Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conan The Barbarian - From Acheron To Zym!

I got a chance to see Conan the Barbarian while it was still in the theaters, since given the business it's doing, it probably won't be there much longer. I in fact went to an early matinee and had very nearly a private showing (there was one other guy way down front). After seeing the movie, I'm surprised it's doing so badly.

Visually the movie is pretty intense, especially in the early parts of the story. The young Conan is a pretty decent actor and has some really heavy stuff to pull off. Ron Perlman as Conan's dad is pretty dang good and offers up a really intriguing look in the role. In fact all the Cimmerians seemed pretty tough and distinctive. Young Conan takes on some Picts early in the movie and I have to say it's a pretty involving sequence.

When the villain Kalar Zym (played by Steven Lang) shows up with his army things really get to humming as an ancient Acheronian threat forms the spine of this story. There's a real depravity to Zym and his cohorts that sets up Conan as the hero despite his own very violent instincts.

I won't get into the plot so much due to spoilage, but I have to say I completely lost Rose Megowan in her role as a young witch Marique, and that's not a criticism. She looks completely different to me, and very compelling. Less so is the heroine Tamara played by Rachel Nichols, who sadly falls just a tad short of convincing me she belongs in the Hyborian Age. Somehow she comes off as too modern in her speech and manner.

The highlight though of the whole movie is Jason Momoa who looks absolutely stunning as Conan. I found his body type ideal for the role, presenting with plenty of strength, but not coming across as muscle bound by any means. His glowering face is ideal for many scenes and he's one of those actors who can command a scene without talking, a key for anyone playing Conan.

Aside from Momoa, the star of this story is the setting. We flit around the territories of Hyboria with great speed, so much so that frankly I got a bit lost by the end. A map would've served at the beginning to help anchor the action a bit. Lord knows the set up of the film has a sufficiently Lord of the Rings feel anyway, so a map would've fit right in.

The LotR feel though goes away pretty quickly though as we find limited magic in this world, true to Howard's original material, and lots of brawny types who are leaning into one another constantly.

Another area of weakness were two of Conan's friends, a pirate named Artus (Nonso Anozie) and a thief named Ela-Shan (Said Taughmaoui) who show up and disappear according to the whims of the plot, but to my mind never really connect with the others in the story in a really powerful way. Both are somewhat sources of humor, so maybe that plays against them.

There's plenty of battling in this one, so the movie can't be faulted for stiffing its audience looking for swordplay. The love story (such as it is) seems offbeat, and doesn't really connect for me.

I'd give this movie a "B" alas. It's diverting, offers up a great lead and a dandy villain, but doesn't really gel as it ought. Still and all it's still better than Conan the Destroyer and Kull the Conqueror overall. Only the first Conan the Barbarian movie by Milius is a more complete cinema experience. Like that original, this movie too takes its material seriously most of the time, and that's key to making Howard's stuff work, even a little bit.

One thing I did do for this movie that I haven't done in several years is to buy the novelization of the film. I'm curious to see how some of the detail I'm sure I missed is handled in another format. I'd like to learn a bit more about Zym's sidekicks who are visually interesting but don't really get any backstory. They are all warlords defeated by Zym and have sworn allegiance to him, but you get the sense it should be more complicated than that. These adaptations are often quite dry, but contrasting this material by Stackpole to Howard's original stuff makes it at least entertaining on that level.

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