Despite the less than positive reviews circulating out there, I went to see the new Conan movie, and found it better than I expected. Not great, but not as perfectly terrible as I had been led to believe by the critics. Granted, it’s missing a truly good script and any form of character development, but it was fun to see just how much capable actors can do with so little to work with.
It’s true that Jason Momoa is no Schwarzenegger, but you have to admit that he is built for the part, and he does exude a somewhat higher level of smarts in the role than his predecessor did. It’s simply the script that fails him, he’s given nothing to do but slash and smash, and his tendency to lapse into modern speech patterns in the midst of the few stilted lines he’s given occasionally veers his performance unintentionally into camp. It’s a good thing he has so much stunt training his background, as there’s a heck of a lot of bone-crunching violence in this film, much of it in close-up slow motion (probably for the benefit of 3D viewers, however I saw it in plain old 2D). The athletic Momoa does himself proud with all of the brutal sword-hacking and Olympic-level gymnastics, but then even 59-year-old Stephen Lang looks pretty damn good in the fight scenes, so you have know there were more than a few stunt doubles involved.
That’s not to disparage Lang, who does a thoroughly enjoyable turn as the ruthless Khalar Zym, the warlord who slew Conan’s entire village in his quest to obtain the last piece of an ancient mask that he needs to bring his wife back from the dead. Okay, so the wife was a wicked and soulless sorceress bent on conquering the world through death and destruction and was probably burnt at the stake for good reason, and hubby really wants her back so she can transform him into a god, but hey, this is the closest we get to a love story in the whole film. (I wouldn’t call the obligatory sex scene between Conan and Tamara [Rachel Nichols] “love”. Lust, at most.) Lang even manages to evoke a few moments of pity for his nasty character in one flashback scene, which is more character development than you get for most villains in an action-adventure film.
Rose McGowan has even less to work with in her part as Zym’s witch-daughter, which is mostly all weird makeup, wacky finger knives and enormous wig headpieces, but as someone used to playing fantasy roles, she gives it a good go. Although I will admit there were a few staircase scenes where she looked very uncomfortable clambering about in those ridiculous boots she was given to wear. And have none of these ancient peoples ever heard of layering? I wouldn’t be surprised if the leading cause of death in the mythic Hyborian Age wasn’t exposure rather than a swift enemy sword to the gut.
Speaking of guts, there’s enough blood and innards being splashed on the screen to satisfy any teenage boy’s vicarious blood lust. Several enemies’ skulls get smashed into the ground, or a rock, or a wall repeatedly during battles, and along with marvelously realistic sound effects you surely feel every crunch. The painterly CGI landscapes and set designs are truly fantastic and I believe give a real sense of windswept place, although this vastness is immediately lost once the action moves onto the obviously enclosed sets. My favorite scene was the CGI-enhanced fight sequence with some magical sand demons, they reminded me of Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts, only on speed and far more pissed off.
More than once during Conan I was reminded of The Mummy Returns, a passable rollercoaster ride of a sequel that substituted action for well-written story. Just like that film, I think that in order to enjoy this one it’s better to just sit back and enjoy the rollicking ride rather than thinking about the fact that you don’t actually get anywhere new when it’s over.