Review: Conan the Barbarian
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Whether or not you can abide “Conan the Barbarian” will likely depend on how you react to its opening scene. Following a stock preamble of expository gobbledygook recited by Morgan Freeman (no gig too small!), a nameless woman is seen moaning in agony on a hellish battlefield, gripping her pregnant belly and begging to see her baby before she succumbs to war wounds. Enter Ron Perlman as the woman's brute husband, who proceeds to give a mid-skirmish C-section with a flick of his wrist, plucking out a son the wife names “Conan” in her dying breath. Perlman thrusts the bloody infant skyward, which leads to the fiery opening titles – a familiar logo run through with a broadsword. If the impromptu delivery lands its half-intended, holy-crap chuckle, you've come to the right place. If your first response is to throw up your hands (or your Junior Mints), best to head for the exit pronto.
Directed by Marcus Nispel, a go-to guy for needless remakes (see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” or don't), this update of the 1982 Ahnuld favorite is gratuitous, shameless, preposterous trash, sure to offend cinephiles and squeamish types alike. The lead performance (from former Hawaiian model and current “Game of Thrones” star Jason Momoa) is the baffling sort that suggests the director sat on set with no instruction except to say, “Do it worse.” The violence is such that attempts at justification would be senseless wastes of breath, and one scene is so cower-in-your-seat repulsive that it's branded in my memory (let's just say it's nothing to sneeze at). As a taloned, nutjob witch with a receding hairline and incestuous tendencies, Rose McGowan is fearlessly embellished, serving SyFy-miniseries realness in a show-stealing car wreck of a performance. And all of this, dear reader, I say out of quite a bit of love.
As shallow as your basic superhero flick, but graciously freed of crippling self-seriousness, “Conan” isn't just the year's best worst movie, it's one of the better mainstream offerings of the summer, ardently and adamantly devoted to all its B-fantasy schlock. As my gore-averse adult recoiled, my sorcery-loving 11-year-old lunged for more, and in that sick synergy I found a kind of delirious satisfaction. What's the film about? Oh, what does it matter? Conan kills some men when he's young, kills a whole hell of a lot more when he's older, learns a thing or two about the “mystery of steel,” tosses a few topless slave girls over his shoulder (they're only too happy to be tossed), and squares off with Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, prostheticized), the resident world-dominator and daddy to McGowan's witch, who offed Conan's father way back when. That's a full plate for Conan, and it's quite enough. As he tells Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a hunted, “pure-blooded” damsel who's laughably schooled in the ways of brutal dispatchment, “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.”
I could labor on how the battle scenes are so poorly filmed that they create a clanging claustrophobia, or how the movie joins a new club of 1980s updates that seem to cater to a nonexistent under-25 fanbase (Coco is surely the Conan of that demographic). But to hell with all that. I'd rather sing the praises of uninhibited stunts, like the catapulting of a mutant henchman, with whom the camera soars along a la “Dr. Strangelove” as he plunges toward a caravan with a message tied to his chest. Or how about the dust demons McGowan summons with a whoosh of her Wolverine fingers? Or the super-sized hydra who's “a feast for [Conan's] sword?” Or the duel between Conan and Khalar that's set atop a sacrificial apparatus, itself wedged between two cavern walls while Tamara's strapped inside of it? That's what I'm taking about. In “Conan the Barbarian,” reason and taste are jettisoned for balls-out, ultraviolent, Saturday-matinee adventure, which is somehow quite refreshing. This year, there is no better summer camp.