The original 1982 Conan the Barbarian is perhaps best known for the line in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan is asked, "What is the best in life?" He answers, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women."
The new 3-D remake, while not lacking for lamentations from women or anybody else, primarily concentrates on the "crush your enemies" part, with heads, eyes, noses, arms and hands being crushed or severed throughout its running time.
The film ultimately fails because it can't make all of that gore in any way interesting.
Billed as a more faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard's 1930s novels than the original—and multiplying the budget fourfold—the new movie was directed by Marcus Nispel in a singularly bizarre style that's as incoherent as it is super-violent.
The film begins with Conan's begininngs, as his mother dies giving birth to him while for some reason on the front lines of a huge, Lord of the Rings-like battle.
Raised by his father (Ron Perlman, wearing a long beard and hair extensions that make him look like a yeti), Conan becomes the world's most fearsome and violent 10-year-old—that is, until his father is murdered and his village burned down by warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang).
The rest of the movie is a quest for revenge by the grown-up Conan (Jason Momoa) against Khalar and his creepy daughter (Rose McGowan), a witch who lacks both eyebrows and morals. Together, the pair are trying to use magic to bring his late wife back from the dead.
What dooms the film are a lackluster script and nonsensical direction. Put together by three credited writers—which, by 2011 summer blockbuster standards, is a curiously small writing staff—the script is structured oddly. We get such dramatic problems as the hero and villain being ready to fight each other with 40 minutes left and the movie having to stall before the final confrontation.
Then, there's the scene where Conan and his sidekick (former MMA standout Bob Sapp) liberate a slave colony—certainly the only such colony I've ever heard of made up entirely of young, gorgeous bare-breasted women who are ready to party within seconds of their emancipation.
But the pitfalls of the script are nothing compared to the inexplicable, deeply weird direction by Nispel. The shakycam that I hate so much has been largely absent this summer, but it's back in a big way here. Nispel is especially a fan of shooting parts of battle scenes from the neck down, so we can't see the characters' faces. The battle and fight scenes are generally unoriginal and unimaginative.
At one point a henchman is catapulted into a castle with a message written on his chest. I liked that gag better when Nicolas Cage threw the guy out of the plane in Con Air.
The 3-D, it should go without saying by now, is pretty weak, too. This isn't the first movie this summer in which the closing credits were arrayed more impressively than any of the 3-D in the actual movie.
Momoa delivers a generally monotone performance as Conan, and while he's got quite a screen presence, I don't expect this film to launch his career the way the other "Conan" did Arnold's.
Lang, though, gives one of the strangest villain performances I've ever seen, consisting alternately of whispers, cackles and the occasional grunt. He's also given gray pigtails for some reason, making him resemble Willie Nelson way more than any badass villain probably should.
Morgan Freeman's voice makes an unexpected, uncredited cameo at the beginning, and its appearance was so jarring in a movie like this that I half-expected it wasn't really Freeman but rather that impersonator who gets hired to mimic him in political ads. And Conan's name is for some reason pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, like Conan O'Brien.
Conan the Barbarian is part of what looks like a planned run of remakes of “Ah-nuld” classics from the '80s—we already had the deadly-dull, Arnold-less Terminator reboot two years ago, and a Total Recall update is on the way, too.
Hopefully by the time they get to a new True Lies, Hollywood will have this 3-D thing figured out. Or maybe they'll realize those movies were mostly good because of Arnold the first time.
The Silver Screen Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: Conan the Barbarian
Directed by: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowen
Length: 2 hours and 2 minutes
Regal Warrington Crossing 22—Click on the link for show times.