Film Review: “Conan the Barbarian”

by Jason LeRoy on August 19, 2011

Rose McGowan blows in CONAN THE BARBARIAN

starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard

written by: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood

directed by: Marcus Nispel

MPAA: Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity

There is a scene at the beginning of the new 3D reboot of Conan the Barbarian that tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re about to watch. After a brief “historical” prologue (allegedly narrated by Morgan Freeman), we are introduced to a fetal Conan, still in his mother’s womb. Suddenly a sword plunges in, narrowly missing him. We cut to his mother, inexplicably in the midst of a raging battlefield, clutching her bleeding stomach. Conan’s father, Corin (Ron Perlman), rushes to her side. She says she wants to see her baby before she dies. Corin dutifully performs one of the first C-sections with his fightin’ dagger, yanking the bloody baby out of her and resting him in her arms. “What do you want to name him?” Corin asks. “Conan,” the mother gasps. And then she expires.

So, yeah. It’s that kind of movie: utterly ridiculous and loaded with grotesquely cartoonish violence, but I certainly wouldn’t call it boring. After the prologue, we segue into the film’s strongest section: tween Conan (a remarkable Leo Howard) as he first begins learning the ways of combat. But just as he is establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with, he is wronged in a major way by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who is bent on summoning some manner of ancient evil to become the world’s most powerful man. As an adult (played by Jason Momoa), Conan seeks bloody vengeance against Khalar, as well as his wicked sorceress daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan). He must also protect a feisty young maiden, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who possesses some kind of “pure blood” Khalar needs for his necromancy. Or something.

Conan the Barbarian is best when it’s delightfully bad. Conan’s delivery scene is just the first of several howlers in the film. Later, there is a slave emancipation that abruptly transforms into a sexy party. I guess those topless slave women were just too grateful to Conan for liberating them to bother putting on tops before celebrating. There is also an unintentionally hilarious pre-coital dialogue exchange that includes Conan saying, “I live. I love. I slay. I am content.” Which is kinda the funniest way you could have wrapped up that line. “I live! I love! I slay! Eh, I’m content.” One suspects Larry David may have done an uncredited rewrite.

Jason Momoa is clearly the big draw here. An alum of shows like Baywatch and Stargate: Atlantis, Momoa burst back onto the scene with his animalistic turn as Drogo on Game of Thrones; the loose similarities between that and Conan will likely result in some of its box office performance. Also: OH MY GOD LOOK AT HIM. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a man who so effortlessly embodies an exotic romance novel cover-boy. And without the hair and makeup he wore as Drogo, he is even more ridiculously hot. I mean, he has an ass shot in this movie that unleashed a gasping ripple of titillation throughout the audience (except for the straight fanboys, who could be heard making noises of betrayed protest).

And then there is my dear Rose McGowan, an actress of limited but enjoyable range I have followed enthusiastically since her 1995 debut in The Doom Generation, despite the long, long stretches in her career where she’s done a lot of crap. And now, in addition to the “bad acting” discussion, there is also the “bad face” discussion. Following a car accident several years ago, Rose had reconstructive surgery on her shattered face. Consequently, she looks about as much like her old self as Joan Rivers does. This is sad for me, as it means I’ll never again see the face that I fell in love with all those years ago.

But I’m happy to report that, after spending six hours in the makeup chair for her role as Marique, she actually looks like her old self again. Well, from the forehead down. This role seems like a consolation prize after Red Sonja and Barbarella both fell through, which is a bummer, since those projects came to her when she was hot for a minute after Planet Terror. She plays Marique a bit more restrained than one would expect; if ever there was a time to go over the top, it would be here. But perhaps she didn’t want to give the Razzies any more bait than they’ll already have. Still, the wardrobe, hair and makeup are on point.

Conan the Barbarian is certainly not a “good” movie, but it is fun, fast-paced and occasionally tongue-in-cheek. Momoa makes for a sexy and otherworldly lead, with able supporting performances from Stephen Lang and Rachel Nichols. The fight scenes continue unrelentingly from beginning to end, with blood cartoonishly exploding from every little sword tap. Limbs are severed. Wounds are poked. Maidens are vanquished. If you’re looking for a weekend guilty pleasure, you may have found it.

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