In a scene leading up to Conan the Barbarian's big bloody finale, the epic warrior's love interest poses a seemingly vital question. Amid all the death and destruction surrounding her, she asks Conan: "Are we all just doomed to chaos and ruin?" After a brief pause, the barbarian shrugs off her question and shares his true feelings: "I live. I slay. I love. I am content." These words, instilled with all the ridiculousness of a typical B movie, sum up the spirit of Conan quite well. The film is dumb, hackneyed and, well, just plain bad—much like the 1982 original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger—but because it knows and makes fun of that, it plays for a smart and entertaining ride.
Directed by Marcus Nispel, who up to this point hasn't made anything good, Conan is a stereotypical guy's movie with all the typical testosterone—sex, violence, vengeance. The plot follows the strapping Conan, played to perfection by Jason Momoa, on a quest to avenge his father's death. At the beginning of the film, a ruthless warlord (Stephen Lang in another over-the-top role), alongside his henchmen and sorcerer daughter (Rose McGowan), murders the beastly leader right in front of his young son, and the experience provokes Conan to spend the rest of his life hunting down the wicked villain.
This dimwitted revenge story doesn't drive the film. Instead, it's a mere plot device for 112 minutes of blood, guts and action—and a cheesy, slow-motion sex scene. Of course, with an opening sequence that shows the graphic birth of Conan on a blood-spattered battlefield and a title that invokes the image of one famous Austrian actor sporting stallion-like hair and a leather girdle, it's unreasonable to expect anything more. Nispel, in fact, would have been foolish to try and turn this cultic reboot into something serious. Can you imagine Conan the Barbarian in the vein of Lord of the Rings—Peter Jackson style?
So the fact that Nispel doesn't possess much talent as a filmmaker actually works in his favor, given the intentionally second-rate script and pulpy subject matter. Channeling his roots in the horror genre, he creates enthralling action sequences with gimmicky gore and cartoonish CGI. Every time a weapon slices into a victim, unreasonable amounts of blood gush out, and it's seemingly impossible to count the number of times dismembered body parts come to the screen. Given this ridiculous style, we could naturally assume that Nispel would overuse 3D, but he surprisingly takes a subtle approach, almost in the way Michael Bay perfected it in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. That's doesn't mean it's worth seeing Conan in the third dimension. It just means that its 3D betters that of most 3D productions.
Nispel's substandard talents sync well with this B-grade sword and sorcery, but there are some frustrating moments. We get numerous action sequences that move too fast and take us too close to the action, making it nearly impossible to see and know what's going on. These close-ups and swift movements may be intentional and actually mimic the visual effects of the 1982 original, but after a while, they become exhausting. We eventually yearn for Nispel to keep his camera still and zoom out to provide a sense of scope. Fortunately, he does in the final thirty minutes. When the film literally comes full circle and Conan gets one last chance at his enemy, the epic battle entails some big and bloody action.
This violence and absurdity, which come alive through solid physical acting from Momoa, Lang, and a hilarious Said Taghmaoui as a comical thief, are nothing more than mindless entertainment. Still, Nispel seeks to make a point. By putting together the typical Man Flick, he exploits the stupidity of not only that genre but also that kind of thinking, in essence mocking the very thing it is: a film that glorifies violence and degrades women.
On that last point, Nispel goes too far in a scene in which Conan frees a group of topless slave women. It's as if Nispel gives into the very thing he's satirizing by filming the women pornographically, using no shadowing or subtlety. Meanwhile, the barbarian consistently talks down to Tamara (Rachel Nichols), calling her "woman" and commanding her to "get off" the horse. Women are clearly objects here.
Still, in all of this, Conan's stupid quote—"I live. I slay. I love. I am content"—turns out to serve an actual purpose. As a response to a real question about the deprived state of humanity, it suggests a selfish, ignorant attitude that doesn't care, an attitude that is essentially the problem itself. Such is the spirit of Conan and the unbridled masculinity it represents.Discussion starters
- What makes this film's violence different than that of horror movies like Saw and Hostel? Is there a difference? Does Conan devalue human life?
- Whether trying to make a point or not, director Nispel goes too far in a scene where Conan frees a colony of topless slave women. What makes this scene inappropriate? Is all nudity in film inappropriate? Why? Why not?
- Under all its absurdity, Conan makes fun of masculinity, specifically "manly" behavior that is arrogant and degrading of women. Is this kind of criticism relevant today? Generally, do men still act and treat women this way? Did you even see this theme in Conan?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Conan the Barbarian is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity. From start to finish, the film is filled with bloody and violent battle scenes. In a cheesy slow-motion scene, Conan and Tamara have sex in the wild, with some nudity shown. In another scene, Conan frees a colony of topless slave women and proceeds to party with them at a tavern. The scene lasts about five minutes and shows several women's breasts.
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