Conan the Barbarian


So, I went to see CONAN yesterday at the first 2D showing. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t see it any earlier in my time zone, but I didn’t go because I’m such a huge fan. I’m not. I like Conan well enough as a character, but I went so early because of convenience’s sake.

And I write fantasy, so I thought I should see it.

Well, as you expected, it’s not really what you’d call a great movie. I did enjoy parts of it, though you wouldn’t think so to read this post.

There are a few things I expect to see in a good sword and sorcery movie (assuming somebody makes one someday) Spoilers!

1- Some semi-portentous talk about strength, weapons, self-reliance, and killing dudes who really, really need it.

2- A scene where any sane person would retreat, but Our Hero says fuck it and charges in. And wins.

3- Violence that provokes some feeling.

4- Some sorcery that makes sense and is actually scary.

Here’s the good news: This movie actually has the first three! Bad news: it’s all in the first twenty minutes before Jason Momoa shows up.

If you’ve seen the red band trailer, where Boy Conan takes on four Picts, you’ve seen number two. It’s a great sequence, very filmic, if only because the director knew how to stage it so you had a sense of space and understood where everyone was. When Boy Conan returns to the village with the heads (Shouldn’t the men have been getting their swords and organizing a rescue party? Oh that’s right, they had to all be standing around the same set waiting for their cue) that’s a great bit.

If only Jason Momoa had been given a similarly fun scene to play. Hey, Conan is a killer, thief, and pirate. The narrator (a wisely uncredited Morgan Freeman) tells us so. So when his buddy says, “These aren’t the villains of the movie you’re supposed to be looking for? Why stop for this fight scene?” he doesn’t need to respond “So I can free some slaves and make the audience like me.” Tell us he’s after gold (as well as hating slavers). Show us that he’s after gold.

Similarly, when Conan finally spots one of the villains lieutenants from the early scene (the least of them, ‘natch, because he has to level up through the movie) he actually conspires to have himself taken prisoner so he can get close enough to the guy he’s after.

Never mind that the lieutenant is in an open camp, not in a well-defended castle or fort. Never mind that Conan and his pals has just attacked an open camp and walked to victory in the previous fight scene. Never mind that he still has to fight all the same guards he would have fought in the first place, only now without a weapon. Never mind that when he hatched the plan, the guy he was after was right there for Conan to go after, and Conan was surrounded by his new best buds, the freed slaves.

I won’t drone on about the script problems (but I will return to them in a bit). Let’s switch to the direction. There’s a car horse/wagon/chariot race midway through the movie that had a pretty good chance of being great. Why wasn’t it? Because the director had no idea how to shoot it so you could tell who was where and what they were all doing.

Even worse is the idea that the final battle scene has to be some crazy clockwork of unstable footing and sudden falls, ludicrously precarious catches and dudes swinging swords at each other while they dangle over a precipice.

You know what was a really powerful, amazing sword fight sequence? The one between Vader and Luke at the end of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. You know why? We gave a shit. We were emotionally invested.

Because you know what? You need to be a really good director to yank a powerful response out of me with a fight scene in a precarious place. You need more than a couple of static shots of a chasm with a river of lava below. You need more than actors waving their arms as though they might fall.

And if you can’t do that, you’re going to have to make me care.

Let’s talk about the actors: Jason Momoa is going to take some shit for this role, but none of this is his fault. He plays it the way he’s been directed, and he throws his considerable charisma into it.

The same is true for Steven Lang, who has apparently been in a million things that I’ve never seen. He brings a terrific gravity to the role of the villain, and his desire to resurrect his wife is a fantastic motivation for a bad guy (even if it was all to become a god and rule the world blah blah blah.)

But the movie made him out to be the most depraved, incestuous, creepezoid ever. It’s like they had to double down on the EEEEVil to make him villain-worthy, then doubled down again. And it’s too much.

You know who was a good villain? Tyrian from DRAGONSLAYER. He wasn’t the evilest evil guy in eviltown. He was a guy who wanted to protect his people, and who thought the protagonists were going to do a lot of harm. He was sympathetic even as he murdered old men and threatened Our Hero.

So why does the bad guy in Conan have to be the baddest guy ever? Because, that’s why. Because it looks right for the villains to try to kill someone the plot has already established that they need to keep alive. Because the leader of an army willingly fights alone against a deadly opponent. Because using magic is just there to be perverse and sniff out your victims like a blood hound (or to summon a handful of mediocre fighters–Summon Myrmidon!). Because it’s not enough to hate a dude; it has to be the Greatest Hate Of All Hates.

Here’s what I want: I want a S&S hero who is clever and uses his brains along with his sword. I want to see the plot happen on the fucking screen, not be summed up at the beginning of the show by voice over. I want to see the villain’s deadly plan actually come to fruition, and then be stopped afterwards. I want a villain motivated by something other than the desire to do evil; can’t we find a sympathetic motivation that drives them to go beyond all reasonable action? While we’re at it, I’d like to see a climactic fight that suggested real peril.

Frankly, the movie has affected me about the way I expected it would: It made me want to write one of my own.

Oh, and here’s an afterthought: There were some women in the movie. Here’s what they got to do: flash some boob and giggle as he-men carried them off; shoot a bow; cast perverse, ineffectual magic and threaten people with her Lee Press-On paring knives; and look fetching/plucky/endangered up to the point they fucked the hero and got captured by the baddies for their ritual sacrifice. Isn’t it great that they played such an important role? (One thing: I was glad the movie actually allowed Conan to fight and vanquish the female villains. Too many movies arrange for the female villains to fight the female hero, as though the fight would look shame the good guy. Thumbs up for that, movie)

8 thoughts on “Conan the Barbarian

  1. Lang has been in a million things you *have* seen, he’s just a chameleon. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – you know the wimpy gay tabloid reporter? Lang. TOMBSTONE – remember scruffy Ike Clanton? Lang. PUBLIC ENEMIES (which sucked) – the FBI agent who kills Dillinger? Lang. Half the rom-com or drama movies you’ve seen with dads in their 40s? Lang. Crazy Kurtz-like villain in AVATAR? Lang. He’s hard to recognize. Can never be a star because he’s an actor.

    So, does anyone turn into a snake in this one?

  2. He was in MANHUNTER, not SILENCE… but I did see both of them. I don’t really remember his part, though.

    I haven’t seen those other movies.

    I did see LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and I remember him in that role, mainly because the ending was so ridiculous.

  3. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a good sword and sorcery movie that I really enjoyed and the only two that come to mind are DRAGONSLAYER and WILLOW.

    I think the second Schwarzenneger CONAN was kinda fun (hated the first one) and I remember digging RED SONJA, but to be honest that’s more because of Brigette Nielsen’s rack than anything else.

  4. David Gallo

    Ditto on Willow and Dragonslayer, but I gotta say Beastmaster. I freaking loved that movie.

    Also, Excalibur. Though it has less of #4. I prefer the evil cultists as villains almost every time.

  5. I think DRAGONSLAYER is a fantastic movie, but the hero isn’t a warrior so it doesn’t count as S&S. WILLOW I’m less fond of.

    And we’re upside down on the Conans. I thought the first one was flawed but cool. The second was pretty much a lame D&D adventure.

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