Conan the Barbarian (2011)

To simplify my thoughts on Conan the Barbarian is easy; this is a movie that is exactly what I thought it would be when I decided to watch it. It’s an action movie without an original thought in its bones, with a plot that serves just to guide us through a great number of action scenes, with actors who seem largely indifferent about what’s happening.

We open similarly to the original Conan the Barbarian. Our titular character, Conan (Leo Howard while he’s a child), has his village attacked. His father is killed by a man named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who unearths a piece of a mask that was hidden in the village. He claims that the mask will make him a god, and that he’ll be able to rule much of the world once it’s complete. However, once it’s put together, he tells us that his mission is only halfway complete. The blood of a girl is needed as well, we find out later on, although why it takes Khalar twenty years to find her is not explained.

That’s when we pick up after the village slaying. Conan (now played by Jason Momoa), who was the sole survivor, is a pirate who goes around killing people he deems to be evil. We watch him in an action scene massacring a bunch of slave traders, rescuing the slaves, and proceeding to party. At the party, he sees one of the people who was there when his father was killed. He finds out from this man who did the earlier killing (since his name wasn’t revealed to Conan), and then sets out to get revenge.

It’s here where we meet the pure-blood woman, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who is required for Khalar’s plot to unfold completely. Again, I don’t know why he’s waited all this time to find her, but he has. I wager that his daughter, the magical Marique (Rose McGowan), had to hone her tracking skills first. Maybe they were just waiting for Conan to foil them. Conan and Tamara end up teaming up, and go around the land for a while as Marique and Khalar chase them. Oh, and they have a ton of action scenes while they’re at it.

A lot of the things that happen don’t make logical sense. Should they though? This is a movie devoted almost entirely to its action scenes, and the way that they’re strung together wasn’t given much thought. The plot is a hybrid of the previous two Conan films, with some new elements added in. The goal of the villains is to resurrect Khalar’s dead wife, because somehow she’ll make him a god. I guess that’s how Marique got her magical powers, although she’s nowhere near as strong as her mother supposedly was.

I didn’t expect a deep plot, and I certainly didn’t get one. This is your standard capture-sacrifice affair, with little deviating from the standard in these types of films. The plot also doesn’t get much time to switch things around, because action scenes pop-up every five or so minutes in order to make sure we don’t get bored. Thankfully, in a movie where the lead character isn’t supposed to be deep or emotional, this works better than trying to focus on him.

Another thing to be thankful for is how inventive some of the action scenes are. There are no duplicates here, which means they are always kept fresh. Whenever an action scene began, I knew I was going to have fun. For the most part, I was right. There are a couple that drag a little bit, but considering how many action scenes are there, a couple of them taking too long to finish isn’t a major complaint. I was constantly entertained whenever the action would pick up, and in an action movie, that’s the most important thing.

I was actually surprised by how creative some of the set-pieces were. Sword fights themselves can get boring no matter how good the choreography is, and I worried that this would be the case with Conan. That’s not what happened though, as more elements are introduced, including sand monsters, a kraken-like creature, and a sword with two blades, one of which can move around. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it, but it looked like it would be a pain to master.

If there is one major complaint to have with this picture, it’s the complete lack of character development. Again, I’d argue that depth and development isn’t essential to a film like this, but it could have elevated it to beyond just being fun to look at. Conan is angry, Tamara is bland, Khalar is determined to fulfill some prophecy, while Marique is evil. That’s as deep as it gets, save for Conan and Tamara’s relationship becoming intimate out of nowhere. It’s not that you won’t expect that development, but there’s just not much to hint that it will in the film. It feels as if there were a ton of scenes between the two cut; in one scene, Conan orders her around, while in the next, they have sex. It doesn’t happen quite that fast, but it’s pretty darn close.

The worst action scene in Conan was actually the final one. It’s anticlimactic, and given what we’re promised earlier, utterly disappointing. I wanted a large-scale fight, but all I got was a decent sword fight. It’s still entertaining, but it didn’t live up to what we’re told should happen. I’m unsure of why they took the story in this direction, because I doubt they ran out of money.

Conan the Barbarian was given a pretty solid budget of $90 million, and without big-name stars, most of the money must have gone to special effects. A large number of these effects go unnoticed, with the sand creatures and the kraken-like monster being the only heavy CGI portions. Maybe there were far more effects that I didn’t notice, but these are the money-shots. One more for the ending shouldn’t have been too much to ask for.

I actually didn’t have a problem with Jason Momoa in the lead role. Sure, he’s not as physically imposing as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he moves around fine and can make swinging a sword look fun. The standout of the film was Rose McGowan as Marique though, as she’s given both the most interesting character, as well as one that is devilish. I wanted to see more of her, even if the makeup didn’t play to her looks at all. If nothing else, she’s a memorable character that steals every scene she’s in.

In the end, I got what I expected out of Conan the Barbarian. I didn’t get a plot or characters that had depth, instead, I got a bunch of inventive action scenes that kept me entertained for a couple of hours. Was it great? Absolutely not, but it could have been if the characters had been stronger. I can’t deny that I had a fun time with Conan though, whether it be sitting back and enjoying the spectacle, or laughing at how ridiculous everything that happens was.

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