The pop culture infiltration of HBO’s Game of Thrones is the best thing to ever happen to Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian. A remake of the 1982 film best known for establishing bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger as a screen presence (and for featuring a rather memorable and hilariously offensive scene in which a camel gets punched in the face), Conan 2.0 at first seemed like the misguided idea of an over-zealous, remake-happy producer who greatly overestimated current movie audiences’ affinity for loincloths. But, as HBO has proven, people are actually kind of into tales of warring kingdoms, soothsayers, mystics, prophets, incestuous families with a taste for world domination, and, of course, bloodthirsty barbarians. If any time could be right for a Conan remake, the time seems to be now.
That being said, the immense popularity and artistic success of Game of Thrones is also probably the worst thing to happen to this new project. Almost every element of the picture could be compared unfavourably to the masterful television show, which manages to relate potentially silly stories with weight, gravitas, occasional humour, and thoroughly mind-blowing moments of shock and awe. What the film holds over the television show is frequency of action sequences, of which this new Conan has in seemingly endless supply. You won’t find the geopolitical quandaries or the ever-shifting power relationships of Game of Thrones here, but you will be treated to a non-stop barrage of brutal, ferocious battle scenes.
Conan the Barbarian features its own physically imposing young actor in the title role: former male-model Jason Momoa (he actually has better acting credentials than Arnie did when he first emerged; Momoa co-stars on Game of Thrones – that’s the last time we mention it! – and, weirdly, studied improv beside Amy Poehler at the Uptight Citizens Brigade). Although he doesn’t have the incandescent star wattage of Schwarzenegger, he has that same cheeky glimmer in his smile, hidden behind his perpetually furrowed brow. That he can deliver a line like “I live, I love, I slay, I am content” with even a modicum of charm and believability is impressive enough.
We meet Conan as a foetus – seriously – after he is birthed by his dying mother in the middle of a battlefield during the fictional Hyborian Age. Born into blood, the young boy (Leo Howard) is trained by his father (a soothing Ron Perlman) to become the best soldier the world has ever seen. His relatively “peaceful” existence comes to an end when wannabe-overlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) rolls into town with his vast army and creepy daughter Marique (Ivana Staneva as a girl; Rose McGowan as a bizarre, father-loving woman), looking for the MacGuffin that will MacGuffin the MacGuffin of the entire MacGuffin. That bit isn’t really important. What is important is that Zym kills Conan’s father – as well as his entire village – leaving the young boy to fend for himself. Over the years, Conan becomes one of the fiercest – albeit noblest – warriors in the land, freeing slaves and then inviting them to join him in a sex riot. When he discovers Zym is hunting down a pure-blooded lady monk (Monkess? Monkette? Shmonk?) to bring his evil wife back from the dead, Conan sees the perfect opportunity to take out some ungodly revenge. Oh, and save the world too, but whatever.
The cast knows what this is, yet still, they’re all doing good work; more than would normally be expected of any actor forced to recite these lines (which range from dumb to inexplicable and even occasionally unintelligible). Rachel Nichols, who plays the Monkess Tamara is actually sort of great; she manages to look coy and innocent at all times, even when doing some un-monk-like things, such as hacking away at someone with an axe. Later, when facing death, she retains an honourable, if fearful, expression. Again, it’s more than we require to enjoy what is essentially a B-grade sword and sandals flick, but it’s appreciated nonetheless.
Although the original Conan the Barbarian was far from perfect – and far, far, far from politically correct – its rough-around-the-edges charm has earned it admirers. Nispel’s take is much slicker, but its (black) heart is in the right place. This new flick is obscenely violent, which is perfect. Unfortunately, all of the blood (and there is a lot of it) is of that fake-looking digital variety. How I miss the days of squibs and tomato sauce being sprayed all over cast members and extras alike. Still, this is a minor quibble, because the viciousness of the violence is so welcome (he is a barbarian after all). No more than a few minutes go by without Conan taking on another fleet of enemies; Nispel ensures the picture never feels episodic, never feels like a video game and never feels like an overloaded sensory onslaught. Conan the Barbarian is just a nicely realised, well paced, very fun action movie. The cast is game, the special effects are solid, and the decapitations are plentiful. And even if no camels get punched in the face, a variety of horses meet untimely ends. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but it’s good to see a remake respecting its roots. I am content.
Conan the Barbarian arrives in Australian cinemas August 18, 2011.