In all honesty, I expected to hate Conan the Barbarian. Critics aren’t supposed to be prejudiced against a movie but director Marcus Nispel doesn’t have a great track record. Nispel’s Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes are exercises in brutality and I’m not talking about what he puts his characters through, but what he puts the audience through with his ham-fisted, overly stylized, blood and guts approach that treats characters as bags of meat that exist only to be split open like piñatas.
Don’t misunderstand, there are plenty of meat-bags in Conan the Barbarian waiting to be split open like so many pigs at a slaughterhouse, but somehow, one of the writers actually snuck a modicum of character development into the film and the yeoman work of the casting director found a few shockingly talented actors who miraculously manage to act amidst Nispel’s fetishistic bloodlust.
Jason Momoa plays Conan the Barbarian, a man born as a warrior; literally. He was born in the middle of a battle, cut from his dying mother’s womb amidst a clash of swords and the separating of limbs from bodies. Raised by his barbarian daddy, expertly played by that charming lunkhead Ron Perlman, Conan develops into a warrior at a very young age.
14 year old Leo Howard plays young Conan and the kid is a star. It was Howard as young Conan exhibiting badass skill in taking down a small horde of bad guys and carrying their severed heads back to his father as a trophy that won me over. When young Conan is forced to witness an atrocity against his family at the hands of the ruthless, power hungry Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), Howard brings fierce intensity to Conan rather than the simple tears and fears of a child.
Jumping ahead a decade or so we find Conan as a warrior pirate sailing the scummy sea sides in search of any sign of Khalar Zym and the chance to avenge his family. When his chance arrives, following a siege by Zym and his nutty sorceress daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), at a formerly peaceful mountainside monastery, Conan doesn’t let the opportunity pass, even if it means using an innocent beauty, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) as bait.
Jason Momoa, I’m told, is quite compelling on HBO’s Game of Thrones where his Khal Drogo is a silent yet imposing killer. In Conan the Barbarian however, Jason Momoa is shown up big time by the young Conan the Barbarian, Leo Howard. Howard is the star, Momoa merely carries on the compelling character that the kid creates. Momoa’s leaden line delivery nearly undoes the hard work Leo Howard put into making Conan so compelling. Thankfully, what Momoa failed at as an actor he makes up for as a physical presence and sword swinging apparatus.
I could sit here and hammer Conan the Barbarian for its blatant misogyny and massive lapses in logic but that would ignore the fact that I knew what Conan the Barbarian was before I saw it. I went into Conan the Barbarian aware that the film was going to treat women as sex objects and damsels in distress and I knew not to expect a heavy dose of brains other than those that spilled out of the cracked skulls of many CGI extras.
It seems unsportsmanlike to call out Conan the Barbarian for living down to expectations. And what would be more unsportsmanlike would be to deny that once you put aside the preconceived notions of Conan the Barbarian, the film is surprisingly compelling, even gripping in its blood and guts way.
Is Conan the Barbarian a little daffy at times? Absolutely, but it is also surprisingly involving and exciting. Do I welcome a Conan the Barbarian sequel? No, I don’t need to see this character ever again but for a one off, blood and guts, 3D epic, Conan the Barbarian is shockingly fun and surprisingly worth the 3D ticket price.
Conan the Barbarian is shocking not merely for its blood and guts violence but for how surprisingly gripping and compelling it is, even muddy in 3D.