‘Conan the Barbarian’: Bloody. Period.

August 17, 2011

There are plenty of battles in the new version of “Conan the Barbarian,” but the two key matchups – pitting this film against the 1982 version – wind up as a draw. Sort of.

Yes, Jason Momoa, who played Khal Drogo on “Game of Thrones,” is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger – because, in fact, he can act. Or maybe it’s just that he seems a lot more alive in the moment than Arnold ever did. Physique-wise, they’re both Frank Frazetta wet dreams. Emoting-wise, the new Conan has the advantage.

The most crucial contest, however, has to go to the 1982 film: the director. Say what you will about John Milius and the original but it was never less than dedicated to finding a visual equivalent to the cheesily overwrought fiction of author Robert Howard.

But Marcus Nispel, who directed this new version, has no real vision – no sense of the kind of wacky grandeur and overheated seriousness that Milius apparently lives and breathes. This “Conan” is generic pastiche; a little “Conan,” a little “Indiana Jones,” and bits and pieces of other, lesser films.

The result is a movie that is frenzied but unexciting, packed with action sequences but lacking in distinctive moments. For a change, here’s a movie that needs a little lip-smacking, over-the-topness – and just can’t summon it, because Nispel doesn’t seem to speak that language.

This isn’t a remake but a relaunch, allegedly going back to the source material to start from scratch. We’re still in the mythical Hyborian age, where Conan is a battleground baby – literally sliced from the womb of his dying, sword-wielding mother by his father (Ron Perlman) in the midst of an ongoing slash-and-hack-fest.

As a Cimmerian adolescent, he’s a precocious lad, bringing home the heads of three enemies twice his size after an encounter in the woods. But he’s helpless to save his father when the forces of would-be warlord Zym (Stephen Lang) overrun the Cimmerian village and capture Conan’s dad. Dad dies, Conan lives – and Zym becomes his lifelong target for revenge.

Cut to his adulthood, where he’s pals with a band of thieves and cutthroats, freeing slaves and taking names. Eventually, he gets wind of Zym and begins to track him down.

Zym, it turns out, is seeking the secret ingredient that will activate a mask made of the bones of dead kings and give him dominion over life and death. The secret ingredient is the blood of one woman – the overmatched Rachel Nichols, who handles a sword better than she does her handful of lines. She eventually joins forces with Conan to bring Zym down.

But the action is indistinct, not helped by the 3D element. (Because, of course, 3D is never necessary.) Nispel has no clue how to make these battle sequences and action set-pieces compelling or tense; he photographs them so ineptly that you always feel as though his camera is perpetually half a beat behind whatever it is you want to see. Swords skewer bodies, blood flies prettily – and yet there’s nothing to get excited about.

Or, for that matter, to be entertained by. Milius’ film had James Earl Jones in a pageboy and was full of overripe dialogue along the lines of Conan’s response to a question about what is best in life: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” This Conan, however, sums his philosophy up in a few lines: “I live. I love. I slay. I am content.” That sentiment is never matched for pithiness elsewhere in the film.

Momoa is a charismatic figure with mischievous eyes, someone who could turn into the kind of movie star The Rock has become: serviceable, self-aware, sometimes enjoyable. Lang tries to chew the scenery as Zym, but the script rarely lets him – and apparently Nispel didn’t see the value in letting a raw-meat kind of actor like Lang go rabid. Rose McGowan, under a pile of bad hair and tattoos, flashes a handful of razor-sharp steel fingernails but otherwise is as unmemorable as the computer-generated effects.

“Conan the Barbarian” is boilerplate action of the most dispiriting kind. So much money at play – and so little thought invested.

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