Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero, who gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his first big break in two films of the early eighties, returns in the person of Jason Mamoa in this reboot, which was directed by the guy responsible for “Pathfinder” and proves as silly and visually overblown as that movie—with 3D added to the mix, too, though it doesn’t add much besides blood spurts and weapons flying into the auditorium. “Conan the Barbarian” is faithful enough to the source material to please fans of Howard’s fantasy stories, but the all-too-familiar narrative, risible dialogue and chest-thumping heroics aren’t likely to endear it to those who lie outside the base.
Essentially Marcus Nispel’s picture is, like John Milius’ 1982 one, the equivalent of a comic-book origin issue. After a dose of expository narration about the world of Hyboria intoned by Morgan Freeman no less, in the first reel we see baby Conan literally sawed from his dying mother’s womb by his father Corin (Ron Perlman, whose presence in this kind of movie seems obligatory) during a battle. Some years later he’s grown into a scruffy lad (Leo Howard) of small stature but great courage, as he demonstrates by dispatching a bunch of Pictish attackers single-handedly during a tribal initiation.
Young Conan cannot save his father, however, when their village is destroyed by ambitious warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who’s assembling a mystical mask that had been carved up into sections, one of which Conn possesses. The artifact, according to legend, is the key to world dominion, and Corin’s is the last piece he needs. After Khalar’s sorceress daughter Marique (played at this point by Ivana Staneva, who looks frighteningly like Corey Feldman) finds it, he puts Corin in a death device than Conan cannot prevent from doing its evil job, though the boy escapes.
But the mask, as it turns out, isn’t all Khalar requires to gain universal rule. It must be joined with the blood of somebody whose lineage goes back thousands of years to the ancient ones. As the tale picks up twenty years later and brawny Momoa replaces Howard, the warlord is still looking for the “pure-blood” he requires, and with the help of the now-grown Marique (Rose McGowan, genuinely creepy with her Freddy Krueger hand apparatus), he determines that she’s Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a pretty, naive “monk” in a faraway monastery that he proceeds to attack.
Happily Conan, who’s spent two decades freeing slaves and generally brawling about, comes on the scene and rescues Tamara from Khalar’s grasp. Unfortunately, her safety is only temporary: Tamara is eventually captured—though not before she and Conan have gotten close (a bit of carefully-choreographed nudity here)—and the hero must sneak into Khalar’s grim castle and save her. The result is a long confrontation as Conan disrupts a ritual at which Tamara, strapped to a wheel over a monstrous gorge, is about to be transformed into Khalar’s dead wife, a powerful sorceress who will be his companion in rule. In the course of it, Tamara and Marique face off in counterpoint to Conan’s taking on the warlord.
This is standard-issue pulp stuff, of the familiar sword-and-sorcery type you’re likely to encounter in some SyFy Network movie at least once a week. The screenplay is a chain of genre cliches and howlers, as when Conan, challenged by Tamara about higher matters, growls in Howard-speak, “I know not and I care not—I live, I love, I slay, and I am content,” truly an uplifting philosophy. And the plot is just a revenge-and-rescue farrago that hits all the predictable beats. There is a lot of action, to be sure, the most notable episodes being one in which Conan faces off against a small army of sand soldiers and another toward the close involving what appears to be a giant octopus. (These seem to be homages to the work of Ray Harryhausen, though done with up-to-date CGI technology.) But by the time of the climactic encounter, it’s all come to feel repetitive and tedious—“Conan the Borebarian,” as it were. The Bulgarian locations are certainly topographically impressive, but the model work is consistently persuasive, and Thomas Kloss’s cinematography gives the visuals a dusky, washed-out look, presumably so that the red of flowing blood will stand out more starkly against them.
Serious acting is hardly required in such nonsense, and frankly Momoa and Nichols, with their flat line readings, would seem more suited to the California beaches than the dank and dusty realms in Hyboria. But Momoa certainly has the abs (as well as the cheeks, in both anatomical senses of the term) the role requires. Lang scowls menacingly as the evil Khalar, but he doesn’t have much personality; McGowan is better, but then she has those long metal claws to play with. Nobody in the supporting cast really stands out, though both Said Taghmaoui and Bob Sapp bring enthusiasm to Conan’s most notable allies.
Marique, incidentally, is portrayed as having a well-developed nasal sense. She can sniff out pure-bloods, for example, and when she’s tracking down Tamara near the close, she glowers, “I smell you.” By that time, though, the movie’s has become so goofy that you suspect that what she’s really smelling is the bad odor it’s giving off. The 1982 “Conan” spawned only a single sequel. It’s doubtful this one will even match that record.