riches and fucking bitches, but when he finally gets a lead on Zym he locks into revenge mode. Why exactly it’s taken the better part of a decade for him to locate a world famous warlord isn’t addressed (shitty wifi, I’m guessing) but nether the less, off he jaunts on a seek and destroy mission but Khalar also hasn’t made much progress and still needs the final component to infuse the bone crown with the power he needs (what have these guys been DOING all this time?). The final ingredient takes the shapely form of Tamara, a pure-blood descendant of the crown’s makers, who flees her attacked monastery and promptly runs into Conan who natural acts the gentleman – just kidding. No, he takes her hostage heroically uses her as bait to lure Zym to him but eventually starts to warm to her after his plan falls apart.
Recuperating, Conan and Tamara plot to find a way to end the threat of Zym and save the land of Hyboria from his evil (judging by the teeth of his followers, good dental care would go straight out the window under his rule), but can the headstrong barbarian quell his rage, mind the lessons his father tried to teach him all those years ago and realise that not all of his problems can be solved with slicing people up with a sword the length of a basketball player’s leg?
Despite having such a plethora of names attached who appear born to bring Conan back to the masses, the film is frustratingly hampered by a painfully by-the-numbers script that seems to wilfully contain less surprises than a man with x-ray vision opening his presents on Christmas morning. Dragging that overworked plot device of the hero desiring revenge against a snarling despot who murdered his father isn’t just painfully unoriginal (it’s the plot of the freaking original for crying out loud), it’s carried out by filmmakers who seem to be as blatantly bored with it as we are.
This is a shame, because if anyone was going to make a modern Conan movie work, these guys had as good a shot as any. Director Marcus Nispel is hardly a filmmaking genius but the fact he’s rebooted not only The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but Friday The 13th as well means he’s highly proficient at pointing a camera at guesomely squirting arteries – plus he’s also responsible for the highly flawed but stylishly intriguing Pathfinder which saw Native Americans square off against towering Viking invaders so a visually interesting world where you live and die by the sword should also have been on the cards. To give Nispel his due; he does create the odd scene or incident that rings true to the material. Conan is literally forged in battle; cut from his mortally wounded mother’s womb by a shaggy, distraught and bellowing Ron Pearlman who hoists the gooey newborn above his head like it’s some fucked up death metal retelling of The Lion King. Various bouts of casual bloodletting occasionally peak the interest too, with the odd spot of grue proving to be either enjoyably gross (Spudgun from Bottom graphically loses a nose) or ridiculously excessive (a henchman is messily nommed in half by a giant octopus) but the repetitive nature of the action means that regardless of whether Conan’s hacking his way through humans, sand demons or the tentacles of that aforementioned Cephalopod, thanks to the fact that they’re all staged and edited in exactly the same way, everything has the samey feel of a badly programmed video game.
The cast try to elevate proceedings and future Aquaman, Jason Momoa certainly looks the part, but his usual, smash mouth charisma seems oddly muted thanks to having to rasp simplistic dialogue that can’t hold a candle to the iconic, clench-jawed bluntness of the ’82 classic, similarly Pearlman – surely a casting masterstroke as Conan’s grizzled papa – seems decidedly uninterested in proceedings and looks like he wishes he was out of his heavy looking costume and back on the set of Sons Of Anarchy.
Rachel Nichols’ virgin priestess, despite talking a good game, is relegated to damsel status repeatedly throughout the film but Rose McGowan, pouting from under an abnormally high hairline and brandishing Freddy-style claws purrs her way nicely as a hench-witch. However, it’s Avatar’s breakout villain, Stephen Lang, who is the lone, true, spark of life in the movie, baring his teeth like a feral animal while casually wearing an undulating bone crown like it’s the most natural thingie the world, his take on the film’s big bad circumvents a bland, run of the mill baddie and pumps life into his scenes by simply being the genuinely intimidating bad-ass he obviously is in real life.
Thanks to the popularity of such shows as Game Of Thones and The Witcher, it would seem that if someone wanted to take another crack at Conan’s serialized adventures then maybe television would be the smart way to go with him wandering, Mad Max style, through adventures in the vastly expanded world a ten episode season would give him – failing that, maybe we could finally get Schwarzenegger’s long mooted King Conan which details the aged Cimmerian at the end of his life in a dusty, Logan-esque adventure.
However, whenever (or even if ever) Conan was to return, it needs to be more memorable than this, rather slight outing (the thing is noticably under two hours long despite boasting a stunning 8 minutes of credits!) that proves that even with a ton of muscle and gore, you still need a brain to unlock the secret of steel…