'Conan the Barbarian' (2011) A Barbaric Movie Review
I’m A Schwarzenegger Fan
As of late, my recent cinematic studies (A.K.A. me re-watching movies to refresh myself for articles I want to randomly write) has led me back to a number of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography; including 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and it’s 1984 follow-up, Conan the Destroyer. Both films of which I enjoy. I find the original John Milius picture to be quite the sword and sorcery epic, a type of film that sadly isn’t seen much anymore; with tremendous landscapes, elaborate world building of this strange magical land meets Mad Max, solid practical effects, surprisingly extensive sections of the film where there isn’t a single word of dialog even spoken as it relies heavily on pure visual storytelling, and a grand scale odyssey spanning the life of a boy growing into a brutish warrior as he seeks revenge on the sadistic ruler who murdered his family. At the center of it all, we have Schwarzenegger himself as the titular character injecting as much charisma and badassery as humanly possible.
Then the Conan sequel, Destroyer, was a fine action flick. Nothing particularly all that great or terrible, it was more of a run of the mill action movie of the 1980s. Entertaining enough, but holding none of the unique spark seen in Barbarian. Although I will say there still remained that grand scale scope from the original film with gorgeous scenery throughout the runtime. And lastly there was Red Sonja, a film that I honestly haven’t seen in over fifteen years. All I remember about it is that I wasn’t a major fan, but I don’t remember hating it either. At some point I’m sure I’ll give it another look, but that time was not now. Now was the time to finally at long last, check out the 2011 Conan the Barbarian remake! Yippee for me?
My First Time
For years I had refused to… pop the new movie in… because I was pretty convinced that it would be a sin to give into my animalistic urges of diving deep into some cheap, young hot thing out there for public consumption. Like most, I wanted my first time with the Conan remake to be special, make a real night of it and do it for the right reasons. Maybe, just maybe, I could find love as I plunged deeper into the pelvis of this personally brand new movie experience. Scared and excited all at once, it was time to make it with Conan the Barbarian 2011… in 2020. Yet when it was all said and done, I was left slightly withered and lonely. Somewhat crying. As the Conan remake used me up like the nerdy loser prom date that I was and vanished without so much as a “thank you for your virginity.” Here I am now, lost and confused and pregnant with emotions that I will give birth to in nine months. My ideal baby-name for this mixed bag of a child we have created is simply, “Disappointment.” More than likely I will raise this thing with wholehearted contempt and resentment as my father did before me, and his father did before he, and so on. And yes, I will be filing for child-support.
My Actual Thoughts Going In
Don’t ask me where that bit from above came from. It came from the moment… From the sounds of it, that wasn’t the only thing... Moving on. To actually get into how I felt before seeing the remake, I simply had little to no interest in seeing it. I recall at the time of its theatrical release that the remake appeared generic and I hadn’t heard of the lead actor before so I felt no drive checking the movie out. Years later, I discovered that lead so happened to be the charming as hell Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa. Upon this revelation, I decided that it was about time I finally checked out the Conan remake to see what it was all about. Turns out my initial instincts on the new entry were unfortunately 100% correct. Generic.
Conan (Jason Momoa) grows up to be a vengeful “barbarian” warrior after the loss of his parents as a child. Now as a grown man, he sets off to exact his revenge on the evil warlord (Stephen Lang) and his witch daughter (Rose McGowan) who killed and murdered his father. In the midst of Conan’s quest, he stumbles upon a woman in distress (Rachel Nichols) who is being chased down by the warlord he seeks. The two join together as romantic interests in hopes of triumphing over evil to save the day.
I Don’t Hate It, I Just Don’t Like It.
As previously mentioned, the original film feels less like a movie and more like this gigantic fantastical odyssey reminiscent of Greek mythology or something akin to. 1982’s Conan the Barbarian is quite the epic with ambition mostly found in the days of the “New Hollywood” era of the 1970s, yet miraculously emerged in the early ‘80s. Cut to nearly thirty years later, we have ourselves a standard action movie that always feels like a movie straight off the conveyer belt. Reflecting back, in all honesty this 2011 effort more or less comes across as a lackluster remake of The Scorpion King with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or the 1999 Mummy movie rather than Conan the Barbarian. With that said, in the spirit of trying my hardest in being optimistic, I would like to discuss the positives before the negatives.
