Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #29 – Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Posted: March 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Conan is back. Morgan Freeman does the “Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis…” preamble and doesn’t appear in the movie. Okay, the hypothetical wizard he might play can’t be named Akiro, but…never mind.

Anyway, if you’ve watched the previous Conan movies (see post) (see post) you’ve seen this movie as the main points here are a blend of the previous two movies. Born of battle, a.k.a. pregnant mommy slashed open, gives birth, names Conan, dies. Daddy is the village blacksmith making the swords spouting Iron Age bushido. Orphaned in a later battle. Set loose upon an unsuspecting Hyborian-age world as Conan the Barbarian. Seeks revenge against the warlord that rumbled the village and took his father’s sword, in this case by way of a mission to accompany a special woman intended as a sacrifice to the evil gods on a long journey.

Sounds like I hated the movie like everyone else that turned this one into a bomb. Well, hate being such a strong word. I land it between the Schwarzenegger films and I do try to find things to like about everything I see.

This time around we have Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang) doing the Warlord who Mugged Conan’s People at the Beginning of the Movie duties. He seeks the many pieces of the Mask of Acheron, a vile example of Magi-Tech that operates on blood from the daughters of the Acheronian necromancers. Gives the usual control over the spirits of the dead power. The many Cimmerian tribes rose up and broke the mask, each taking a piece to hide so that it never resurfaces to trouble the world.

Corin (Ron Perlman, how did he not get this role in 1981?) is a kind father and village chieftain spouting a less crazy version of the Cimmerian/Viking warrior ethic – “a warrior is not afraid of death, but neither does he foolishly rush to meet it.” He sends out the boys with robin’s eggs in their mouths as a test of fitness to be part of the village’s first rank of warriors.

Conan arrives late because Daddy assigned chores possibly to protect his son a little longer. But Conan either finished early, or, we can hope, pulled a Tom Sawyer and delegated to other kids in the village. Corin relents and gives his son an egg and sends him out.

Khalar Zim chooses now to send his scouting wave against the village, a force staffed by appropriately growly dudes that kind of remind me of Mohawks or Iroquois in war paint. Well, it is the mythical Hyborian Age that essentially asserts that all things from history happened far earlier and humanity had to relearn many things over and over: cultures, steel, etc. Anyway, most of the boys on the egg-race turn back to warn the village. Conan turns and fights bringing back three heads…and an intact egg.

In the lull between waves, Corin takes the time to make sure Conan has finished his education in steel, swords and being worthy to carry both. The Iron Age bushido is more muted. The sword that eventually comes out is a worthy king-sword, but Conan isn’t quite worthy of it.

And then several months later, Khalar Zim shows up with his main force, a multinational bad guy operation that works on a “lose to me and if I like how you fight, you get to live and join me” basis. The village gets rumbled. Conan is left holding a bucket of molten steel to keep it from landing on his father’s head. Corin takes the bucket instead of seeing his son die. Khalar Zim’s witch daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan) finds the shard of the mask, steels the king-sword and now we’re ready for Adult Conan (Jason Momoa).

What follows is a perfectly acceptable romp through the wilds of Bulgaria doubling as Hyborian places that never really existed except in Robert E. Howard’s imagination. And it’s a lesson that filmmakers can trick the viewer into making the assumption of being anywhere in the world. The foliage is what it is, but drop in a temple that sort of looks like Ankor Wat and suddenly you’re asking – “did they find the budget to go to South East Asia?” No. Movie magic.

However, another way to phrase perfectly acceptable is Man, they could’ve gone so much cooler. We remember the big set pieces in these movies. This movie bats about .500 here.

A windswept Stonehenge-like ceremonial site conveniently near the evil snake dude’s tower of power? Well, no, but then I am making a reference to a great movie. We did get a decent moment with Marique creating a pack of sand monsters at what appears to be a Hyborian Age construction site.

