CONAN THE BARBARIAN, being the apotheosis of pulp, means that any nuance or subtlety involved in bringing it to the screen would be an insult to the genre. For all the failings of this dull rendering of Robert E. Howard’s mythos, it is not a small undertaking. The sets are monumental, the acting broad, forging boldly into the porcine, and the story is little more than cracking bones, spurting blood, and the robust dismemberment of the human body. Over and over and over again.
It is a tale of good and evil, with Conan (Jason Momoa), the titular barbarian on a quest to avenge the murder of his father (Ron Perlman) and his father’s entire village. There’s a magical mask, whose shards are the object of another quest by the maniacal villain of the piece (Stephen Lang), and of his even more manically villainous daughter (Rose McGowan). There’s a damsel in distress (Rachel Nichols), who is the key to the plot. With everyone, even the damsel in distress, being such a whiz with the massive and primitive weaponry available to them, the filmmakers have graciously given the viewer visual cues to help identify who is whom and it breaks down to hair. The more soigne the coiffure, the less noble the person under it. Conan and his fellow Cimmerians sport tangled manes barely held in check by the laws of physics. The bad guys sport elaborate constructions culminating with the evil-est of the evil, McGowan, slinking through the film precariously balancing structures of cunningly intricate architectural aspirations. Costume is also a clue, simple equaling good once again, and with, once again, McGowan’s contraptions, though revealing, made up of so many buckles, clasps, folds, and fiddly bits that her dresser receives her own credit line. Then again, so do the cleaning ladies associated with the production’s Bulgarian locations, revealing much about the time and effort involved in cleaning up the leftover cracked bones, spurted blood, and robust dismemberments.
Little is required of the actors, and little is what they give, though McGowan licks blood and undulates with a notable and gratuitous abandon. Momoa has a monumental snarl and pecs to match. His character is a man of few words and Momoa barks them with the proper authority while staring from behind a forest of gnarled hair and massy musculature. The action sequences are dull and repetitive, blood, bone, dismemberment, livened only at one point with the addition of inventive, if fragile, sand warriors, and in another with a tentacled creature this is de rigeur in tales such as this, but one that is animated with elan and vicious clicky clippy talons.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN hews very close to its pulpy roots in its religious eschewing of irony. The few attempts at humor fail as miserably as pretty much anybody coming up against Conan’s sword and/or snarl. Yet for all the yelling, the screaming, and the clanging of weapons, the whole is as muted as the colors in the art director’s palette, making this a grim excursion on many levels.