A good Conan the Barbarian movie shouldn’t be that hard to make. The character is simple. He’s a buff, taciturn guy who caves in skulls and cuts his enemies in half with a gigantic sword. This is Conan. This is simple. And yet director Marcus Nispel has no idea what kind of Conan movie he wants to make. Is it a good, old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery flick? Is it a modern spin on the classic comic book? Is it a campy action movie? Is it a self-serious “realistic” drama? Perhaps a better movie could have melded all of these elements together, but Conan the Barbarian is an absolute mess, and even worse, an absolute bore.
First impressions are important. Nispel decides to kick off his Conan movie with Morgan Freeman doing the prologue narration. This is not a good idea. Morgan Freeman is a voice of dignity and gravitas. He’s also a voice that instantly makes the audience think about winning free tickets to the Super Bowl and “I hope I see my friend again…” This is not the voice you want over cool imagery that looks like it came from every metal album ever. Visually, the movie opens with a promising start and the premise isn’t too bad either: There’s a magic mask, it gives the bearer the powers of a god, the tribes of the land brought down the previous owner, and broke the mask into seven pieces. You’ll be wondering why they didn’t simply destroy the mask entirely, but it’s early in Conan and you want to give the movie the benefit of the doubt.
Then the movie looks like it will be awesome as Conan gets a partial-abortion birth when his pregnant mother is stabbed in the uterus. She dies, Conan lives, gets raised by his Cimmerian father/tribe leader Corin (Ron Perlman), and shows he’s going to be a badass warrior by brutally killing a bunch of savages (or folks that are more savage than his tribe). Then Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) attacks the village because he’s looking for the last piece of the mask (someone wanted to track down all the pieces of the mask? Inconceivable!) and he tortures Corin to find it. Lil’ Conan tries to save his pop, but to no avail. Zym gets the mask piece with the help of his creepy sorceress daughter Marique, burns Conan’s village to the ground, and the young Barbarian is the only one left alive.
We then cut to twenty years later and adult Conan (Jason Momoa) is busy tracking down Zym and his cohorts and doing good deeds along the way. Again, first impressions matter. The kid we’re introduced to in the beginning is grim, humorless, and eager to kill. One would think that the slaughter of everyone he ever knew or loved would harden his already-surly demeanor. But the first scenes we see of Conan is him freeing some slaves, partying with the topless former-slave girls, and arm wrestling with his pals. It is Conan as grinning-idiot frat guy. Then one of Zym’s lieutenants who burned Conan’s village just happens to walk into the bar, and Conan now has a lead to kill the main bad guys.
Meanwhile, Zym is now looking for the next piece of the puzzle: pureblood. You see, putting the damn mask back together was only half the equation. Now he has to fill it with the blood of the descendant of the mask’s creation. Zym is doing all of this so he can resurrect his sorceress wife and rule the world, although he wouldn’t need the former to accomplish the latter. Zym quest to bring back his dead wife is such a blatant ploy at making him a sympathetic villain that it lacks any weight. Plus, this is a Conan movie. The audience will accept that Zym and his creepy daughter (played as an adult by Rose McGowan) are just really awful people who want to conquer the planet. Anyway, Zym is on the hunt for the pureblood, the pureblood is a monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols), she runs away from Zym’s forces, runs into Conan, he half-heartedly protects her, and that’s enough to qualify as “romance” and the most awkwardly timed sex scene in recent memory.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that the story isn’t great. No one goes to a movie entitled “Conan the Barbarian” for a deep plot. They go for the tone and the action and Nispel delivers on neither. His leading cast members are in different movies. Perlman and Lang are playing it straight and trying to collect a paycheck. Nichols thinks she’s in a modernized re-telling where a sassy, strong independent woman can banter with the barbarian. McGowan gives an absolutely atrocious performance that could conceivably work if everyone was playing at her campy level. And Momoa is torn between two different movies. Half of him is Conan. It’s taking the Khal Drogo persona from Game of Thrones (who was basically Conan) and correctly applying it to this movie. But the other half is the charming, man-of-the-people Conan who is “relatable” in the way that jocks are “relatable”. Having each character exist in a different movie throws a well-constructed tone out the window.
The other half of the failure-equation is Nispel’s inability to choreograph and shoot action on the scale required by a movie like this. He showed he could build tension and deliver brutal kills in his remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, but he’s out of his depth when it comes to fights. The majority of the kills are uninteresting and even if there’s some creativity, Nispel ruins it by over-cutting or jerking around his camera as if that will create some excitement. The result is just boring kill after boring kill and that’s a serious problem considering that Conan’s job description consists of killing and more killing.
Having someone say “By Cr0m,” [Correction: I’ve been told it’s “Crom”, not “Krum”. My apologies.] and giving a muscular man an iconic sword doesn’t make a Conan movie. The first step to making a successful Conan flick is to understand Conan and his universe and not just its iconography and catchphrases. Then you have to make sure every actor understands the movie you’re trying to make. Finally, you better make damn sure you know how to competently film exciting melee combat since there’s going to be a lot of it. I’m not sure how Conan went so wrong but, by Crom does it suck.