The sword-and-sorcery genre has been lying dormant for the last few years, eclipsed by Hollywood's recent obsession with all things vampirical. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was so unavoidable in popular culture during the early years of the new millennium, that perhaps audiences felt a tad au fait towards the fantasy genre. Maybe this is why director Marcus Nispel (directing credits include the recent, dreadful remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th) has waited until now to update the Conan The Barbarian series, some 27 years after the burly Cimmerian's last big screen outing. Strapping on the chain mail and furs this time is big-screen newcomer Jason Momoa, a Hawaiian model-turned-actor most famous for his role as Khal Drogo in HBO's hit fantasy epic Game of Thrones. Despite having a background in rehashing old classics, Nispel and Momoa have reiterated their desire to stay true to the original source material as opposed to Arnie and John Millius' interpretations of Robert E. Howard's novels, although the plot of the new movie bares more than a passing resemblance to that of the 1982 film.
Conan 2011 begins with our hero's birth on the battlefield, cut from his dying mother's belly in the first of many blood-splattered gore fests that the movie has to offer. We see the young Conan grow up into a great warrior under the stewardship of his father (Ron Perlman) until he meets his untimely, yet inevitable death at the hands of a recently bereaved warrior named Khalar Zym, played by Avatar baddie, Stephen Lang. The results of his encounter leave young Conan orphaned with a village burnt to cinders. He's understandably a bit miffed and sets off across Hyboria to avenge his father, scored by a voice-over from an un-credited Morgan Freeman.
OK, so there is nothing original about the plot. After the opening 15 minutes, anyone with the vaguest knowledge of story structure can see where we're going to end up in a couple of hours time, but the conventional story arch is decorated with some nonsensical sub-plotting revolving around a magical mask and the search for a pure-blooded woman, the last in an ancient blood line, who is our villains only hope of resurrecting his dead wife. Even before we are introduced to Conan in his adult form, you'll be completely desensitized to the amount of gore and growing bored of the derivative fight sequences, clearly aiming at, and falling short of, Gladiator and 300, leaving Momoa with the thankless task of carrying the rest of a movie which has said all it wanted to say. Conan is not a character that requires a character actor to play him, and Momoa does a decent job of playing the unrefined beefcake and is helped to shine by some pretty dreadful performances from the supporting cast, most notably Rachel Nichols, who delivers a performance so unfastidious, it's almost as if the director didn't even know she was there.
Nispel is obviously hamming it up as much as possible and the film does have its tongue firmly in its cheek. The gore is as relentless as the pacing, the incestuous undertones are more than a little creepy, the topless women: completely unnecessary, and there is surely a limit on how many heads can be severed in 120 minutes. Find a way to overcome the more objectionable moments however, and the eye-rolling soon turns to belly laughs. Jason Momoa told me when I spoke to him in London last week, that the most important thing about the character was to keep his sense of humor, and with the right frame of mind, you might notice that Conan the Barbarian has far more laughs in it than some of the latest Judd Apatow movies.
Conan the Barbarian 2011 is unlikely to win over any new fans but if your keen on frantic pacing, blood by the bucket load and abs and biceps galore, you may well have a decent night out, just remember to set your brain to pantomime mode!
I spoke to Conan star Jason Momoa in London this week, here's what we chatted about.