Speaking strictly on the behalf of Jason Momoa’s performance, not his character, I could see that spark of charisma here only Momoa possesses as he is fighting desperately to inject life into anything in this script. Granted, those brief sparks are far and few between, however they are present on occasion. At least enough to make note of. Sadly there isn’t a whole lot of material for this talented actor to work with, but he is clearly doing the best he can with what he’s given. From time to time I was able to enjoy a decent line read here and there from Momoa. Plus it is very apparent that Jason can handle himself fantastically in the physicality required by the action. Always appearing capable within the fight sequences and never faltering, although let’s face the fact it’s an obvious no-brainer that Momoa will look badass as he kicks ass like the badass that he is.
It’s Rated R
Over the last twenty years or so it has become increasingly rare to have theatrically released R rated action movies come out of the Hollywood machine. Hell, R rated movies of any genre seem to be somehow difficult to get out into the theaters nowadays; for every one single R rated modern action movie, I’d say there are about ten PG-13 action flicks ready to flood the cinemas at any point throughout the year. Although please do not confuse my words in meaning that the difference between PG-13 and R ratings necessarily means quality, because clearly they don’t. However, I do want to at least acknowledge the fact that this was a crew attempting to give their film a harder edge than the average blockbuster. In that regard, I can respect the movie for having a slight bite to its identity compared to the countless bloodless action pictures that surround it. Certainly not the hardest R film I’ve ever seen, not even the hardest R rated movie to come out of 2011. I simply enjoyed getting a little bit of a bloody experience with the occasional boob shot is all.
The VisualsClick thumbnail to view full-size
While nothing special, I will admit the CGI effects work is fairly solid throughout the entire picture. With the exception of a few questionable effects here and there (not to mention some really bad green screen moments), the movie on a visual standpoint is fine. There are a decent amount of practical effects sprinkled about among the significant spread of digital ones and they mostly blend seamlessly. Truth be told, this might be the director’s (Marcus Nispel) best looking feature as I’ve found his past movies to look visually appalling; i.e. the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and his 2007 efforts in Pathfinder, as they both looked less like cool gritty movies and more like shallow broody music videos. Although I guess his Friday the 13th remake looked okay as well, visually speaking. Still, Conan the Barbarian is probably the only movie of his I’d compliment on a technical aspect. No high praise, simply a well noted improvement on his craft.
A Studio Note Movie
Cutting straight to the chase now, no more playing nice. My biggest issue that I have with the Conan remake is that I feel the studio notes in every frame.
- Conan needs to be a handsome stud and there absolutely must be a romantic interest who has a love scene shoved somewhere in the middle of the runtime. Chemistry is not required. Also, don’t forget to have villains kidnap romantic interest in the third act.
- Open the picture on an action sequence, then afterwards there has to be an action beat every five to ten pages of the script or else we risk losing the interest of our audience. Also, slow-mo shots are mandatory.
- Insert a giant explosion or two and definitely incorporate a dilapidated temple of sorts that crumbles over our protagonists in the climax, even if none of it makes any sense.
- 3D is really big right now so we need to hop on that train, but don’t put too much effort into creating dynamic 3D shots. Only get a gimmicky 3D shot in every 15 to 20 minutes so it’s not too cheesy. Even though audiences are paying extra in hopes of seeing a campy, gimmicky 3D action movie.
- Be sure to make the film visually gritty like a Christopher Nolan Batman movie. Also, don’t forget to rip off the snowy training scenes from Batman Begins.
- Conan the Barbarian should be less barbarian and more Dwayne Johnson.
- Tone down the mystical elements as we want this to be more realistic. Although throw in some magic once or twice so that we can still appease fans of fantasy.
- Have the hero and villain meet at the center of the screenplay so that there’s more personal tension between the two characters, but don’t actually build up the tension. Just let them fight and yell a line or two at each other to pad things out. Plus we need our hero injured so our pretty love interest may tend to his wounds and his penis.
- Insert comic relief sidekicks.
- Don’t make the villains too empathetic, keep them evil for evil’s sake and nothing more.
