STARRING: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard, Steve O'Donnell, Raad Rawi, Nonso Anozie, Bob Sapp, Milton Welsh

2011, 112 Minutes, Directed by:
Marcus Nispel

The knives are out for Conan the Barbarian both in the movie and in the theater . . .

Not only is this an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s classic sword and sorcery hero, but it’s a remake of the 1982 movie that helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. So while the nitpickers and naysayers go at it, it’s important to apply rule #1 in the film critic’s tool box: “Was I bored watching it?” The answer to that question, for this reviewer, is “No.”

Conan is played by Jason Momoa, probably best known as Khal Drogo from HBO’s Game of Thrones, but here without the beard and with a flowing head of hair. After he sees his father (Ron Perlman) tortured and murdered by the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), the young Conan grows up plotting revenge. In terms of motivation it is all pretty straight forward. Zym wants to bring his wife, a sorceress, back to life so he can become a god and rule all of ancient Hyboria. Conan wants to kill Zym. Everything else is commentary.

What makes this work is the art direction and the special effects. This is a world that seems to exist beyond the edges of the frame. Each realm has its own look and feel, whether it is a monastery, Zym’s castle, or a city of thieves. There’s plenty of action as Conan has to kill several of Zym’s henchmen along the way, starting with the poor fellow whose nose he cut off as a child barbarian.

One quickly loses count of the heads, noses, arms and other body parts that get hacked off in the course of the film. That’s where the effects come in. Back in 1982 the blood may have flowed but not like this. It’s not Saw gory, but when someone gets on the wrong end of the swordplay, we see the spray of blood as they fall. This is a brutal world and the level of violence, while not stomach churning, is more than appropriate.

"Grunts and violence, with some gratuitous (but not unwelcome) nudity . . ."

Then there’s the sorcery. It’s nearly all in the hands of Marique (Rose McGowan), Zym’s daughter, who is easily the most outrageous character in the film, from her partially shaved scalp to the Freddy Krueger-like blade extensions on her fingers. She may be this summer’s Goth pin-up girl! The magic is limited to one impressive sequence where Conan is fighting warriors who rise and fall from the sand, and to her ability to find the “pure one” Zym seeks by tasting their blood. Tamara (Rachel Nichols) is the last of a special bloodline who is needed so that Zym can bring his wife back to life.

As might be expected, it is the villains who get to have the most fun with the parts, with Lang and McGowan clearly relishing the evil their characters do. Momoa will face some sniping in that his Conan is largely sword-wielding beefcake without a wide range of emotions. Well, he is a barbarian. That’s the point. One suspects that if this turns into a franchise there is room for a worldlier and more experienced Conan to develop and Momoa’s work elsewhere shows he’s up to the task.

Conan the Barbarian does what it sets out to do: provide plenty of action and imagination, while allowing the hero the chance to kill all the bad guys. There’s nothing deep here. Those expecting more than grunts and violence, with some gratuitous (but not unwelcome) nudity thrown in, should look elsewhere.

- Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die . . . and other observations about science fiction movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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