No one ever turns into a giant snake in the new “Conan the Barbarian.”
That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with this remake: The knowing sense of big, ridiculous fun that marked the 1982 original is gone, and in its place we get a self-serious series of generic sword battles and expository conversations.
Fight, talk, fight, talk, fight, talk, then an enormous throwdown followed by a denouement that dangles the possibility of a sequel (dear God, no) — that’s the basic structure here. And yet, despite seeming so simplistic, director Marcus Nispel’s film is mind-numbingly convoluted. The fact that it’s been converted to a murky, smudgy, barely-used 3-D doesn’t help matters. At one point, I scrawled in my notes: “Incomprehensible underwater serpent attack.” There you have it.
The script is credited to three writers, based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan character, but everyone involved would probably prefer that you not think of this as a remake.
Remakes have become Nispel’s bread and butter in recent years. The longtime music-video director also made the 2003 version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the 2009 version of “Friday the 13th.” But while the original “Conan” — the movie that signaled the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bona fide movie star — looks extremely dated nearly 30 years later, it still functions just fine as both an epic adventure tale and an admitted guilty pleasure.
There’s very little that’s pleasurable in this new “Conan,” aside from allowing us to ogle the muscular, 6-foot-5 physique of up-and-coming action star Jason Momoa. If you’re into that kind of thing, that is — he is a spectacle to behold, albeit in a romance-novel cover-model kind of way.
“I live. I love. I slay ... I am content,” Conan says to the innocent Tamara (Rachel Nichols), whom he’s been tasked with protecting. Not quite as poetic as one of Schwarzenegger’s most famous lines: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women,” but at least we know he’s confident enough to avoid suffering an existential crisis. Good for him. He also doesn’t evolve, though, which doesn’t make him terribly compelling. It didn’t seem possible for there to be even less characterization than there was in the original “Conan,” but voila.
Once again, the Cimmerian warrior is on a mission to avenge the deaths of his father (Ron Perlman, who’s in no way being put to his best use) and the rest of his village. He’s after the evil warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who’s after the Mask of Acheron, which resembles a dried-up octopus. But it can spring to life and provide unlimited power to the wearer with the help of some drops of pure blood — which Tamara has. Hence, she’s in demand.
Khalar Zym is aided in his quest by his half-witch daughter Marique, played by an over-the-top Rose McGowan in the kind of daring, skin-baring outfits she used to wear on the red carpet when she was still dating Marilyn Manson. Marique tries out her burgeoning supernatural powers in a battle with Conan himself, but when it comes time to fight Tamara as part of the film’s climax, it’s all mano-a-mano. Why? Because it’s sexier for them to be writhing around on the ground with each other.
If only the rest of the movie had such an unabashed sense of camp, we might have been onto something.