I’ll tell you the moment that Conan the Barbarian lost me for good: when the steaming turd farm that is this movie officially passed the point of no return. It came early on, as the young barbarian to be (Leo Hoard) watches his entire village getting slaughtered before his eyes. His father (Ron Perlman) – strapped into a fiendish trap in which molten metal will eventually be poured onto his face – looks over at the boy and says, “I love you son.”
If you have to ask what’s wrong with this picture, you sir are no Conan fan. Being a barbarian means never having to say, “I love you.” They don’t coddle their kids, they don’t get in touch with their feelings, and they never use the “l” word to anyone under any circumstances. Perlman’s unfortunate dialogue thus signals the total pussification of cinema’s greatest loincloth-clad bad ass. From there, the film only adds insult to injury. It finds a girly perfumed princess for him to love for no apparent reason, a bunch of slaves to free because he hates to see people in chains, and countless other details that basically eliminate the whole “barbarian” part of the equation. This Conan’s a stand-up guy, he fights for what’s right, and his uncouth edges only disguise the pure core of saintliness that all of his… wait, what?!
The original 1982 movie possessed no such squeamishness. It presented a world in a moral vacuum: divided not into good people and bad, but survivors and carrion. We watched its hero grow into the person he became through relentless, merciless punishment: the only crucible that could prepare him for such a landscape. His girl was an absolute equal who decked miscreants harder than he did; his reaction to people in open need of aid was “I missed the part where this is my problem.” He punched camels in the face, he spent priceless jewels on gruel and whores, and the only worthwhile act he ever committed came in the name of bloody revenge. That was a barbarian, by Crom!
The ethos also lent the first Conan a distinct identity that turned it into a minor classic (despite its overt campiness). This new version strips it all away. Conan (Jason Momoa) is born a mighty warrior and remains that way for the rest of his life, transforming him from a Niezschien ubermensch into a dull and colorless protagonist. Oh, he drops the pain hammer on the occasional miscreant and quaffs grog in all the local pissholes, but under that Neanderthal exterior, he’s just another nice guy with some six-pack abs. Momoa can deploy the Skunk Eye as often as he likes (and believe me, he does); it ain’t gonna change those basic facts.
A similar fate befalls the villains of the piece, none of who can hold a candle to James Earl Jones. Thulsa Doom held his followers in absolute mental thrall, such that they would cheerfully jump off a cliff at his command. How can a guy with a sword fight that? But again, the new Conan removes any actual interesting stuff in favor of by-the-numbers crap. The evil Khalar Singh (Stephen Lang) butchers villages like hogs and plans to bring a dead god back to life, but basically he’s just another fighter who Conan can dispatch the same way he does everyone else. Singh’s freakalicious daughter (Rose McGowan) prances around in pancake make-up and slices people open with a set of Freddy Krueger claws, leading one to wonder why Conan isn’t hanging out with her instead of the passive young ditz (Rachel Nichols) they set him up with.
So it goes through scene after excruciating scene. Enemies are dispatched with predictable amounts of Lionsgate CG blood, buxom wenches bare their breasts for no discernable reason, and the dusty landscape descends into perpetual gloom thanks to the interminable 3D glasses. Director Marcus Nispel manages to bungle every one of the multiple fight scenes with poor framing and nonsensical progression. The movie thus becomes a tedious hash of pointless conflict, progressing from nowhere to nothing and leaving only a greasy taste in the mouth as a reward.
In some ways, it’s not fair to compare it to the Schwarzenegger version; this Conan is blessedly its own beast and should be judged on its own merits. Even then, however, it trips right over its giant furry boots, and with that title in place, you can’t help but look back at the infinitely superior version that preceded it. We should be grateful to this new one, which only illustrates how much the older film brought to the table without our even realizing. That doesn’t make it any less of an ordeal to sit through, however. This guy isn’t Schwarzenegger; he isn’t even Kevin Sorbo… and he sure as hell isn’t Conan the Barbarian. How dare this film pretend otherwise.