Before even addressing how bad the 3-D is, how remarkably awful Rose McGowan’s performance is, how pitiful the script and storyline is, and how ineffective the action sequences are, I will say this: Jason Momoa is a fine Conan. He looks the part. He is effective in motion as a killer of men and lover of women. He embodies most of the traits necessary for making Robert E. Howard’s iconic pulp character a viable movie hero. He delivers dialogue fine. He’s not the reason Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian is an awful movie. But he can’t save it either. No one could. It’s rotten from the foundation to the rafters.
Conan the Barbarian feels like a movie that has been cobbled together with the goal in mind of evoking other works and building up familiarity instead of making its own way. It tries to create an ensemble of characters who feel like the misfits that fill out the periphery of the Pirates of the Caribbean films but they never register. It tries to feel large scale and with a universe of magic and creatures like Clash of the Titans but never comes close. It’s a pretender, substituting elaborate painted vistas for actual production design and familiar archetypes rather than actual characters. There are a few really interesting places the film promises which end up up simply being the modern day equivalent of matte paintings, and then when the characters reach those locations they’re nothing like what were promised. It seems as if somewhere along the development cycle cash was infused to make this SyFy channel quality production seem like a film worthy of theatrical distribution and the Conan name but it’s sleight of hand and subterfuge.
The movie doesn’t even start off well. With a laugh inducing voiceover by Morgan Freeman (an actor you may know from Chain Reaction and commercials), the film speaks of prophecies and chosen ones and immediately feels half-baked at the outset. Though there’s mythology in the material, it’s not essential. It’s one thing when the source material totally guides an adaptation but Conan the Barbarian isn’t one of those projects. As a result, when the main villain (Stephen Lang, wasted) is driven through the story to reconstruct a broken mask made of bones so he can resurrect his dead witch of a wife it’s really hard to care. Especially when that mask looks like a sphincter when activated. It also doesn’t matter when we see the cards coming up showing us all these cities from the Robert E. Howard novels when what transpires there is so unremarkable. It feels like someone read the Cliff’s Notes on the books and took names and stuck them arbitrarily.
We meet baby Conan as he’s cut from his dying mother in the middle of a battlefield. Apparently, enemies know not to attack easy husband and wife targets in the middle of the action. We then meet young Conan as forces his way into a competition amongst older boys when his father (Ron Perlman, wasted) puts them through their paces to become men. He pushes and fights his way alongside them until a band of characters who seem like a mixture of Lord of the Rings goblins and Max Max rejects attack them on the way. Of course young Conan defeats them and wins the competition. Because he is part of a prophecy and the filmmakers portray every other prospective barbarian as an imbecile. Also, for no reason these attackers roar and screech like animals and have shitty teeth. Because it’s what wannabe genre films like to do.
Things go bad for Conan’s village. The bad people arrive and they want what Conan’s daddy has: the last piece of the anus mask. Ron Perlman does what Ron Perlman does in every movie. The bad guy drones on and on about his plans, and his awful witch daughter is there so there seems like some sort of payoff when me meet her later as Rose McGowan. There is no payoff, and Rose McGowan delivers one of the worst performances in a theatrical film that I’ve ever seen. Her line delivery, physicality, and lack of investment in the character aside from the bizarre makeup and costume treatment she’s given squanders any chance the film has in making the villain characters interesting. Coupled with the massive amounts of useless dialogue coming from Stephen Lang’s character and the second rate The Mummy villains she conjures up during one of only two sequences involving creatures (the other being a horrible tentacle beast in the climax) there are just no favors for these characters or the audience.
When Jason Momoa finally makes his appearance his skills as a warrior and lover are detailed and the actor gets to showcase his physicality and it’s truly a shame there’s not more for him to do. Conan is an action hero in definition as he rides horses, slashes enemies, and jumps around but the blocking is generic and CGI blood doesn’t add the visceral punch the material demands. Aside from a clever moment involving a bad guy without a nose, there’s no real zest in the potential the name Conan and what he represents offers. This should be a film that’s raw and grimy and loaded with babes, beasts, and bloodshed. There are peripheral characters offered that have barely one dimension, and though we’re supposed to care about these people none of them even register. Worse yet, Rachel Nichols is on hand to serve as the love interest and her involvement in the plot is seriously forced. She’s a pureblood and the villain needs her to resurrect his dead wife and my eyes glaze over. That no one bothers to adopt any sort of period accent hurts as well. Nichols is Nichols, McGowan is a Valley Girl, and Stephen Lang grunts.
And in the middle of it is Jason Momoa getting no help from anyone. There are so many bad filmmaking decisions here it hurts to revisit the film in order to share them with you.
It’s not a legit pulp movie. It’s not a legit genre movie. It’s not even a guilty pleasure.