Movie review: ‘Conan the Barbarian’

In theaters

“Conan the Barbarian,” written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood and Robert E. Howard (Conan character), directed by Marcus Nispel, 113 minutes, rated R.

“Conan the Barbarian,” Marcus Nispel’s reboot of Robert E. Howard’s character made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1982, presents a world of male chauvinism rivaled only by professional wrestling and “Jersey Shore.”

It’s offensive, really, to our comparatively enlightened and progressive sensibilities in 2011. But that’s the point of “Conan,” right?

The film welcomes audiences to Cimmeria, a barbarian village in a world ruled by swords and sorcery, where grunts and war cries are about as sophisticated as conversation gets. During battle, a Cimmerian woman gives birth to a warrior prodigy, dying in the process. It’s bloody and disgusting, setting the tone for the rest of the movie.

The child’s name is Conan, and even as a young adult he is a fearless, ambitious and arrogant fighter. Under the guidance of his father, Corin (Ron Perlman, no surprises there), young Conan learns what it takes to be a real man and the secrets to forging steel. After all, it’s what a Cimmerian lives by.

His life lessons are cut short when a tyrant named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) effortlessly overpowers Cimmeria like an anthill in his quest to become a god, killing all the barbarians and leaving Conan a warrior without a tribe.

Conan (Jason Momoa) grows up in the world’s criminal underbelly, fighting for good by freeing slaves and prisoners from their captors. But he carries a desire for revenge every step of the way. It’s only when Conan crosses paths with Tamara (Augusta-native Rachel Nichols, a perfect damsel), a pure-blood sought for Zym’s occult ceremony, that his dream becomes tangible.

“Conan the Barbarian,” a movie where a man’s worth is measured by his bicep and women are treated as objects, is so out of place in 2011 that it’s a wonder it even got funded.

Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, and investors likely saw some appeal in the movie’s Red Bull-inspired pacing. Like the Cimmerians themselves, “Conan” lives and dies by the sword, hardly taking a breath between action scenes.

With such rapid-fire sword fights and battle sequences, there comes the sacrifice of character development. But, when you’re dealing with such simple, dare I say two-dimensional characters, it’s almost more merciful to keep the dialogue to a minimum.

Unlike so many blockbusters today, “Conan” accepts its simplicity, and with that it also accepts its stupidity. It’s less about the complexities of war or the conflicts that come with clashing philosophies, as it is about tapping into some raw, animalistic instinct that dwells deep in the corner of everyone’s mind. Nispel gets that.

Its outright rejection of social progression is the noose that will ultimately hang “Conan” for most audiences. In that, however, there’s a boldness and a devotion to the pulp stories of Robert E. Howard that might just win some over.

Grade: B-

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4 Responses to Movie review: ‘Conan the Barbarian’

  1. Al Harron says:

    ““Conan the Barbarian,” a movie where a man’s worth is measured by his bicep and women are treated as objects, is so out of place in 2011 that it’s a wonder it even got funded… Its outright rejection of social progression is the noose that will ultimately hang “Conan” for most audiences. In that, however, there’s a boldness and a devotion to the pulp stories of Robert E. Howard that might just win some over.”

    The irony is that Conan in the original stories was different, in that he treated women with a measure of respect unprecedented in the chauvinistic Hyborian Kingdoms, where women are treated as chattel and property. If he’s disdainful or dismissive of civilized women, it’s because they don’t measure up to the independent, fierce and egalitarian women of his barbarian homeland. Indeed, even in the original stories this treatment of women is considered to be a grave injustice of society: many of the stories featuring a female slave as a main character are told from her point of view, and even the female nobility and women warriors are constantly battling the patriarchal sexism of an ancient world’s mindset.

    Howard was amazingly ahead of his time when he was writing of female characters who refuse to accept their lot in society as “right,” and who actually show a little more backbone than the average pulp author. You’d think the makers of Conan would latch onto such feminist-friendly themes, but apparently it’s just easier to have a faux-action-girl and a Conan who treats women no differently from civilized men.

    “the complexities of war or the conflicts that come with clashing philosophies”

    That actually perfectly describes many of Robert E. Howard’s original stories. While they’re undoubtedly about “tapping into some raw, animalistic instinct that dwells deep in the corner of everyone’s mind,” every one of the original stories centres on the conflicts of clashing philosophies – specifically, the barbarian against the civilized. Much conflict comes from Conan’s worldview being fundamentally different from civilized people, at once more brutal and unforgiving, yet also more straightforward, free from hypocrisies and decadence rife in civilization. “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Rogues in the House” and “The God in the Bowl” perfectly explore that.

    For the complexities of war, one need only look at the likes of “A Witch Shall Be Born,” “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Hour of the Dragon” to see the political machinations and manoeuvring of kingdoms.

  2. Jack says:

    I read your pathetic, metrosexual review of Conan. I think you said ‘progressive’ three times. Really, you have to bring politics into a movie review of a film that took place during the medevil ages. There was no PC absurdities during these times. I haven’t seen the movie yet, who knows I may loathe it. However I give your review an F-. Keep your girlie man politics out of your movie reviews. Death to Progressivism, commie filth.

  3. Larry says:

    I haven’t seen this version of Conan but I’m thinking that your PC world view doesn’t reflect main stream America’s enjoyment of a good slash and hack film. I’m sure the film will make plenty of money. I agree with Al Harron’s review above. As many of us know, there is usually so much more in the written books than anyone bothers to put into movies that I often don’t bother go see movies made from story’s I enjoy. It’s just no fun to watch something good turned into something mediocre.
    I’m skeptical of the remake because of the previews I’ve seen for it, it doesn’t really do anything new from Arnold’s version.

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