Conan the Barbarian Review: I’m a Barbarian, Not a Thespian, Dammit!
There’s a great line from Woody Allen’s film Love and Death. Diane Keaton says, “Sex without love is such a meaningless experience.”
To which Woody Allen responds, “Yeah, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
That sums up how I feel about the latest Conan movie. And I think that’s the first time Woody Allen has been quoted to review a Conan movie.
Conan the Barbarian is the latest iteration of the franchise. There have been two movies with Arnold Schwarzenneger, a short lived and even more shortly remembered Conan television series, a cartoon series (yes for kids; it featured no bloody violence, and yes it’s odd to watch), eighty years of comic strips and dozens of novels. It was created by Robert E. Howard, and when he wrote them he wanted a simple, straight forward protagonist. Someone who didn’t talk or scheme his way out of a situation. Someone who just fought his way through everything with savagery and gusto. For the fanboy, Conan was the equivalent of 70’s punk rock and 80’s metal. Simple, to the point, and a fun way to vicariously let out your aggressions and teen-aged frustrations.
Living in the fictional, t-shirt optional universe of the Hyborean Age, Conan carves his way through slave smugglers and occult leaders with glee and vitality. And in this movie, he also exercises a bit of creativity, as evidenced by one scene involving a key and a severed nose.
Jason Momoa plays Conan. He doesn’t have the Charles Atlas physique of Schwarzenegger. But he looks very convincing severing a head and leaping from rock to rock. He’s not a great actor. However, there is a look in his eyes of panther-like focus and ferocity that suits the character perfectly. This is not the Conan of the popular conscious, but the Conan which Howard intended. The ferocity and instincts of an animal, combined with the morale code and wit of a man.
In reviews for this latest movie, critics said that it was full of just mindless violence. My response to which is, “Did you look at the title?”
Variety is the spice of life. Rules of the Game and The Godfather are like mother’s milk to cinephiles. But sometimes you’re just in the mood for on-screen violence (as opposed to off-screen violence; if you’re in the mood for that I suggest a career in MMA or a good therapist). Watching Conan for a quality film experience makes as much sense as listening to “La Boheme” because you want to dance. Or relaxing to Iggy Pop. My artistic expectations of a sword and sandal film run about as high as they do for the late night soft core found on Cinemax.
But shouldn’t all movies aspire to high qualities of acting and direction? Yes, and thank God for Martin Scorsese. But, one might continue, can’t we have an action movie that provides action and high brow appeal? Yes, as we did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle. But I refuse to damn all other movies because they aren’t on par with these movie paragons. Just give me the action.
There is plenty of that in this movie. And when there aren’t swinging swords and smashed brains, there are topless women standing in the background. There’s also some male nudity as well. This is the new millenium after all.
Conan fights. There’s some dialogue to explain the plot. There’s some motivation (bad guys killed his family, blah blah blah). There’s some more fighting. There’s a romance.
What? A romantic subplot? Yes. Rachel Nichols stars as the high priestess in distress who must be saved. Nichols is becoming this age’s B Queen movie, with stints in P2 and G.I. Joe. And she’s just good enough an actress to make one think that maybe she was cast on something more than her looks. The most surprising plus of this movie is the chemistry between her and Jason Momoa.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the best action scenes take place early in the film, and the final fights seem somewhat pedestrian in comparison. But that’s a quibble. If you want over the top action, this movie is worth a look. If you’re not in the mood, fine, but you won’t find much else to like here. Conan is single-minded, violent, but proud of who he is and what he does, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. The same can be said of this movie. And on that criteria alone, this movie’s actually perfect.