By Mike Giuliano
1:21 PM EDT, August 23, 2011
"Conan the Barbarian" is a juvenile fantasy, but it has so much sword-swinging violence that the movie merits its "R" rating. Although the muscular title character survives intact, he often finds himself stepping over the severed limbs of warriors who did not fare as well on the battlefield.
The combat almost never stops in a movie that really does not have anything else on its Dark Ages mind. As mindless entertainment goes, "Conan the Barbarian" stays so strictly within its fighting formula that its moment-to-moment thrills quickly prove tiresome.
I suppose one could argue that the movie's primal nature is true to its original source in mid-20th-century pulp fiction written by Robert E. Howard. Its more recent source is as a remake of a 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that was overseen by the macho duo of screenwriter Oliver Stone and directorJohn Milius.
The new "Conan" fortunately does not impose the philosophical pomposity that made Stone and Milius so well-suited for each other and ill-suited for audiences. Director Marcus Nispel, whose credits aptly include "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th" installments, worked with three screenwriters to execute this straightforward remake.
The movie unfortunately does open with ponderous narration by an uncredited Morgan Freeman, but from there on out Nispel and his writers are content to simply show us life back when it was nasty, brutish and short.
Although the movie obviously does not dwell on psychology, it does feel the need to explain why Conan is bashing so many skulls and slicing off so many arms. Early scenes present us with baby Conan, who practices swordplay by the time he is a toddler. Look beneath the grimy face and matted hair of Conan's dad, Corin, and you'll recognize that the actor playing Corin is Ron Perlman. What might be termed the Ron Perlman school of acting characterizes the warriors who grunt and scowl in this barely civilized camp.
An attack on the camp by a hostile tribe provides little Conan with all the motivation he needs to grow up and avenge the killing of so many of his people. Revenge is such a strong motive that, frankly, it does give the movie a sufficiently ferocious tone to see it through the many battles ahead.
By the time not-so-little Conan is all grown up and played by an intimidating-looking Jason Momoa (from HBO's "Game of Thrones"), "Conan the Barbarian" eagerly puts exposition behind it and goes into full battle mode.
If the audience is at least mildly interested in seeing Conan get back at his family's enemies, it's because Momoa is actually a solid choice for this sword-and-sandals role. Relatively speaking, he brings more warmth to this role than Schwarzenegger did. Action fans don't need to worry that he'll get all mushy, but they'll appreciate that this Conan exhibits at least a semblance of an emotional life.
Another reason why cheering for Conan is the only sensible choice is that his principal foe, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), is such a stereotypically bad guy that you'll want Mr. Zym and his goons to be smashed — and in 3-D, of course.
There's nothing terribly inventive about the martial confrontations between Conan and Zym, but they get the job done. Watching this movie is like turning the pages of a pulp novel or a comic book in order to pass the time. Occasionally, an especially gory scene will grab your attention. "Ouch, that must have hurt," you'll think, before immediately forgetting it and turning your attention to the next limb-separating swing of an ax or sword.
Although this is mostly a man's world, two female characters are thrown into the messy mix: Sym's daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), whose witch-level power makes her beautifully malicious; and the better-natured Tamara (Rachel Nichols), whose own lineage has her descended from a family of sorcerers.
Both of these characters are integral to the revenge-driven story, but it still seems like they're mostly around because, well, a day's bloody fighting goes better when there are a couple of pretty girls around. It's that kind of a movie. Grade: C
"Conan the Barbarian" is now playing at area theaters.
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