It is a bumper weekend for swords and sorcery fans with the release of Marcus Nispel’s remake of John Milius’ campy Conan the Barbarian and the hugely successful (13 Emmy nominations) HBO adaptation of the first book in George Martin’s five-novel fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. The two share a star in the form of Jason Momoa and a delight in the graphic portrayal of violence. Despite that, the results are startlingly different.
For those brought up on the stylized silliness and ideological pretensions of the 1982 Conan the Barbarian, which achieved a cult following and helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger in his cinematic career, the remake cannot help but be a disappointment. This is not to say that technically it is not a much better film, but that the absence of the ridiculous humor, both intentional and otherwise, diminishes it. It is instructive to remember that the first Conan film opened with a quote derived from Nietzsche (“what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”), and had a wonderfully atmospheric narrator in the Japanese actor Mako, who could read lines of the utmost silliness and impose on them some element of grandeur.
Morgan Freeman, who serves as the new narrator, a great actor who has survived many projects unworthy of his talents, seems here unable to muster any conviction in the rendition of his perfunctory lines.
All the effort in the filmmaking for the new Conan the Barbarian seems to have gone into a taste for nasty violence, some of it quite successfully shocking. There are also some very energetic fight sequences. But there is something lacking throughout, and that something is chemistry. Not just chemistry between the cast members, but also between the filmmakers and the audience. However ridiculous the aspirations of the first Conan movie to achieve a cartoon take on Nietzsche, the absence of any aspirations at all, other than an aim to entertain, are a fatal flaw in this new film.
Conan the Barbarian
Directed by: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Jason Momoa (Conan), Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym), Rachel Nichols (Tamara), Ron Perlman (Corin), Rose McGowan (Marique), Bob Sapp (Ukafa)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Game of Thrones
Starring: Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon), Sean Bean (Eddard Stark), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen)
Taiwan Release: First (double) episode to screen on HBO on Sunday from 10pm to midnight, Monday from noon to 1:55pm and Wednesday from 11:55pm to 1:55am
Accepting that this is a big-budget B-movie, it must be said that there are a number of quite descent performances, starting from Ron Perlman as Conan’s father, who manages his utterly improbable and not particularly well-scripted role with his usual professionalism, to Rose McGowan, whose role as the Gothic horror princess is carried off with great conviction. There is no shortage of talent on screen, but the age of heroes has passed, and even great villains are hard to come by these days. With all due respect to Stephen Lang, who works hard at playing the villain Khalar Zym, his performance is small potatoes compared with the inspired camp of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, a far more improbable bad guy, who, with his crazy inward stare and brilliantly stylized dialogue (who can ever forget “contemplate this upon the tree of woe”), still seems a more vital part of the nexus between art and society than this remake will ever be.
As pure entertainment, if you like the sound system turned up high and viscera flying about in all directions, Conan the Barbarian is a more than adequate film, with plenty of good effects. Its greatest failing is that it makes even such an inadequate film as its predecessor look good by comparison.
Conan the Barbarian can be seen in 3D with all the benefits of a highly sophisticated audiovisual environment. Game of Thrones, the HBO original mini-series that premieres on Sunday, is proof, like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, that the smaller and more intimate, medium of television is still very much alive and can take on the big boys of the big screen at the business of telling a ripping good yarn.