The lamentation of the remake: “Conan the Barbarian”

August 29, 2011

Is there any good reason to remake Conan the Barbarian? Of course not, but that’s never stopped Hollywood before, right? I mean, the original still holds up, is still a beloved cinematic relic from the ‘80s and launched the career of one of the most remarkable movie stars of all time (yes he is…just accept it). But, let’s not forget that Arnie is too old to do a sequel, and—this part is paramount in Hollywood’s thinking—it’s just a lot easier to remake that movie than, you know, create something new. So…we get this: a padded out, surlier version of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

How do you screw up a Conan movie? It’s not like there’s a huge cinematic tradition you’ve gotta uphold. And while, yes, you’re hobbling yourself when you remove Arnie from equation, a decent movie could still be made. Really, just embrace John Millus’s Tea-Party-on-meth, “happiness is a warm gun and a cold enemy” worldview, throw in some gratuitous hackings and a lot of bare breasts, and really you’re about two thirds of the way there. Admittedly, the new Conan gets this last part right–and good for it. In a time when movies are becoming increasingly sanitized to earn a PG-13 rating and increase their audience appeal, there’s something to be said for a movie unafraid to show its hero making off with some newly freed (and freed from their tops) female slaves and offering them an opportunity to show their gratitude (awww, yeah!)

And yet, dismemberings and bare breasts just aren’t enough to carry the film (wait, did I just write that?) The original’s director, John Millius, may not have been a cinematic legend (though, arguably, screenwriter Oliver Stone is), but he at least as a viewpoint, which is more that can be said for Hollywood hack and remake king Marcus Nispel, who helmed this one. Like the rest of Nispel’s movies (Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes), the new Conan screws up too much to truly be effective. To wit:

* Conan the dick: Yeah, he’s not so much a barbarian as he is just sort of a jerk sometimes. Actually, not even that often. Unlike his first screen incarnation, this Conan did not spend his formative years in slavery only to be freed to fight in gladiatorial games. No, this Conan did see his people slaughtered, but after that just sorts wandered the Earth being mellow. This is not exactly barbaric. He’s not very barbaric at all. Yeah, he kills people, but so does everybody in this world. And, okay, he runs around shirtless a lot, but that doesn’t make him a barbarian, just kind of an exhibitionist.

*The women suck (not in a good way): Remember how awesome Sandahl Bergman’s Valera was in the original? Okay, she had a bit of a mannish face in some shots, but she was realistically tough, and in the end even came back from the dead to fight alongside her beloved. In the updated Conan we get, uh, Rachel Nichols. Yeah, her. Along with being about as formidable as a cocker spaniel, she kind of looks like a politician’s wife. Her character Tamara doesn’t do a lot in the movie except serve to be rescued/protected/rescued again by Conan. For good measure, we get Rose McGowan as some kind of freaky, incestuous witch, but she’s made to look like the illegitimate spawn of Freddy Kruger and a Juggalo, so, you know, no joy there.

* No humor: The new one’s not completely humorless, but it also takes itself completely seriously. Yep, the giant tentacle monsters and slab-chested swordsman are all played perfectly straight. The original, on the other hand, never took itself too seriously to have a snockered Conan do a faceplant into his soup.

*Religion is almost non-existent: Remember in the original how Conan was constantly invoking his deity Crom? He even has a conversation about gods with his (fake Asian) sidekick. It fleshes out the characters and makes perfect sense given the age these characters live in. The new movie just has a couple throwaway references to generic “gods.” Hey screenwriters, don’t break a sweat or anything on my account.

* The story: The original film was a fairly substantive Nietzschen manifesto, setting a outlier against a cult, run by a warlord whose supreme cynicism has led him to the ultimate conclusion that religion is a far better way to subjugate people than brute force. The remake has a warlord trying to assemble a magic mask that will bring his wife back from the dead and allow him to rule the world. The first is rife with allegory and metaphor and great fodder for long, discursive analysis. The second is like a rejected draft of a third Tomb Raider movie.

* The Script: The first film had a rambling pace, which suited the nomadic nature of its heroes. The new film probably couldn’t get away with that in today’s ADD-influenced cinema climate. Still, couldn’t they have made it a bit tighter? I mean, we get a nighttime raid on Conan’s ship (yeah, Conan has a boat…again, not very barbaric), during which the action moves back above decks and into…the bright midday sunshine—wtf? Then everyone engages in euphoric jubilation at, uh, being ambushed I guess. Later in the film Conan must penetrate the bad guy’s massive citadel. He travels to a thief’s den, and recruits help from a character we’ve seen earlier. They break in, battle minions and monsters in a massive action set piece, only to find that…the bad guys have left the citadel for a different site about half a kilometer away. So, basically, if Conan had just waited fifteen minutes, he could have had a clear shot at the villain and we would have been spared a busy, confused action sequence that advanced the plot not one iota.

* The Script (II): In the original, Conan’s romance with Valera was a well-written, believable relationship between two outcasts. In the remake, Conan hooks up with Tamara because….well, she’s there. When they part she actually says, “I know you have to go, Conan. Goodbye.” And that’s basically it. No, seriously, screenwriters, I know Jersey Shore is on, just slap down any old shit and call it dialogue. That’s cool.

* The Villain: This is a toughie, as I really like Stephen Lang, but his character isn’t terribly scary. First off, his name is Zyhm. That is not a scary name. Second off, he’s simply a thug and a strongman. Sure, he’s violent enough (he genuinely looks like he could best Conan in a fight), but he’s terribly simplistic. James Earl Jones’s Thulsa Doom is waaay scarier—and not just because his name is “Doom” or because I find large, black men threatening—but because he is genuinely evil, not merely brutal. He seeks to control and enslave, and he’s good at it. When he and Conan clash, it’s an actual clash between giants—not just a couple pumped-up dudes banging swords together.

*The Narrator: I like Morgan Freeman as much as the next guy, but his warm, reassuring tone is not what’s needed to set the story for a Conan movie. “I’d like to say that Conan didn’t tear out his enemy’s spine and wear it like a feather boa and dance a can-can. I’d like to say that…” Okay, that doesn’t happen, but it would have catapulted the movie into the awesome if it had.

*The Lead: Sure Arnold Schwarzenegger was far from polishing his craft when the original came out, and yes, he was pretty much a joke until The Terminator was released two years later. Still, he at least had a screen presence. Jason Momoa, by contrast, is a lifeless slab of beefsteak. Apparently, when the casting call went out the only requisites were a willingness to run around in a loincloth and a close, long-lasting love of creatine.

*The Line: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Really? No inclusion of that line at all? What’s a Conan movie without the lamentations of the women? It’s this crap, apparently.

One comment

  1. Between your review and the others I have read/seen I have no intrest in seeing this one. I just watched the original over the weekend (I think I had only ever seen ‘Destroyer’) and I enjoyed it immensly. Hollywood ruins yet another piece of the 80s.

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