In the sooty mists of time known as the Hyborian Age — when fierce men did battle with stout swords and, apparently, certified their machismo by sporting heavy eyeliner — there arose a hero named Conan, determined to avenge the death of his father by killing practically everyone else. Actually, Conan the Barbarian was born in 1932, sired by fantasy writer Robert E. Howard and given cinematic body, if negligible soul, by a pre-Terminator, pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 1982 movie directed by John Milius and co-written by Oliver Stone. But men need myths, and perpetual adolescents need to see the pulp stories they loved as kids exhumed every few decades. So here’s Hawaiian-Irish hunk Jason Momoa in Conan the Barbarian, a gaudily ornamented medieval banquet table groaning with junk food and open entrails.
Tracking Conan’s journey from fetus (no kidding) to gruff manhood, the new version finds its meager inspiration in the standard kill-dream of an orphan’s revenge. As a boy (played by Leo Howard), he watches in horror while the ruthless warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) humiliates and murders Conan’s father (Ron Perlman); it’s kind of like Saddam Hussein’s plot to assassinate George H.W. Bush, which supposedly led son W. to invade Iraq and chase down Saddam. Conan, though, grows up to be less like 43, the smiling tiger, and more like current Texas Governor Rick Perry, with a compulsive appetite for red-meat rivalries. This barbarian has compiled an endless list of enemies and vows, as Perry did with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, to make life pretty ugly for all of them.
King of the ugly prom is Khalar Zym, leading an army of miscreants whose ragged gear and rude manners recall the bonkers bikers in Mad Max. Long in mourning over the early death of his wife, Zym is convinced that reconstructing the legendary Mask of Acheron will revive her and grant him immortal rule over Hyboria. Anyway, something like that; it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s old Ark of the Covenant shtick, employed without shame or innovation in dozens of fantasy films. Zym’s grown daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, creepily seductive as always) has a corollary notion: to use her own dark magic and become, basically, her father’s wife. Easily the coolest character in the movie, Marique goes searching for Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the sacred virgin who holds the key to the Mask — and who has become Conan’s beloved. When Marique examines other virgins and finds them “impure,” she slices their skin with her 9-in. metal fingernails. The girls’ blood is her nectar.
And bloodshed is this Conan’s plasma. German director Marcus Nispel, a serial offender in grave-robbing old horror franchises (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Frankenstein, Friday the 13th), obviously believes that if you’re going to make an R-rated movie, make a bleedin’ R: pack it with sex and violence. The movie also has a few topless babes and a chaste scene of romantic consummation between Conan and Tamara, but these are perfunctory, inserted so the MPAA rating board could announce that the film has “strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity.”
Actually, nobody goes to movies for naked ladies anymore; they get that on their home computers for free. Conan‘s real sales points are a body count in the mid-trillions and scenes of rapacity designed to force even the jaded male demographic to utter the “eww” noise of a little girl seeing a squashed toad. Once in a while the gore has a narrative point, as when Conan infiltrates Khalar Zym’s stronghold by holding the severed head of a Zym henchman up to the door slot. But the real money shots are more in the sadistic-stunt category: Zym cracking one rival’s skull into crimson pulp, like an Easter egg with red dye on the inside. Early in the film, Conan uses his sword to give a warrior from an enemy clan an instant nose job — he cuts off the man’s nose to spite his race — and, in a later encounter, he picks the hapless dude’s nose, ripping off the nose guard and sticking his fingers into the wormy hole. Well, Conan is a barbarian.
Unlike most of the summer’s musclemen movies, this one disdains a pop-art color scheme for a brown palette of muck and dried blood. Shot in Bulgaria, which provided the production team with plenty of castles, caves and other bleak scenery, Conan is almost as muddy as it is bloody; if the tone is not quite as medieval-grimy as Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, it’s in the same studiously schmutzy range. The film is advertised as being in 3-D, and it chucks an arsenal of spears the camera’s way, but the glasses given to customers make the effects look murky. In fact, only some scenes are shown in 3-D (I’d guess about 20%), so you can watch most of the film without the specs and get a brighter view of the carnage.
In this dank ultimate-fighting challenge, Jason Momoa as Conan provides the only visual vivacity; he has an eye-catchingly sensuous face atop the requisite statuesque beefcake. Much more than Schwarzenegger in his early Teutonic-slab phase, Momoa nicely fulfills the law of Hollywood Darwinism: survival of the dishiest. Such is his sex appeal that he almost brings plausibility to the movie’s silliest scene, when Conan tells Tamara, “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content,” and the virgin instantly falls into his arms. Guys bringing their dates to this murky holocaust are advised not to try using Conan’s credo as a pickup line.