“Conan the Barbarian,” starring the excellent rippling chisel of Jason Momoa, is brutal, bloody beyond belief, and has no socially redeeming value. So it is with a certain amount of guilt that I say it’s kind of a wicked blast to watch, especially if you’re in the mood for some righteous revenge.
For those who decry gratuitous violence, this is not a flick for you. For the rest of you bloodthirsty lot, it’s not like the filmmakers were attempting a bait and switch. The movie is set in the fictional Hyborian Age, roughly post-Atlantis and pre-Facebook by my calculations, where monsters and sorcery were ever a threat and humans weren’t exactly civilized. Then there’s Conan’s mantra: “I live. I love. I slay... I am content.” Who doesn’t like a man who isn’t conflicted or apologetic about who he is.
Gory remakes of marginal quality are something of a specialty for German-born director Marcus Nispel, who counts the 2003 redo of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and 2009’s “Friday the 13th” among his artier achievements. Though it’s relative, the director keeps getting better each time out. Nispel has always brought a very strong vision to his work -- a sort of melodrama of imagery that can be mesmerizing if you can get past the viscera. Character development? Not so much.
In “Conan,” he’s got a better cast that he occasionally does better things with. Momoa is coming off a very fine run as the enigmatic horse-warrior Khal Drago in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” He’s got Conan firmly in his muscly grip, from the absurd asides, to the furrowed brow, to the fierce fighting, though some of the clunkier dialogue trips him and everyone else up. Momoa’s also got that bigger-than-life presence that is absolutely necessary for this genre piece, enough to loosen the iconic hold that Arnold Schwarzenegger has had on Conan since he flexed those famous pecs in the 1982 original.
The movie itself does not attempt to replicate the Schwarzenegger version, which had less violence and a splash more cheesy humor. Instead writers Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood work off of Robert E. Howard’s Conan mythology (he started it all with his dark pulp series on Conan in the early ‘30s) to create a troubled ancient world of warring tribes, vestal virgins, lethal swords and Machiavellian monsters.
After some setup voice-over to give a little historical context and introduce the Mask of Acheron, which is the holy grail here, we are in the midst of a bloody battle with the Cimmerians led by Conan’s father Corin (Ron Perlman rocking a Unabomber beard), lopping off heads left and right. Conan’s mother (Laila Rouass) is in the middle of the fray, and labor, delivering Conan by C-section, which apparently wasn’t as much a routine procedure as it is now.
Flash-forward to a motherless Conan (oh, come on, anyone could figure that out), at about 13, played by very tough young martial arts expert Leo Howard, who gets perhaps the best action sequence in the movie. It’s one of those rite of passage things that always go bad, and it involves a lot of running in rough terrain, some wonderfully choreographed fighting and surviving. The fight scenes throughout are stunning to look at, exceptionally gross, exploit the 3-D technology in the best possible way and should satisfy hard-core action junkies, though there are still way too many of them.
The main villain is Stephen Lang (“Avatar”) as Khalar Zym. Lang has long had a handle on playing dark and dirty, which Khalar definitely is. He’s ruthless when it comes to getting his hands on that magical Acheron mask. His partner in crime is daughter Marique -- Rose McGowan (“Grindhouse” and “Charmed”) as a kind of goth-punk witch who’s always in a catfight with someone, where her Edward Scissorhands metallic nails come in handy.
Getting the mask (there are complications) is not enough; to make the black magic Khalar must also find the “pureblood,” and that would be among the Grecian-styled beauties being trained in peace and love at a local monastery. Tamara (Rachel Nichols of “Star Trek” and “G.I. Joe”) is the fairest of them all, the one Conan must save and will fall for. Nichols is pretty enough, but not believable as a tough chick who can go toe to toe with Conan. What was needed was a next generation Lara Croft in the Angelina Jolie style (scary fierce, scary sexy), if there is such a person out there.
The contributions of cinematographer Thomas Kloss, who frequently collaborates with the director, and especially production designer Chris August and the various stunt coordinators cannot be underestimated. From locations to sets, “Conan” is drenched in detail that feels both ancient and mythic as Conan dogs the evil Khalar from mountain enclaves, through dungeons, into torture chambers and across seas. The rise of the sand soldiers is especially cool.
So “Conan the Barbarian” is beastly and brutal; an unadulterated mess of English and American accents frequently butchering dialogue that is sometime witty, sometime catty and sometimes just colossally awful. Settle back and let the beheadings begin.
‘Conan the Barbarian’
MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In general release