Flashes of inspiration can't brighten 'Conan'

Posted8/18/2011 6:00 AM
  • Conan the Cimmerian (Jason Momoa) defends a "pure blood" woman (Rachel Nichols) from assault in Marcus Nispel's 3-D remake of John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian."

    Conan the Cimmerian (Jason Momoa) defends a "pure blood" woman (Rachel Nichols) from assault in Marcus Nispel's 3-D remake of John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian."

In the early days of the ancient Hyborian Age, everyone apparently had access to excellent dental care, because the poor peasants in Marcus Nispel's remake of "Conan the Barbarian" possess perfect sets of choppers.

However, the unfortunate warriors under the command of the warlord Khalar Zym obviously went with a cheaper health plan, because their teeth look terrible.

I only bring this up because teeth are supposed to be one of those things you don't pay much attention to while watching an R-rated, action-packed tale of violence and vengeance.

But after about 40 minutes of numbing nonstop 3-D slashing and bashing, lopping and chopping, slicing and dicing, torment and torture, my mind began wandering.

I started to notice the anachronistic perfect smiles, the cheap-looking, digitally created blood spurts, the unreal, computer-generated landscapes, and Rachel Nichols' ridiculously flat, mechanical line readings as a female warrior named Tamara.

These issues could be overlooked in a sword-and-sorcery movie if it sweeps us along with a riveting story and has well-wrought characters we can invest our emotions in.

"Conan the Barbarian" is not that movie.

John Milius' original 1982 "Conan" (which made an international star out of a bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger) packs more dramatic power into its gut-grabbing opening sequence than Nispel's entire sparkless remake can muster.

The new Conan, half-Hawaiian, half-Irish Jason Momoa, was 6 years old when Milius' brutal, macho original film premiered. Momoa, from HBO's "Game of Thrones," possesses the prerequisite imposing physical presence and athletic agility for the Cimmerian warrior.

But like his predecessor Schwarzenegger, Momoa's character works better when not speaking lines such as "I live. I love. I slay. And I am content!"

A Tuesday night preview audience of "Conan" cracked up when they heard that.

The first act in Nispel's "Conan" works the best. We glimpse the warrior as a young lad (a charismatic Leo Howard) who fearlessly slaughters five of warlord Khalar Zym's nastiest soldiers and wins the respect of his leader father (Ron Perlman).

Then, Zym (Stephen Lang) shows up with his sorceress daughter Marique (a captivating Rose McGowan, resembling a psychotic Wednesday Addams) whose razor fingernail extensions predate Freddy Krueger.

Zym rigs Dad's execution by Conan's own unwilling hands, setting in motion the revenge motive that later reunites the lad with the aging tyrant.

The plot hinges on a destructive, magical mask that had been broken up into pieces and spread around several tribes so no one could possess its evil power.

Zym tracks down the pieces and reassembles the mask. All he needs now is the "pure blood" of Tamara (Nichols), a Hyborian magazine cover girl hiding among the monks.

With its ocular onslaught of naked breasts, decapitations and broken bodies, "Conan" fans the sensationalistic fantasies associated with 12-year-old boys and will probably do well at the box office.

(A thrilling sequence in which Conan fights magical warriors made of sand should have been the film's highlight, but it has no ending; the grainy assailants just give up and stop attacking him.)

Nispel -- a former TV commercial and rock video director -- has indeed revamped "Conan" for a new generation with increased 3-D bells and whistles.

But as he did in his remakes of "Friday the 13th" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacres," Nispel demonstrates little understanding or appreciation for what made the iconic originals so special.