- Include fake outs as though the story might actually take a risk of killing off key players. Don’t scare them too much though and bail from of the fake out as soon as possible.
- If Morgan Freeman is free, would love to include an opening narration. If not available, we will write Mr. Freeman a bigger check.
- Even though the time period suggests the dark ages, would prefer if all characters spoke as close to modern dialect as possible without uttering “OMG.”
There is a lack of ambition seen in the movie to where I am continuously in a mental state of not caring about anything going on. Everything that I just listed off would simply happen in front of me as I would say to myself, “Yep, that’s a thing I’ve seen before.” The energy is simply vacant as the story goes through the motions, one familiar beat at a time. No spark to rile up the entertainment value, nor any form of world building akin to the original in order to create a similar epic experience. Simply, the remake boils down to the good looking hunk saves the day with action that we’ve seen countless times before.
Normally I don’t separate the lead actor/actress from their character in my reviews, in this specific case though I thought it to be relatively necessary as I found the actor to be trying yet the writing of his character on the other hand to be wildly mediocre. First of all, Conan in this movie is not a barbarian. He’s a standard, musclebound do-gooder and nothing more. Although it seems as though the term “barbarian” is basically a shallow title, that’s it. The Conan depicted by Schwarzenegger was very much so a barbarian, it was part of his character arc in fact to grow into becoming somewhat of a mindless brute with elementary ideals; he takes joy in the most basic of life’s pleasures and as he goes along in his own journey of vengeance he slowly finds purpose in this personal war he wages on against a tyrant. Conan’s morals are skewed at best as he is, first and foremost, a barbarian. We understand his beliefs and motives as a man, none of this of which is present in Momoa’s interpretation. The best way to describe the difference as easily as possible is that Jason Momoa’s Conan is the perfect prototypical hero anyone can find in a blockbuster while Schwarzenegger’s Conan is a flawed hero who isn’t always seeking to do what is right, only what benefits him greatest at the time.
Secondly, there is no character arc for Momoa. He ends the story exactly the way that he started; no real lessons learned, no change in personality, no character growth of any kind. To sum up his character is rather easy, this new Conan is just the cool guy that everybody wants to hang out with as he fights the baddies. Vaguely the film tries to insert a flimsy philosophy for Momoa’s Conan with some half-assed lesson on the strength of steel originating from heat and cold, but it doesn’t actually play into any thought provoking themes anywhere in the flick as it is only brought up twice and hugely forgotten. For a character who seems injected with more intelligence than his previous incarnations, he is somehow far less compelling and interesting than ever before. As much as I like Jason Momoa and I wished that this movie gave him more material to work with, this is a bland as hell character with absolutely no meat to its bare bones.
Stephen Lang & Rose McGowan
Another set of actors that I genuinely adore; Stephen Lang I think can perform incredibly and provide some terrifyingly intense villains as we’ve seen in 2009’s Avatar and 2016’s Don’t Breathe. Or even going way, WAY back to his role as the Party Crasher back in 1991 in The Hard Way; which by the way is an underrated as hell “buddy-cop” movie, so if you haven’t seen it then I recommend checking it out because it’s two hours of James Woods getting irritated at Michael J. Fox’s goofy shenanigans and it is amazing. I miss that movie… I should watch The Hard Way tonight, f*ck yeah!
Sorry, getting back on track. Lang can bring in some suspense through his performance no problem, the only thing he needs is the right writer or director to lead him the way. Those aren’t here at the moment and don’t seem to return for the duration of this production. Occasionally there are snippets that could have added to Lang’s bad guy character and even the creepy incestuous relationship he seems to possibly share with his daughter, but the movie obviously becomes too afraid to go through with those ideas and pulls back before anything could come from them. One example of the movie getting close to adding some shred of complexity to Lang’s villain was when his motivations are revealed to bring back his dead wife, as well as at one point there is a discussion shared between him and a priest on how his wife was unjustly murdered by the common folk. For the briefest of moments, I thought to myself, “Wow, that actually could be pretty cool if they go through with this idea that this was a normal guy who turned into a warlord as a result of ‘good people’ killing this man’s true love.” Then before I could finish that thought, the movie reneged on those complexities and explained that his wife was an evil witch while Lang only wants her back to do more evil stuff. Slamming the door on this character’s humanity faster than it was creaked open ever so slightly.