Okay, cool-ish. Personally, I think the filmmakers dropped the ball slightly on the metaphor of creating warriors out of sand with which to mug the heroes. We have other franchises like Spider-man to instruct us that a sand beast can’t be killed with swords or guns. They break apart and reform until the hero figures out the writer’s choice of…

  1. Dunk the beast in water to make mud
  2. Zap it with lightning that melts it into glass
  3. Have your not in the movie wizard friend cast a wind spell for dispersion
  4. Drop the beast into the more convenient of steel forge, potter’s kiln, bread oven, glassblower’s hearth or sacred fire to melt it down and make glass
  5. Spray the beast with some kind of serious epoxy/resin (superglue) to freeze the beast into shape

There’re a couple things here. Maybe there are other creative ways to knock off sand monsters and I would like to hear any thoughts (try to find me at my comic book store for this nerd fight) that aren’t on this list. But, none of these solutions appear in this fight.

Conan whacks these guys with swords. They die crumbling back into the sand and they come back, but each new CGI-enhanced stuntman that arises from the ground is a different guy. Yes, it’s sort of my job to pay attention to the closeups of the sand encrusted faces trying to kill our fearless hero.

 The movie has a bigger success with a tentacled almost Lovecraftian squid monster blocking entry into Khalar Zim’s city. Big, appropriately scary, and hard to kill and a good way to get some mileage out of Conan’s earlier making friends with a thief, Ela-Shan (Said Taghmoui), who has the keys to every city in Hyboria…until the squid monster causes him to drop them into the water.

Of course, everybody in Fantasy does squid beasts since H. P. Lovecraft articulated the Elder Gods like Cthulhu. Lovecraft and Howard were friends, the letters still exist and they agreed to share concepts. Even Tolkien dropped in a squid beast in front of the Mines of Moria. We don’t have information whether American pulp magazines made it across the Atlantic to Britain, or maybe squid beasts are, like sharks, things we have nightmares about even if we have never seen the sea.

Here, it’s a great scene because the squid beast is always a great scene, unless we’re talking about the crappy hunk of rubber that Ed Wood made Bela Lugosi roll around with…oh never mind.

The movie gets a little better contemplating the moments in between the big stuff. Jason Momoa doesn’t get blamed here because someone in the writing room pretty much wimped out. Putting an enemy on catapult to send a message to the Big Bad, yeah, this also works every time I see it…and it’s something all versions of Conan would do.

There are wagon chases. Interludes on Conan’s pirate vessel. He frees slaves. Celebrations after battle that kind of remind me of a few college parties that I absolutely don’t want to tell the future She Who Must Be Obeyed, or any of my sisters for that matter, about. You know: beer (actually mead, the one nod to our known historical timeline of when humans learned to do stuff), arm wrestling, loud music and so on.

Which brings us to the core of a Conan movie with the plot of Conan escorts and protects the special young lady from the warlord that wants to be a god…how are they on screen together? Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols as Tamara are actually, in a different version of this movie, a great screen adventure couple.

Trying to avoid getting yelled at by people who yell at movies over things like representation of women, the production made Tamara a monk at the peaceful Cambodian style temple. Monk usually means: reading, Kung Fu, riding horses and generally doing better for herself than, say, a certain princess draped on a different Conan’s arm. And she just works, though there was a moment I wanted to see slightly expanded.

Conan says Tamara dresses like a harlot. She replies he’s never met any other kind of woman. Conan mentions that Cimmerian women dress like warriors. Conan leaves to do other things. Conan’s seafaring buddy, Artus (Nonso Anozie), says Conan likes her. Leading to the part that isn’t in the movie – “what, he wants me to dress up like his mommy, how weird is that?”

I could go on a bit mentioning Rose McGowan being fun to watch as the creepy witch daughter, but really this is a movie with lots of things where stuff was almost great. We would’ve needed more from her character in a context of not holding back on screen.

Actually, that kind of describes the whole experience of this movie. There you have it, a movie I can enjoy at the level of if it’s on a streaming service for which I already pay I’ll watch.  

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