Alternate titles may include “Conan and the Argonauts,” “The Seventh Voyage of Conan,” or “Conan the Scorpion King.”
In the time before time, some evil wizards created an evil bone mask and got beat down by kind-hearted barbarians who only had the fate of the world in mind when they saved it. They broke it up into many pieces (the bone mask, not the world), one of which is eventually entrusted to Conan’s papa (Ron Perlman). Too bad the bad guy, “invader” Zym (Stephen Lang), shows up to take that piece for his collection before leaving future barbarian bad-ass Conan (Jason Momoa) to die with his papa and the rest of his village. While Zym goes off with his evil sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) to do more evil, Conan predictably survives and vows vengeance (paraphrasing): “My name is Conan the Barbarian. You killed my father. Prepare to die, obviously.”
This was not the Conan tale one might have suspected would relaunch a long-dormant franchise. Right out of the gate, these supposedly ancient times look too modern for the Hyborian age; instead of looking like they predate the Greek gods, one might suspect the Roman Empire was just over the next ocean. The dialog also betrays any semblance of timelessness with words like “C’mon!” and “Blast!” With nary a “By Crom” to be heard, the filmmakers seemed to be using The Scorpion King as a template for their look and feel, securing the place of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian in film history as the definitive Conan version in the same way Excalibur has become the definitive King Arthur screenplay. Since this was what the filmmakers appeared to be shooting for (or at least what the studio thought audiences would buy into), how did they do?
The cast played their parts well. Jason Momoa (of “Stargate: Atlantis” fame before gaining attention in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) is an adequate Conan, looking the part (with plenty of eye candy for the ladies) and playing it for all the barbarian it’s worth. Stephen Lang’s Zym seeks power and vengeance in an almost understandable way although it’s clear that evil is his alignment of choice. The happiest surprise is Rose McGowan, disappearing completely into her Krueger-clawed Marique character and playing up some serious daddy issues; even when she’s not the focus of a scene, it still looks as though she’s plotting something just with her facial expressions. The entire cast makes the most of the story and dialog they’ve been given, made up entirely of plot exposition between action scenes. Sadly, those sequences were awfully fast cut and edited too close together, making many of them very difficult to follow.
There are plenty of inconsistencies, likely the result (one would hope) of scripted scenes being left out of the final cut to shorten the running time. For example, how does an armored band of warriors sneak aboard a ship full of pirates who are on the lookout for such dangers (and for that matter, what happened to the ship that got them there?) Also, why would you shackle your human sacrifice to a heavy wooden wheel before moving it (and the shackled prisoner) several miles to the spot where the ceremony is taking place? While Marique’s sand demons were initially cool, the sequence in which they appear seems to go on forever (it might have also been nice to see this power used again at some critical future moment in the film, hint hint). Finally, if you have a set of custom-made finger knives, one for each finger, you’re definitely going to miss one if it falls off, not to mention tipping off the good guy as to who took your girl, right?
Part of the charm of the original Schwarzenegger Conan was the initial lack of dialog; audiences were shown, not told. Was that due to the need to give Arnold as little dialog as possible? Perhaps, but it worked since we all know Conan speaks with his sword. While the current filmmakers chose not to go this route, the end result is an enjoyable enough film if you have no problem trading suspension of disbelief for an R-rated, breast-revealing, sword-and-sorcery action flick laden with special effects and sweeping, computer-generated location shots. Sure, this Conan film is easier to watch than the bumbled remake of Clash of the Titans and possibly even Conan the Destroyer, but don’t be surprised if seeing the new Conan film makes you reminisce fondly about Marc Singer’s cult classic Beastmaster.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)