Movie Review: Conan The Barbarian

Whenever a movie releases that’s an adaptation of one of my favorite books, I always put my money and my big mouth behind it, regardless of what the critics (or box office) says about it, especially if it promotes Alpha characters, something sorely lacking in Hollywood for several decades now.  Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don’t. Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

I was prepared to dislike this movie after reading all the negative reviews.  I was honestly surprised when about ten minutes into the movie I was thinking “Holy crap…this looks good.”  By the end of the movie I wasn’t quite as excited, but I still liked the movie a lot.  This is right after I saw Fright Night, another movie I expected to hate but turned out to be a surprisingly good movie.  In terms of a guy like me who loves fantasy, loves action movies, and loved Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories, I put Conan The Barbarian at about a 7.0 on the 1 to 10 scale.

What I Liked

  • Jason Momoa (Conan) did fair job.  Not a great job, but decent enough.  Minor quibble: I don’t think he’s muscular enough.  I’ve always pictured Robert E. Howard’s Conan to be more muscular than Momoa but less muscular than Arnold.  It’s minor though, and his performance did not distract me from the story, and frankly that’s all I was hoping for.
  • The level of blood and gore was just right for a Conan movie.  Not too much (like in Showtime’s Spartacus series) and not too little (like in just about every medieval or fantasy movie ever made in this ridiculous, pussified PG-13 world we seem to live in lately).
  • The monsters, especially the sandmen, were actually somewhat creative.  Any time I see monsters in a fantasy book or movie that do NOT come from a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, I’m happy.  Well done.
  • The action scenes were fantastic.  I mean just perfect.  Hard and fast and creative and cool.  And not too much of that quick-cut shit or that shaky cam shit. (Want to make me kill someone?  Make me watch The Bourne Supremacy one more time.  Fuckin’ shaky cam.)
  • The movie was very well paced.  The problem with the original Conan the Barbarian, which I did like (for other reasons) is that there were long stretches of boring screen time.  Not in this movie.
  • It did not fall into the common modern-day trap of showing women as strong as men.  Way too many movies (And books!  And TV shows!) portray women as wearing armor, wielding gigantic swords, and killing tons of men twice their size in hand-to-hand combat.  I’m sorry folks, but that’s bullshit.  Just ask any guy in the military, fire department, or paramedic squad about what happens when a woman has to wield anything larger than about 15 pounds for more than about 10 seconds.  I hate to break this to you, but women are not as strong as men.  Okay? I know that’s one of many modern realities that might piss you off, but it’s true.  Pop culture is REALLY, REALLY bad about this.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw Keira Knightley, who probably weighs less than one of my legs, wield a sword like a barbarian and kill tons of guys in a big war in King Arthur.  Good Christ. Look Hollywood (and various fantasy authors), if you want to show women fighting, fine.  Show them as quick and nimble.  Show them fighting with a dagger or bow, not a bigass sword.  Show them dodging and evading, not barreling forward and screaming like a man.  And show them getting savagely hurt and dying, just like men die in battle.  Other than one very quick scene where Conan made a woman fight with a sword, Conan the Barbarian was very good about accurately portraying women in medieval combat.  I was very surprised and very impressed.
  • They put plenty of little details in this movie for Robert E Howard purists like me.  Conan’s red cloak, guys talking about Conan and “the Elephant”, locations like Zamora and Zingara.  All cool.
  • The outdoor locations, both real-life and CGI, all looked very Hyborian.  It’s exactly how I would expect the low-fantasy, post-Atlantis world of Conan to look like.
  • Other than Morgan Freeman’s narration and a quick cameo by Ron Perlman, there are no recognizable celebrities in this movie.  THAT’S AWESOME AND I LIKE THAT.  Way too many sci-fi / fantasy / superhero movies have been ruined because the director is focused more on showcasing celebrity rather than telling a story.
  • Having a father-daughter couple as the villains was a creative idea.  I’ve never seen that before.  Plus I also like it when the villain is an old man rather than another big buff badass.  It’s more realistic that way.  In real life, the super-villains are not ninjas or crooks or MMA fighters.  They’re old men (dictators, politicians, bankers, etc.)

What I Didn’t Like

  • It’s a movie made by Hollywood.  That means it suffers from a lot of the stupid Hollywood cliches, many of which are enforced by political correctness.  Things like the Black Best Friend™.  The Feisty Defiant Female Lead™. The Short Frightened Smartass Thief ™.  Plot-Forced Impossible Escapes™.  Rescuing The Girl At The Last Minute™.  People dying by Falling Long Distances™ and Landing On A Big Spike™.  The Final One-On-One Battle With The Bad Guy™.  The Crumbing Fortress At The End™.  Shit, we even had the Villain Falling Into Lava™.  Stupid predicable crap like that.  It’s things like this that take an otherwise cool movie and just make things boring, or at least send your eyes rolling.  God damn.  I really hate that stuff.
  • This Conan was a little too brooding and angry.  The REH Conan, though brutal, was actually a reasonably happy guy who actually made the occasional wisecrack.  Conan’s attitude I think was best displayed in Conan the Destroyer (which is wildly considreed to be the worst of the three Coanan movies, if you don’t count Red Sonja).
  • The acting was a little wooden.  Not bad, just wooden.  But hey.  It’s a fucking Conan movie.  Are you expecting great acting from a movie like this?  My deal is always thus with action movies: If the acting doesn’t distract me from the rest of the movie, I’m happy.
  • I’m still not sold on this 3D shit.  Many critics complained about the stupid and unnecessary use of 3D in this movie and I completely agree with them.  Don’t get me wrong, the special effects looked good, but often the 3D shit did not.  Sometimes when the camera panned over some fantastical city, it looked as if the buildings were actually moving rather than gaining or reducing size because of the changing perspective.  Look, I liked Avatar, but this 3D shit is mostly just a way for Hollywood to increase the cost of movie tickets.  It saddens me that The Hobbit next year will proably be in this stupid 3D.
  • The plot was a little too simple.  I need more dimensions in my plots and characters.  Even in Robert E. Howard’s more simplistic short stories there was a depth to everything.  That’s part of what made his writing so amazing and (at the time) ground-breaking.  (People forget that REH and Conan preceded Lord of the Rings by a good 20 years.)  Though this movie is more faithful to REH than anything you’ve yet seen on screen, there just wasn’t enough here.  I wanted more, even if just a little more.  (Side Note: If you want to see a cool move from the Robert E. Howard world that got very little press attention, try to get a hold of Solomon Kane from 2009 and watch it.  Great movie.)
  • Why can’t we see a full-on adaptation of REH’s actual stories?  Is that so hard?  Why are we taking his characters, handing them to junior screenwriters, and making up new shit?  If you haven’t already, go read Robert E Howard’s Conan classic Hour of the Dragon.  Wouldn’t THAT be cool to make into a movie?  Hell yeah it would.
All and all, not bad.  Can’t wait for The Hobbit next year.  Until then, now that summer is over, we’re in for a long slog of no cool guy movies for many months.  Though Killer Elite and Underworld: Awakening look decent.  And I’m still holding out (probably in vain) for a movie adaptation of The Chronicles of Amber.  A man can dream…

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