Director Marcus Nispel has never made a good movie. He’s already botched two reboots (2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2009’s Friday the 13th) and made the terminally boring Vikings-and-Native-Americans-action dud Pathfinder (2007). It should come as no surprise that Nispel’s reboot of Robert E. Howard’s sword-and sorcery-creation Conan the Barbarian doesn’t turn out all that hot.
The film starts off promisingly, with a perfectly absurd narration by Morgan Freeman giving all kinds of details about necromancers, and ending with baby Conan being born on the battlefield via c-section by his papa (Ron Perlman), finally being held aloft like the Lion King. If the film had ended there, I’d have found it agreeably ridiculous. Unfortunately, Nispel decided to keep the film going for 100 more minutes of muscle-bound antics. While there is a long string of fight scenes, these are less notable for coherent and innovative action, instead relying on wholesale bloodshed punctuated by fits of grunting. Look, I’m as big a fan of bloodshed and grunting as the next guy (and trust me, there’s more grunting going on here than in a stag film), but you’ve got to make it clever or fun. But Nispel—much like our titular barbarian—is only concerned with brute force. The movie gets stuck in a rut of relying on Conan’s Übermensch badassness, rapidly becoming a cinematic penis-measuring contest as the movie continually shows us new and manlier ways for Conan to kill pretty much everyone.
And really, what else would you expect? This is the point of Conan the Barbarian. It’s the ultimate statement of unadulterated machismo, and if your idea of fun is watching a big dude with a sword butcher tons of people, this is your movie. There’s a vague notion of a plot to push all this mayhem along, as our Conan—here played by TV actor Jason Mamoa, who doesn’t seem very barbaric with his five o’clock shadow, pruned chest hair and apparent penchant for mascara—must stop an evil king (Stephen Lang, Avatar) from resurrecting his dead wife as part of a bid to take over the world.
Under these pretenses, we get all manner of Conan-ian muscle flexing, as he wields his sword in full-sale slaughter against all manner of Hyborian creatures, races and creeds. There are attempts—or at least opportunities—at creating a deeper, more thoughtful Conan movie, as our hero—in the tradition of all great modern heroes—has daddy issues that just happen to display themselves as psychotic bloodlust. Plus, the woman Conan’s supposed to save (Rachel Nichols, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra) begins the film as a strong, independent woman, and the closest thing we get to a modern, rationalized mindset in the entire movie. This doesn’t last long, as she’s soon relegated to scream-queen, damsel-in-distress status, and in constant need of Conan to save her with his manliness. Because, you know, she’s a woman.
There’s probably the seed of fun action movie buried underneath all this alpha-male chest beating, but there’s too much onus placed on the supposed entertainment value of Conan’s capacity to kick ass. The number-one rule of movies—especially of this type—is to be fun, and Conan the Barbarian fails that, quickly becoming nothing more than repetitive and noisy. Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity.