Thursday, August 18, 2011

Conan the Barbarian

Poised to Strike

By Crom, Conan the Barbarian actually showed how the recent sword and sorcery films, from Prince of Persia to Clash of the Titans, could have been a lot more fun if things were kept a little simpler, and not have taken itself too seriously, where bloating the film with big name stars do not necessarily spell success. Created by Robert E. Howard, this version of Conan may feel like it's being updated for the modern audience, and in some ways presents the Cimmerian Barbarian in a physique that's a lot more nimbler and leaner.

Jason Mormoa plays the titular character, and while Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been Conan's defacto poster boy for his two films made in the 80s, complete with little dialogue (since he can't speak fluent English then) and plenty of bulk muscle flexing, Mormoa's version happens to be a little more charismatic compared to Schwarzenegger's wooden acting, better looking and being able to execute a lot more niftier moves, being the sole survivor of his tribe hell bent in looking for the murderers of his villagers', and father Corin (Ron Perlman). Admittedly this Conan is a little less beefy, but more than made up for it in his arrogance, directness and being that ultimate alpha male chauvinist blessed with superb ability in his DNA and tough training.

Being an origin film that possesses potential to kickstart a new franchise, this one charts Conan's birth in battle, and goes to show how the young warrior got brought up in a barbaric value system, where becoming a fighter is a great honour, only for his training to be interrupted by the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) as they seek out the missing component of a magical death mask, so that they can summon a dead companion and then rule the world, as always and typical. The battle between good and evil cannot be more pronounced than that, with Conan's quest for vengeance standing in their way, and we get introduced to a number of allies that is reminscent of the old cartoon series Conan the Adventurer.

Significant screen time got devoted to the first act when Conan was a child (Leo Howard) and introduced us to the barbarian code, in addition to the myths behind the sword, which was covered in the Schwarzenegger movie, and painting a picture that this Conan will grow up to be quite the bad ass for his natural ability honed into violence dished without remorse. A big jump in time to fast forward to the adult days where he's already quite the adventurer with Artus (Nonso Anozie) the pirate, before the narrative takes the very rote and very routine course of Conan chancing upon quite conveniently with characters from his past, and so begins a joining the dots from one villain to the next. In between he gets to tangle with some romance courtesy of Tamara (Rachel Nichols) the novitiate of a monastery, also conveniently being the chosen one whose lineage to activate the death mask, making her the target that Khalar Zym and Marique seeks. It's an extremely simple storyline and a singular objective of revenge.

Director Marcus Nispel opted to make this film a lot more violent than what we've seen before in the films by John Millius and Robert Fleischer. There are 1001 ways characters die in the film, where horses get hacked down in battle, to elaborate torture scenes that will make you squirm when Conan decides to interrogate his enemies, to fancy death methods inflicted by forces on either side, from dismemberment, beheading and even being thrown against a stone, or repeatedly smacked headlong against a stone floor. It's no holds barred and takes a strong stomach to sit through it all, at times involving CG-ed enemies that come as fancy as sandman type warriors, or an imprisoned mythical creature with mean tentacles tossing, squeezing and chomping off its prey to add to casualty numbers.

But in true blue Singapore standards, we get the M18 rated version that is totally fine with the gratuitous violence on screen, but to save us from witnessing Conan turn from warrior to lover, his sex scene with Tamara gets the unceremonious snip from the censors scissors, despite a promising start with plenty of gratuitous nudity from the "wenches" (yes that's what they're called in the credits). It's probably blasphemous to show a more tender side to Conan, so we don't get that at all, preserving our memory of a brutal warrior who dispatches his enemies without remorse in Punisher: War Zone attitude and style.

Ultimately it's a fun romp, if only you put aside a lacklustre finale and a story that has glaring loopholes and continuity issues involving time and distance that characters can travel, or the usual rote elements such as the grand villain monologue and arrogance. Still, Jason Mormoa embodies the spirit of Conan with a little bit of a metrosexual tendency - check out his fancy battle armour that he adorns in different fight scenes besides the usual cloak and skimpy tunic, and hopefully this film does decent box office business to justify at least another film to expand on what's been established here. Recommended, and better than expected, reminiscent of the good old 80s with countless of swords and sorcery films that never cease to amaze and thrill.

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