The character of Conan was created by Robert E. Howard in the 1920s, but he didn't make it to the silver screen until 1982. It was John Milius' Conan the Barbarian that re-introduced the character into pop culture, and the film inspired countless knock-offs and copycats in the process. Some of them, namely Red Sonja, Kull the Conqueror, and the recent Solomon Kane, were also based on Howard's creations. And while there was a forgettable sequel in 1984 (Conan the Destroyer), this flick-friendly action hero has been kept in hibernation for way too long. It's a good thing that director Marcus Nispel and his screenwriters seem to have their heads on straight where this bloody pulp fiction character is concerned. Their new rendition of Conan the Barbarian is smoothly entertaining and admirably unpretentious about delivering what we want: muscle-bound heroes, vile villains, a few lovely ladies, and a metric ton of action movie mayhem. Were it not for the frequent nudity and the consistently gory violence, Conan the Barbarian would be any 15-year-old boy's new favorite film.
Ah, who am I kidding? 15-year-old boys are still going to fall crazy in love for this flick.
Those who walk in anticipating a remake of the well-admired Milius film may find themselves disappointed. But those, like me, who half-expected a big-screen version of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, will find a lot to like here. We open, of course, on a battlefield, and that's precisely where Conan is born. Poor mama has to suffer a gruesome C-section to introduce Conan to the world, but his loyal father (Ron Perlman) is there to take the infant home. We jump forward a few years, and young Conan's village is demolished by a brutal warlord. Next thing we know, Conan's all grown-up and still on the hunt for revenge -- whenever he's not liberating slaves from captivity or bedding a few busty wenches. A chance encounter with a slimy old foe points Conan in the right direction, and then we're off to Simple Gory Quest territory, and it's quite a lot of blood-soaked fun.
Just smart enough to avoid being teased, and more than simple enough to enjoy with only half your brain, Nispel's rendition of Conan earns a lot of points through sheer force of forward momentum. Many films of this ilk offer a handful of (hopefully) amusing action sequences punctuated by long and airy salvos of plot exposition, thin character development, and plain old screenwriting "shoe leather." Such is not the case here; there's not a single "dialogue" scene to be found that runs longer than seven minutes. Whether it needs to or not, Conan the Barbarian dives right into one action scene after another. Some are short and simple; others are elaborate and crazy; many are sweaty and gory. Suffice to say that Conan slays many enemies and teams up with a few colorful sidekicks on his quest to track down the outrageously evil necromancer known as Khalar Zym. Clearly, this is Saturday afternoon matinee material all the way.
Tossed into the mix are a slinky sorceress (Rose McGowan), a clever thief (Said Taghmaoui), a loyal hulk (Bob Sapp), and a beautiful damsel (Rachel Nichols). Stephen Lang, as Zym, is a consistently hiss-worthy bad guy, and the actor seems to be having fun with the role without having to chew through the scenery to do it. As for the new Conan, Jason Momoa fits the bill quite well. Women will love his manliness, men will enjoy his no-bullshit style of vengeance-seeking, and the producers will no doubt tag the guy for a sequel or two. Beyond the cast, one could argue that the director is the star of the show here.
Best known for his remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th (he also did the quickly-forgotten Pathfinder), Nispel steps into the big-boy action arena and acquits himself rather well. The director rarely resorts to hyperactive editing tricks, he keeps the narrative cooking even when there's no carnage on the screen, and he allows his production team and special effects wizards to create some strangely beautiful shots and locations. Some action scenes are tighter and more cohesive than others, but there's little denying that Nispel's Conan moves like a shot, tosses a lot of hardcore lunacy at the screen, and shows a decent amount of respect for basic matinee action-fests.
Despite a 3-D presentation that adds nothing to the final product, Conan the Barbarian may be one of the coolest surprises of the summer movie season. Not every movie has to have a deeper meaning or a streak of sweet humanity. All involved must know that a Conan the Barbarian flick is bound to be dismissed as mindless junk, but if all the mindless junk was this simply entertaining, film critics would have a lot less to complain about.