I haven’t seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. I haven’t read the original Robert E. Howard stories. I’ve only read the Conan comics (by both Marvel and Dark Horse). But I can’t help but walk away from this newest version of Conan the Barbarian with one thought on my mind: that’s not Conan.
Conan (Jason Momoa) witnesses his father (Ron Perlman) die at a young age, and wants revenge on the man who did it, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). Meanwhile, Zym is trying to reassemble a mask that will bring his dead wife back, and all he needs now is a pureblood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols)…who happens to run into Conan.
Now, there’s a fundamental flaw here, one I only realized halfway into the movie: you’ve ruined Conan by giving him a revenge motivation here. Now, I’m pretty sure there’s some stories where Conan gets motivated by revenge at some point. The problem is that most stories start out with him as a mercenary, a thief, an adventure looking for jewels and women. And along the way, he gets backstabbed, double-crossed, or his employer uses the evil artifact which ends up killing him. In the end, Conan just walks away and moves on the next adventure. The world of Conan is decidedly gray, and yet this movie is so black and white. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. Nobody has any hidden motivations, there’s no betrayals. For one moment it seems like a good monk killed the villain’s wife, but then the monk says that’s not what happened, so yep, he’s just evil, no moral questioning here. It just loses the feel of Conan, and my best guess is that it was a generic fantasy script that somebody slapped Conan into.
But surely, it could be saved by some excellent fight sequences. Well, no. The main problem is the cinematography. There’s just endless cuts. You’ll see a second of Conan’s sword swinging, cut to the bad guy getting hit, cut to Conan moving an inch. I counted at one point to see if I could even get to 5 seconds per shot, and I just ended up with “1—1—1, 2—1”. It becomes impossible to tell what’s going on, no tension develops, and you can’t even orient yourself. I just wanted to watch a good action movie after each scene to remind myself what good action cinematography looks like. My dad’s best guess is that the fight sequences were so bad, they had to do it to recover the movie. It didn’t work. The only action sequence worth talking about is when Conan fights the Dweller in the Dark, a tentacled-creature straight from the stories. It’s not the best action sequence ever put to film, but it at least feels like a Conan moment. When you can’t salvage most of the movie, you hold on to those few moments.
At one point, Momoa mumbles his way through the classic line, “I live, I slay, I love, I am content.” It’s a perfect description of the character that he isn’t playing. This movie is a waste of one of the great fantasy characters, throwing him into a generic plot that’s not even done right.