Monday, August 22, 2011

Conan the Barbarian Movie Impressions

Conan’s bloody rebirth on the movie screen is a fitting time to renew my Sythbane Squadron blog. I had been looking forward to the new Conan the Barbarian. I enjoyed it greatly on opening weekend, and it vexed me to see snarky reviews by people who have contempt for the genre steer too many people away from the theater. What follows are some of my impressions of the movie. I tried to reveal no spoilers, other than what you might glean from the trailers:

• The new movie reads like one of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. They are fast-paced tales, laced with lurid action, without much emotional depth. They are adventure stories. In this vein, the movie emulates its source material very well.

Jason Momoa plays Conan with terrific ferocity. In one scene, Conan swipes his palm up the flat of his sword with a bloodthirsty, snarling laugh that I think Howard himself would have cheered! I can think of no one else who looks so much like the great barbarian. Frank Frazetta, my favorite artist, painted the quintessential images of Conan. Momoa doesn’t look quite as gaunt and grizzled as Frazetta’s Conan, but he sure captures his savage spirit. I wish Frazetta had gotten a chance to paint Momoa as Conan!

• Momoa’s Conan is more true to Howard’s original hero than Arnold Swarzeneggar’s, classic though the 1982 Conan the Barbarian is. Too many people think the 1982 movie is the “original,” when the original is pulp fiction written in the 1930s. Arnold’s movie has many virtues, but it is no sacred relic. I disliked how Arnold played Conan as slow-witted. Momoa’s Conan is smart and wily.

• Likewise, Momoa is physically a better Conan than Arnold. Howard often described Conan as having the supple grace and power of a big cat, like a panther. Arnold was awesomely powerful as Conan, but he lacked the barbarian’s fluid, cat-like movement. Momoa is like a deadly dancer with his sword, combining his imposing bulk with lithe lethality.

• The athletic young actor who plays Conan as a boy, Leo Howard, is great! He is expressive, conveying Conan’s intelligence and confidence, as well as his precocious physical prowess.

• Ron Perlman adds an essential Ron Perlman elixer to the movie. He is grand as Conan’s Cimmerian father and combat mentor, Corin. Scenes between the father and son are the most emotionally powerful in the whole movie.

• Some of the slave girls who Conan rescues in the movie are appropriately attired, in the manner of Conan stories. Which is to say, they are appropriately and pleasingly unattired. The actresses are officially credited as “Topless Wenches.” This I applaud. In fact, if the movie was really true to Howard's vision, the leading ladies would have dressed more like the women of Frank Frazetta’s paintings. A Frazetta woman typically looked like she was going to a Brazilian beach wearing a few bronze earrings for a bikini.

• One of the snarky reviews of the movie said it was like being hit on the head for two hours. By this the writer apparently means that Conan isn’t boring. The movie is unburdened by tiresome chick-flick parlor dialogue. Bloody, frenetic action sustains it.

A Few Disappointments

Conan the Barbarian is a satisfying action film, and a solid foundation to restart the Conan franchise, yet there is room for improvement:

• Momoa, while perfectly cast as Conan, rushes across some of his dialogue and is sometimes hard to understand. I would fault the director for failing to recognize this problem and have Momoa deliver Conan’s growls a bit more slowly and deliberately, with suitable barbaric enunciation.

Rachel Nichols is a beautiful actress who is fiery and splendid as Scarlett in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but she seems miscast as Tamara in Conan the Barbarian. She could have been made up as a wild, Celtic priestess, but as she was presented, she was too waspish. An actress with a more exotic, sultry look would have been more fitting. There seemed to be little chemistry between Momoa and Nichols, so their characters’ relationship fails to fuel much emotion in the latter part of the movie.

• The young actress who plays the youthful witch princess Marique, Ivana Staneva, was scarier than Rose McGowan. Now, I am a fan of Rose McGowan, but the character wasn’t allowed to be quite scary enough. She looked like a Trill from Star Trek, with her splotchy temples and forehead, which was almost comically distracting instead of scary. And furthermore, the witch princess’ armor is way too demure for a Conan villain. Rose should have worn a much more scanty, sexy witch princess outfit. Once again, I would call the director’s attention to Frazetta paintings and Heavy Metal magazine for inspiration. And to my great disappointment, Rose never once lets her armor down!

• The story needed more epic weight. The story needed to be bigger and grander.

Overall, though, the disappointments are minor. Conan the Barbarian is a fun film. Jason Momoa is born to play Conan. He has the mighty thews. Live, love, go see Conan, and you will be content.

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