The original Conan the Barbarian displayed a fiendish paradox. It was geared towards adolescent boys, but the crux of its appeal – gratuitous violence and lots of boobies – barred those self-same boys from entering the theater. In an era where Netflix didn’t exist and video rentals were only starting to become popular, that presented quite a challenge. The solution, filmmakers reasoned, was to deliver a series of PG knock-offs that delivered the same basic formula only with the scary grown-up edges filed off. The siren song proved so tempting that even Conan himself submitted to it. Hence, Conan the Destroyer: a kinder, gentler swords-and-sorcery epic deemed safe for the core audiences while still delivering an approximation of those old thrills.
There’s only one problem. Those old thrills were kind of the purpose of the enterprise. The whole reason the target audience wanted to see the original Conan the Barbarian so badly was because of the forbidden fruit it dangled so tantalizingly in front of their eyes. Take away that fruit – or worst, deliver some safer, blander version of it – and the magic drains away. It’s like listening to George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” with the cursing bleeped out. You fundamentally miss the point.
So it is for Conan the Destroyer, despite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s swaggering return to the role that made him famous and a bevy of supporting performers seemingly made for this kind of thing. Grace Jones as a wildcat Amazon? Wilt Chamberlain carrying a spiked mace? Sarah Douglas dusting off her Superman II routine for a curtain call? Bring it on! Sadly, the story – which sends Conan on a complicated quest to help a princess fulfill her destiny – seems pulled out of a third-rate Dungeons & Dragons session rather than the we-go-to-11 mind of creator Robert E. Howard. Fight monster. Avoid trap. Figure out puzzle. Fight another monster. Collect treasure. Go home. Realize you’ve been betrayed by the angry queen who set it all up, and kill the queen’s Lovecraftian frog god by letting Schwarzenegger bellow at it. 2,000 XP for everyone and somebody can marry the princess if they want. The end.
The storyline suffers in part because it’s lazy and doesn’t understand why the first film rocked so hard. It loses the savagery: the killed-or-be killed primitivism that made Conan the Barbarian such a hoot. Instead, we get a bigger budget, more elaborate effects and decidedly fewer opportunities to give a shit. Schwarzenegger flexes his pecs, but he feels less like a bad-ass anti-hero than a loveable mug who colors outside the lines a little bit. In other words, like any other low-rent good guy instead of the cheese-tastic pulp icon he needs to be. And where Arnold goes, the whole film follows.
Director Richard Fleischer puts some flash on the surface. The sets look good and the various obstacles Conan and his buddies overcome carry some pizzazz to them. If you need something pretty on the TV in the background while you vacuum the floor, you could do a lot worse. And that again seems to violate the purpose of the exercise. We never feel like we’re in an ancient land where death stalks the unwary and only the strongest survive. Fleischer, a Hollywood veteran with over 40 years of credits to his name, simply plays it too safe for the material. We’re left watching some interesting faces wander through gussied up soundstages in search of something memorable. Fleischer repeated the trick a year later with the disastrous Red Sonja, proving that all of the experience in the world can’t help you if you fundamentally don’t understand your story.
Conan the Destroyer ultimately paid the price, turning a small profit but failing to match the surprise success of its predecessor. That and Red Sonja shut the franchise down for 30 years, while its star moved on to better things (including the role of his career just a few months later). Serious rumors about its resurrection continue today, though Schwarzenegger has publicly stated that it needs “that Milius quality” before he’ll sign on. Sounds like the big guy learned his lesson on this one, and who are we to argue with him? Adolescent power fantasies work better when you take the gloves off, something everybody seems to have figured out except Conan the Destroyer. Chalk it up to a well-meaning mistake and move on. This summer had too many good movies to waste any more of our time.