The remake bandwagon rumbles on with “Conan the Barbarian”, dusting off John Milius’ 1982 Schwarzenegger vehicle based on the violent fantasy tales of Robert E. Howard. The film was directed by Marcus Nispel, a man with plenty of remake experience, having already helmed the relatively popular new versions of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th”. His horror leanings certainly made Nispel a pretty good choice, already having proved himself capable at delivering the kind of visceral thrills and gore needed to make the film the kind of bloody and visceral sword-fest demanded by fans. Stepping into the considerably large fur boots of the one and only Arnold and hearing the lamentations of his enemies’ women is Jason Momoa, a relative newcomer to the big screen who previously appeared in television series “Game of Thrones” and “Stargate: Atlantis”.
The remake keeps the same basic plot as the original, with young Conan witnessing the slaughter of his village (including a neat role for Ron Perlman as his chieftain father) at the hands of the evil overlord Zym (“Avatar” villain Stephen Lang), who is scouring the land for the final pieces of a demonic mask which will apparently give him the power of a god. The lad survives, and grows into the wandering barbarian warrior of the title, who roams Hyboria with revenge on his mind. He gets his chance when he rescues Tamara (Rachel Nichols, “P2”), an attractive monk with the pure blood needed by Zym and his psycho daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) to complete the mask’s final ritual.
Although the original is indeed a cult classic of sorts, “Conan the Barbarian” is a pretty interesting choice for a remake, given that the box office tends to be rather unkind to adult themed swordplay flicks. It’s certainly obvious that a lot of work went into the film, both as a faithful re-imagining of the original, and as a fitting adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s writing, with much of its imagery being pleasingly evocative of his books’ pulp covers. The film is well crafted, and sees Nispel managing to marry his usual mixture of flashiness and grit with a more epic sweep. The visuals are all the better for showing a well-judged use of CGI, mainly in the form of majestic backgrounds, landscapes, palaces and temples, vividly bringing Hyboria to life in a way which Milius wasn’t able to. This combines with the often down and dirty look of the film to give an atmospheric, yet grounded feel, and Nispel makes good use of the sprawling scenery, with Conan’s journey through forests, deserts and ruined temples making for a real sense of high fantasy and adventure. Thankfully, the 3D is almost entirely unnoticeable, and whilst it adds absolutely nothing to the film, it doesn’t have the same grating tackiness that all but sank the recent “Clash of the Titans” remake.
Unsurprisingly, one of the film’s major selling points is its violence, and Nispel really does push the boat out in terms of brutality. The film has some fantastically bloody scenes, its battles filled with dismemberments, decapitations, crushed heads and more, and is all the more effective for avoiding too much in the way of obvious CGI gore. This really helps to cement the film’s bleak and merciless world, and to ensure that it has a resoundingly adult air – as does the frequent flashes of female nudity. Nispel keeps all of this coming thick and fast, and the film is well paced and surprisingly devoid of filler material. Although at times the action focus does mean that the story itself suffers, the film is at least never dull, and knows exactly how to please its audience. Nispel doesn’t quite manage to hold things together through to the end, with Conan’s final duel with Zym falling a little flat and failing to match the savage fun of the opening act, though it still ends on a reasonably rousing note.
This is partly due to Lang making for a rather weak villain, saddled with a frankly daft plan that Nispel never really convinces the viewer will ever amount to much, and pointlessly given a vaguely sympathetic and muddled backstory. Thankfully, Momoa does a very decent job in the lead, giving Conan a nicely uncivil charisma, and whilst the roguish gleam in his eye prevents him from ever really coming across as a ferocious killing machine, he makes for a fine, hulking protagonist. Following in the footsteps of Schwarzenegger was always going to be a big task, though the actor proves himself very capable, and will likely have a decent future in the genre if he chooses the right films. Special mention must also go to Rose McGowan for her awesomely silly over the top performance, with pretty much all of her scenes making for near-hysterical entertainment.
Thanks to Nispel’s determinedly gruesome approach, this never quite pushes “Conan the Barbarian” into high camp, and though it wisely never takes itself too seriously, it never gets too ridiculous. It’s certainly far more enjoyable than it might have been, and whilst inevitably the question must be asked whether a remake was necessary, the film is a solid piece of violent fantasy, that should be enjoyed by fans and newcomers alike.
“Conan” opens this Friday. Screened at Empire Presents Big Screen.
Marcus Nispel (director) / Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood (screenplay)
CAST: Jason Momoa … Conan
Stephen Lang … Khalar Zym
Rachel Nichols … Tamara
Ron Perlman … Corin
Rose McGowan … Marique
Bob Sapp … Ukafa