John Milius’ iconic sword and sorcery film “Conan the Barbarian” is updated for a new generation of fantasy and action fans with the new Lionsgate re-boot directed by Marcus Nispel (“Friday the 13th,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and starring Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones,” “Stargate: Atlantis”). Following the infamous exploits of the barbaric warrior originally created by writer Robert E. Howard in 1932, the story centers on a young Conan on a quest for vengeance against the terrible warlord who killed his father and destroyed his village.
Momoa is terrific as the legendary barbarian from Cimmeria. Taking nothing away from a glistening, young Arnold Schwarzenegger in his eighties heyday, Momoa’s Conan is an entirely different animal: a lithe and deadly combatant that never sacrifices strength for speed. Aided by fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio’s exciting choreography, one dizzying fight sequence has Momoa tackling an army of bewitched sand creatures with the strength of a bull and the grace of a parkour practitioner.
Despite a few too many shots of falling boulders that feel reminiscent of a Godzilla movie or a low-budget fantasy series shot in New Zealand, the action and stunts are all top-notch fun. Director Marcus Nispel never shrinks away from the gore, sex and violence of the barbaric world of Hyboria. In fact, the sex scene between Rachel Nichols (“G.I. Joe,” “Alias”) and Momoa is shot with the same sort of breathless attack that Nispel employs during several of the epic sword battles.
Actor Nonso Anozie (“Atonement”) brings warmth and charisma to the role of Artus, Conan’s friend and second-in-command and Nichols is serviceable as the spirited young heroine, but as the deadly Marique, a witch harboring serious daddy issues, Rose McGowan is so over the top it’s almost unforgivable. Even though most of her scenes are with Steven Lang (“Avatar”), an actor not exactly known for keeping his acting cards close to his chest, McGowan, who was perfectly fun and campy in “Planet Terror,” presses so hard on every line and every moment that it robs her character of any real menace.
Undaunted by the challenge having to find a single actor who could believably portray Conan the Barbarian, producers placed what could have been a disastrous casting roadblock in front of them when they decided to open the film with a very young Conan growing up in Cimmeria with his tough-as-nails blacksmith father, Corin, portrayed by the always solid Ron Perlman (“Hellboy”). To say that the casting gods must have been smiling on Nispel and company when fourteen-year-old actor and martial artist, Leo Howard (“G.I. Joe”) signed on to portray the pre-teen Conan is putting it mildly. Most people will only remember Momoa from the film, but as his headstrong, fearless, young counterpart, Howard is every bit as fierce and athletically gifted. The sequence where the youthful Conan participates in his village’s test of strength, a challenge meant for much older and more seasoned warriors, sets the tone and starts this action-packed movie off on exactly the right foot.
However, despite a promising opening, the re-boot is far from successful. A few very odd story choices and plot contrivances nearly derail all of the fun and goodwill of the excellent action. Case in point: Lang’s evil Khalar Zym’s plans form the central plot of the entire film and more than an hour is devoted to making sure the audience knows and understands this inherently. However, the payoff — or lack of payoff — for what has been sold as the entire tent pole on which the movie’s story hangs will leave most action fans shaking their heads.
As for the now-standard 3D aspect of the action adventurer, though it is harmless and does not necessarily detract from the overall viewing experience, the 3D conversion genuinely feels like it was tacked on like an afterthought to satisfy a fussy studio note. That’s not to say that conversion to the 3D format isn’t always successful, but in a movie that so successfully embraces the raucous spirit of its predecessor, it would have been nice to let the film remain old school in that respect, at least.
“Conan the Barbarian” opens in theaters August 19