If the slate of films coming out of Hollywood lately has taught us anything, it’s that the industry’s obsession with remaking classic properties tends to be an all-or-nothing gamble. In most cases, a film either succeeds at winning over the original fans and new audiences alike, or it manages to miss both audiences completely.
Basically, for every “Star Trek,” there’s also a “Land of the Lost.”
So where does Marcus Nispel’s reboot of Conan the Barbarian stand?
Well, while it isn’t exactly a flawless victory, the big-screen reboot of Robert E. Howard’s famous barbarian manages to do exactly what it needs to: offer a compelling introduction to the main character for new audiences, while reassuring longtime fans that he’s still the sword-swinging, pec-flexing, blood-thirsty killer they came to see. In the end, though, the film spends so much time trying to win over both audiences that it occasionally feels a bit bipolar, which does a disservice to what’s otherwise an enjoyable film.
Still, the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to the return of the famous Cimmerian, and depending on what you go into the film expecting, you should be able to find a lot to like about Nispel’s take on Conan.
Rebooting the brute
First and foremost among Conan the Barbarian’s conquests is the performance of lead Jason Momoa, who offers up a leaner, quicker, wittier version of Conan, more akin to Howard’s original stories than the brutish version of the character made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike his predecessor, Momoa embodies both the barbarian and the thief aspects of the character, and shares a lot more in common with the literary source material than some theater-goers will probably realize.
However, it’s the difference between Momoa and Schwarzenegger’s versions of Conan that will likely give this reboot the most trouble, too.
Even as someone who’s read Howard’s original Conan stories, it’s difficult not to go into the film expecting — and perhaps wanting— to see someone ask Momoa “What is best in life?” The fact that this exchange never happens, and that there are few (if any) nods to the mythology developed in the prior films, manages to be both a positive and negative for Conan the Barbarian. Nispel’s rebooted Conan wants to distinguish itself from the films that came before and honor the original spirit of the character, but one can’t help wondering whether audiences looking for something resembling a scene-for-scene remake of the 1981 film will be a little confused.
Nevertheless, Momoa’s reinvented take on the character isn’t the only element of the film worth praising.
While the film has some trouble deciding whether it wants to be a hard-R film or something a bit softer, it’s obvious that Nispel and his Conan team made an effort to embrace the savagery of the Hyborian Age. Described as a character “born on the battlefield,” Conan is introduced in shocking fashion during the early moments of the film, and things only get bloodier from that point on. In one particular scene, a young Conan is ambushed by a scouting party from an enemy tribe while running through the forest, and instead of running away like the other children, he proceeds to slaughter the enemy hunters with brutal, flinch-inducing abandon. He then returns to the village with his enemies’ severed heads, dropping them to the ground in front of a stunned crowd.
It’s clear that the adults of the village (including Conan’s father) don’t quite know what to do with Conan in the aforementioned scene, and Momoa’s grown-up version of the character manages to elicit the same reaction from many of the people he encounters. Unlike his muscle-brained predecessor, it’s hard to get a read on this iteration of Conan, and that serves the character well.
Back to the books
Nispel’s Conan reboot also works in some obvious nods to the character’s literary adventures. Along with several characters culled from Howard’s novels, there are also a fair share of monsters appearing in the film that have some history with the Cimmerian — specifically the tentacled Dweller in the Deep, which can be seen in some of the early trailers for the film. Momoa’s battle with the creature is a great example of the movie paying homage to the character’s roots while also winning over new audiences with a well-done action scene.
A few rough edges
That’s not to say that Conan the Barbarian wins the battle on every front, though. As I alluded to a few times already, the film has its share of identity issues. For example, despite all of Momoa’s gruff posturing and reminders that Conan is first and foremost a barbarian, there’s still an obvious effort to play up the romantic element of Conan’s relationship with Tamara, the female lead played by Rachel Nichols. These two themes rarely play nice together in the film, and the recurring switch between “angry Conan” and “Conan in love” makes the character seem a bit schizophrenic at times.
Less damning, but still not among the positive elements of the film, are a pair of uninteresting roles for Stephen Lang and Ron Perlman, who would both seem to be obvious casting calls for a film like Conan the Barbarian. Sadly, both actors manage to be somewhat forgettable as the film’s villain, Khalar Zym, and Conan’s father, Corin, respectively. On the other hand, Rose McGowan makes for a terrifying villain as Khalar Zym’s daughter Marique, a witch with razor-sharp nails and a fashion sense that’s equal parts creepy and sexy (which has become sort of a staple for her, really).
Conan the Barbarian also continues the trend of being presented in 3-D (via post-conversion), but showing no real use of the 3D format. While the 3D doesn’t detract from the film in any way, it doesn’t actually add anything to the experience except a few extra dollars on the ticket price.
All things considered, Conan the Barbarian is a fun reintroduction to the character that manages to overcome the problems that plague so many other reboots. Momoa is not only a worthy successor to the Cimmerian’s throne, but there’s an argument to be made that he’s even better than his predecessor at bringing the vision of Conan’s creator to life on the big screen. The film isn’t free of flaws, however, and I can’t help hoping it does well at the box office, because it’s exactly the sort of film capable of spawning a sequel that’s even better than the original.
(Conan the Barbarian is rated R and has a running time of 112 minutes)