At the end of the day, Lang is practically the stock baddie of the week. Leaving no impression whatsoever. Which is odd to say, given the fact that the movie brought up how he was probably sleeping with his own Rose McGowan daughter yet I still find him forgettable. That’s quite the accomplishment, I will not lie. McGowan herself I thought was only memorable because of the unique costume design she had to wear, other than that the door was closed on anything remotely interesting for her character as well. Maybe if there were more story opportunities opened up between her character and her father or even Conan for that matter, create some legitimate rivalry between these three characters rather than have them bicker and fight about three times in the movie while going no further. It’s boring as there could have been more given to McGowan that could have been really exciting, especially given the fact that she’s a which yet we see her do one or two “magic” things then mostly prances around with her Freddy Krueger finger knives. These actors I’m sure tried their best, but the script gave them nothing and they deserve better.
Morgan Freeman Narrating For the First Five Minutes
Why was Morgan Freeman narrating the movie for the first five minutes? There’s pretty much no other narration in any other portion of the movie and Morgan Freeman doesn’t appear in a single frame. Was Freeman originally cast to have a more substantial role and it was subsequently cut? Seriously, why?! I don’t understand. It’s such a pointless waste to include such a talented actor to only incorporate the man for a few minutes of opening narration and then immediately discard him. I’m completely befuddled by this random decision.
In the original it was clear that the movie was taking place in a world apart from ours, encompassing fairytale elements; strange sorcery, giant creatures, worship of mystic Gods, men transforming into reptiles, and so on. In the remake however, it is as though the producers were afraid to venture too deeply into the realm of fantasy so they restrained that aspect to the point where anything “magic” related that occurs is totally underwhelming. Rose McGowan’s character is built up to be a powerful witch, yet all we see her do with her supposed abilities is being her father’s personal dog tracker, sniffing out whatever he needs and she summons a few savages made out of sand. Nothing is actually being utilized with the sand men either as they act like any of the other disposable villainous pawns, only they disintegrate back into sand when they die. I’m not entirely sure how a sword going through sand kills these beings, but I guess that’s how that works.
Another fantasy element included I suppose is some tentacle monster we see pop up out of nowhere in the third act for our hero to face off. Honestly though, we don’t get much to see as the CGI tentacles are all we are privileged to in the movie as it vanishes about as quickly as it arrived. There is no weight to any mystical aesthetics seen here as they are all used as a superfluous obstacle for Conan to speedily overcome. Frankly, I kept forgetting that there was even magic present in this world since there is so little to witness. If the writers/producers/director/whoever wanted to be rid of all the magic mumbo jumbo, that’s one thing. Fine, then go through all the way with stripping that from your screenplay. Don’t try going half-n-half with this where it feels confusing and lazy. It is as though the filmmakers removing a portion of the fantasy rather than all of it was a failed attempt to appease everybody, then as a result appeases nobody. Pick one or the other, not both. And on the other hand, if the filmmakers truly wanted magic in their movie, then they need to be far more imaginative then a few sand men and a frikkin’ squid.
Pretty sure I’ve spoken way too long on this movie as it is far too generic to warrant such a lengthy review, so I apologize. Is this terrible? No, the remake is harmless enough. My qualms are that it has zero ambition in writing and scope. If someone were to sit down for a couple hours, chill mindlessly as colors fly across the screen and people say things to one another, I’m sure the viewer will be mildly content. As anything more than what I described, not so much. Personally, I can’t think of a real reason why I would ever recommend watching the remake over the original; the 1982 flick is epic with better world building and more memorable characters, there’s no reason to ever pick the remake in comparison. Undeniably there is less action in the original than the remake, turns out that quantity doesn’t mean quality.
Which 'Conan' Barbarianed Best?
Which theatrically released 'Conan the Barbarian' affiliated movie was your favorite?
That’s All Folks…
Conan the Barbarian… Have you seen the 1982 original or the 2011 remake? What did you think? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Wish my head would stretch into a giant snake head? Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you so happened to have enjoyed my review then please do me a favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves an action-packed day!
© 2020 John Plocar