Conan has mellowed, if ever so slightly, since the days when a certain Austrian bodybuilder portrayed the pulp fantasy hero. That doesn’t mean his latest bloodbath, also titled “Conan the Barbarian,” is any tamer; merely that the protagonist in this Marcus Nispel-directed reboot shows a modicum of respect toward the men he slays and topless wenches he liberates. More importantly, the well-executed pic solves the biggest challenge facing those hoping to breathe new life — however nasty, brutish and short — into the 79-year-old franchise by finding an actor capable of filling Ah-nuld’s shoes, all of which portends brawny international biz, with sequels to follow.
Conan rights holder Millennium Films took a considerable gamble in casting little-known Hawaiian actor-model Jason Momoa, who nevertheless as a burly, long-haired horse of a man with biceps the size of battering rams and a big scar running down his left cheek seems made for the part. The bet paid off, as Momoa’s star rose earlier this summer, thanks to his role as Khal Drogo on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” That break, combined with a slightly more femme-friendly depiction of Conan — including a gratuitous glimpse of the barbarian’s backside — suggests the producers have figured a way to inject pulp-romance appeal into Robert E. Howard’s classic hero.
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The other big wild card in this equation was musicvideo director Marcus Nispel, who has carved out a curious niche for himself rebooting B-movie franchises. After bringing a measure of visual style to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” the helmer once again exceeds expectations, however modest they may have been to begin with.
Audiences headed to a Conan movie already know what they’re going to get, so it doesn’t make sense to chide those responsible for crafting a work of unrelenting barbarism. There’s blood and bare breasts aplenty, from Conan’s birth on the battlefield — where his father (Ron Perlman) can be seen slitting the man-child from his dying mother’s womb in an outrageous opening scene — to his climactic showdown with Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). In short, like last summer’s “The Expendables” (also produced by Avi Lerner), the film delivers hard-R escapism for 13-year-old intellects, aimed to satisfy those looking to rest their brains but not their ears.
Attempting to separate themselves somewhat from the earlier, Schwarzenegger-starring pics, Nispel and his cohorts announced a respectful back-to-the-books approach, but it’s really more of the same. Like the 1982 John Milius-directed film, “Conan the Barbarian” shows the young Cimmerian (played by Leo Howard) witnessing the death of his parents, hunting down the man responsible for their murder and demonstrating himself worthy of the sword he will wield in later adventures.
Joining the monosyllabic hero — whose mantra amounts to a grunted, “I live, I love, I slay and I am content” — are such stock characters as a campy sorceress (Rose McGowan), a thieving sidekick (Said Taghmaoui) and a pure-blooded maiden (Rachel Nichols). Screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood mercifully spare us most of the arcane mythology with which Howard larded his original tales, putting what little setup auds need into the mouth of narrator Morgan Freeman, whose presence offers the first clue that the project aspires to some sort of respectability.
With all earnestness, Nispel embraces the property’s classic roots, placing this new “Conan” squarely within the tradition of sword-and-sorcery pics. Visually, the world hews close to the dark, iconic look established by fantasy painter Frank Frazetta, which will no doubt please devotees, but offers as little room for surprise as the film’s recycled storyline.
Although the battle scenes are updated with the kind of on-camera carnage that 21st-century digital enhancement allows, many of the effects — ranging from CG cities to a multi-tentacled sea creature — are just a notch above the high-def TV standard seen on “Game of Thrones.” There is, however, one notable exception: An exhilarating mid-movie action scene produced by Tom Horton and Reliance MediaWorks conjures a bunch of impressive, shape-shifting sand warriors, who materialize out of thin air to antagonize the wild-eyed Conan.
For the most part, nimble editing makes it possible to make sense of complex action sequences, but often comes at the expense of the film’s unnecessary 3D. Overall, the extra dimension doesn’t add much, apart from one or two flinch-inducing moments when a weapon goes flying out into the audience. With his bulging physique, Momoa is more 3D-friendly than most stars, but the technique does little to enhance it, serving instead to emphasize the separation between the otherwise flat foreground and background planes.
In addition to its epic-scale indoor stages, Bulgaria supplies terrain varied enough to suggest the many kingdoms of Hyboria, but isn’t likely to inspire many vacations.