Monday, September 12, 2011

Battle Tested, NOT Mom Approved

What was the last sword and sorcery film you saw in the theaters? Think about that for a minute. When was the last time you even knew of a sword and sorcery film to be IN a theater? We all may be familiar with the genre, as over the years we've come across various VHS tapes of random cult classics over the years, but most of these are small budget foreign films that we laugh at rather than actually cherish as strong moviemaking. Dragonslayer, Krull, and the Beastmaster series all appeal to some people, but it has been a difficult venture to push this type of violent, action-driven movie among the masses. Despite that, some classic films have been major box office winners, perhaps most notably the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. After this "Golden Age", however the genre has grown somewhat ignored, as while 2010's Clash of the Titans was an undeniable success, others have not been so lucky. Kull the Conqueror was a massive failure that almost ended the acting career of Kevin Sorbo, and Pathfinder was a bust, this one starring the talented Karl Urban. Strangely, both these titles have a connection to the recently-released Conan the Barbarian reboot: Kull was originally intended to be a new Conan film, but franchise star Arnold Schwarzeneggar did not want to reprise his classic role and Sorbo did not want to retread another actor's star. And Pathfinder was directed by Marcus Nispel, who also helmed this latest Conan title, which raises as many eyebrows as it furrows. For one thing, there is the complete lack of star power pushing this title. While we'll get to that later, there's also the risk in restarting a famous franchise after so long a time, egregious use of 3D (which by now can be safely called a "fad"), and last but not least, entering into a genre that really hasn't received as much love as in its heyday. The trailers made it look bad, but at my good friend Steve's insistence, I put my fears aside to attempt enjoying a title of which I had no impression that I was to be entertained.

Early casting for Baywatch: Hyborea
As origin stories go, this one isn't too bad; born by blood in a great battle, young Conan grows destined to become on of his villages better warriors, attempting to prove himself to his father (Ron Perlman) the tribe's elder, and the rest of his village as well. This ends when warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) invades to find a piece to a mystical relic that will allow him to conquer the world of Hyborea. After murdering or enslaving everyone but Conan, the boy is left to bury his father and make his own way. As an adult, Conan (Jason Momoa) is an aimless free rider, leading a pack of do-gooders who battle those who would inflict harm on others. Doing this is all a plot for Conan to find the man who destroyed his life, and he finally relocates Zym as the despot searches for the final piece to the same puzzle he was attempting to solve so long ago. Zym has hunted down the last of the "pure bloods", descended from a race of ancient necromancers. Now to prevent Zym from realizing his goals and obtain his revenge, Conan must keep unassuming maiden Tamara (Rachel Nichols) out of the clutches of Zym and his lieutenants.

Hmmm, for some reason I'm putting my money on the Kid
That it's a classic "damsel in distress" story is probably the most disappointing thing about Conan the Barbarian, as an interesting origin story is ultimately wasted on what passes as the rest of the film. All the elements are in place. Tamara as unassuming and unprepared for her destiny, Khalar Zym's warlock daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), an ancient prophecy (expressly spelled out in the film's opening), an endless supply of underlings before we get to the hero/villain battle, etc, etc. Do I have to really spell it out for you? If it wasn't for the fact that we see this theme far too often in MODERN movies this would probably not be the worst concept for a franchise reboot. However, expectations are supposed to be raised in these situations, and this story just doesn't cut it. Nispel also shares some of the blame, as while he pieces together some genuinely fun battle sequences, I can't help but feel he's another Zack Snyder in the making. The better scenes are devoid of dialogue and play out like some medieval music video set to heavy metal, not too unlike the best parts of this year's awful Sucker Punch. That Nispel is no more than a poor man's Snyder is at this stage in his career is fairly damning, as his earlier works were far more heralded and successful.

Not the best place to meet a half-naked barbarian, no
However, if Nispel did have one point of success, it was casting Jason Momoa as the titular hero. Slimmer and more athletic than the burly Schwarzenegger ever was, Momoa at first seems like an odd choice, as most people remember his early role of Jason Ioane on Baywatch Hawaii. However, many people don't realize that he's actually built a nice little career for himself, following a gap of productivity post-Baywatch with a significant role on the cult series Stargate Atlantis and a star-making turn on HBO's latest hit series Game of Thrones, based on the novels by George R R Martin. I have to believe that it was his work on Thrones that ultimately landed him the role of Conan, and he's easily the best part of the film as a whole. Physical presence aside, Momoa is convincing emotionally and actually gets a chance to show more than just the guttural growls that the preview trailers have allowed us to see. A shame that the rest of the cast is uninspired by comparison. Or maybe they just seem so compared to Momoa. Ron Perlman and Stephen Lang don't tread far from their usual ground, but they excel in those narrow ranges so that works out fine. The worst is probably Rachel Nichols, not surprising considering what seemed to be a lack of commitment to her work in GI Joe a couple of years ago. With a little hard work, she could have done more than be a pretty face, but perhaps that's too much to ask of her. Rose McGowan is actually okay, her slightly incestuous witch character made complete with a total makeup transformation. Still, she's not given enough moments to shine, often overshadowed by Lang in most scenes.

At least the horse isn't 3D rendered
One thing I would have loved could have been more character development of Zym's lieutenants and mercenaries. There were some, such as former NFL player and mediocre MMA fighter Bob Sapp as a churlish giant or Diana Lubenova as the leader of a team of blind archers, that feel underused as little more than cannon fodder (so you can imagine how the REAL cannon fodder was treated). I would have appreciated if we had seen less of the exploits of Conan and Tamara and turned the camera their way once in a while. But even the leads have little in the way of character development, as tracks are predictable and dialogue is silly to the point of excruciating. And the special effects? Servicable but nothing special, once again this is a title that is hampered by 3D expectations. I know I keep harping on about how bad 3D gets, but if they'd stop dropping unlit fuses in front of me I wouldn't be tempted to fetch my lighter so often. Here it isn't even bad so much as useless, as there isn't anything that makes effective use of the technology. Even Final Destination 5 had better 3D applications, and that's far from the vanguard of master filmmaking. There isn't a single movie in my Top 10 that was ever released in 3D (to my knowledge) and I've seen no reason to add any. Far from the "future" of filmmaking, I'm sure 3D will run its course with all but the most worthy titles before too long as the misses continue to outpace the hits.

Don't make him angry, you wouldn't like him when he's angry
Jason Momoa has earned a hit. As the best part of Conan the Barbarian, he DESERVES one. However, this film isn't it. Perhaps people just don't care about Conan as much as Hollywood thought. Perhaps they DID know, but decided to experiment anyway. Either way, hopefully this doesn't hurt Momoa's standing as a star in the making. Undeniably charismatic and utterly devoted to his roles, Momoa is the ONLY genuine reason to pay for a ticket to see this film in the theaters. The rest isn't BAD, but the film doesn't outstrip its limited origins enough to make a good first impression, nor harbor any hopes of a series continuation. You can safely skip it, but part of me does grieve that this might be the last Conan film we see for quite a while (Hollywood never gives up on anything). If it had gotten a better director, better script and more support (and maybe a Red Sonja). this had a chance to be a good summer release. Bad management put an end to that, and it will instead end up among the forgotten of 2011.

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