Conan the cartoon ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, September 2, 2011

Conan the cartoon

Conan the Barbarian (2011)
My rating:

As I have mentioned more than once, I loves me some sword-and-sorcery. I'm not sure why or how that love came about, though. I remember not watching the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian - the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger - when it first came out, because I was a wee tyke back then and that is not a movie for wee tykes. I have, of course, since rectified that omission. But I do remember my dad taking me to watch Conan the Destroyer in cinemas two years later, which... yeah, that probably started it. I say this with some embarrassment, because Conan the Destroyer is not very good, as I have now come to realize with my adult faculties. (There's also Krull, which came out a year earlier and probably holds up better, but which I have to admit didn't make much of an impact to me at the time. Probably because I watched it on a blurry VHS.) But whichever my seminal cinematic sword-and-sorcery experience was, I grew up loving the genre and sadly bemoaning its dearth.

Even more sadly, this new reboot of the Conan series isn't going to end it.

As a child (Leo Howard), Conan the Cimmerian watched a vicious warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) slaughter his village and murder his father (Ron Perlman). As an adult (Jason Momoa), he is now a pirate, rogue, and mighty warrior, and chances upon an opportunity to gain revenge upon Khalar - who possesses an ancient magical artifact and, aided by his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), is seeking a mortal of pure blood to complete an evil ritual. This pure blood is Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a monk whose monastery is sacked by Zym - but by chance, Conan manages to rescue her and hold her captive. But she soon turns from his prisoner to his ally, as Conan quest for vengeance takes on greater import; if Zym succeeds in his ritual, he will possess enough sorcerous power to rule the world.

The big difference between the original Conan the Barbarian and its sequel Conan the Destroyer is in the rating: the good one was rated R, the other one was a kiddified PG. This reboot goes straight for the hard R, which probably won it a bit of goodwill from Conan fans - but unfortunately, the actual movie belies that rating. It's bloody and gory, with plenty of beheadings and dismemberments during fight scenes; and there's also a fair bit of nudity and boobery, mostly of the female kind (censored by our fine Lembaga Penapisan Filem, of course, and fortunately to not much detriment), although Jason Momoa is bare-chested practically all the time. And there's also a creepy incestuous vibe between the villain and his beautiful but evil daughter. But it's a cartoon, despite all these trappings. Its plot, dialogue and overall treatment of Robert E. Howard's classic pulp hero is fit for horny 13-year-old boys, not adults.

Marcus Nispel, man. What a hack; guy started out directing commercials and music videos, then parlayed that into a film career making reboots of horror franchises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. He claims a Conan movie is his childhood dream project, which turned out to not mean a damn thing. This movie is the bad kind of cinematic cheese - the kind that has pretensions of being something gritty and serious. (The good kind of cheese is the kind that's deliberately cheesy.) Its saving grace is that it never gets dull; with its frequent and clamourous action scenes, this movie moves. But Nispel proves as crappy at filming a fight scene as he is at everything else, going for the shaky-cam and always choosing the wrong angle and the wrong edit. In fact, the editing for this is noticeably bad, on par with Prince of Persia. Its one monster-fighting scene - and monster-fighting scenes are a highlight of the genre - is just an ugly, incoherent mess.

Stephen Lang was an awesome villain in Avatar, but his role here is a lot more poorly-written, and he comes across as an unremarkably generic B-movie baddie. Rose McGowan at least gets what kind of movie this should be, and gets the right vampy vibe for her Marique. Rachel Nichols is pretty as a picture, but she has no idea whether her Tamara is a spunky fighter or a squealing damsel in distress (and to be fair, neither does the movie). Ron Perlman phones it in, and what's really sad is that he was a lot livelier in Season of the Witch, an even worse sword-and-sorcery movie. As for Momoa - man, I dunno. He certainly seems to be having fun playing the quintessential barbarian hero, and he gives it his all, but neither the script nor the direction make him anything other than cheesy. It doesn't help that he speaks like a California surfer dude while the rest of the cast are going for a faux-period accent; he doesn't even pronounce "Khalar" the same as everyone else. (And one line of his sounds like a really shoddy overdub. Look out for it; it's when he says "A feast for my sword.")

Ultimately, Momoa isn't going to replace Schwarzenegger as the iconic cinematic Conan. The 1982 original had John Milius, who was far more successful at making an unapologetically adult fantasy adventure that takes itself completely seriously. It was epic, operatic, witty, and had the benefit of an awesome Basil Poledouris score that's still hailed as one of the best movie soundtracks of all time. (Tyler Bates' in this one isn't even trying.) But Milius' and Schwarzenegger's brooding, laconic Conan wasn't exactly the most faithful to Howard's source material, giving him an origin story and a revenge plot. Momoa is arguably closer to the literary Conan, but he's hobbled by a much worse movie and director - and no way it can claim to be a more faithful adaptation if it goes to the "avenge my father and my village" well again. Conan doesn't need an origin story! And what he really thirsts for is riches to plunder and ass to kick, not revenge.

So then, why 2-½ stars? Because as I said, it's never dull. Its pace is agreeably breakneck, moving quickly enough along to the next fight scene such that an undiscerning viewer can almost gloss over its bad dialogue, bad editing and overall cheapness of its production. (I said almost.) And Momoa is appropriately badass. I found it fitfully enjoyable, because I dig sword-and-sorcery and Conan the Barbarian 2011 is certainly a sword-and-sorcery movie; it's just not a good one, and it's a waste of one of the most influential characters in fantasy literature. I'm going to lay the blame for this completely at Nispel's feet - and probably also his editor's, Ken Blackwell. Because there's this article by (one of its) screenwriter Sean Hood, which just by how it effectively makes me feel sorry for him, leads me to think this movie could've turned out good at some point. That'd be before Nispel took over the reins.

NEXT REVIEW: Karipap-Karipap Cinta
Expectations: well hello Othman Hafsham, long time no see