The summer of 2011 was brutal for swords and sorcery. Conan the Barbarian, filmed on a $90 million production budget, managed to earn little more than half that amount during its worldwide theatrical run. Thankfully, though, that commercial failure hasn’t stopped Lions Gate from giving the Hyborian Age’s most famous son stellar treatment on Blu-ray.
Born on the Battlefield
John Milius’ muscular 1982 vision of Conan, starring a virtually unknown weightlifter named Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a straight-forward yarn about a barbarian thrown into slavery, tortured to near death, and then hell-bent on vengeance.
This new version follows a dramatically different storyline. Striking out all on its own, this new Conan is in some ways more cluttered; in some ways it’s more faithful to Howard’s stories, in some ways it’s disappointing, in some ways it’s more fun. In short: It’s a mixed bag.
The clutter comes from a clunky storyline that revolves an evil mask that was shattered, with pieces parsed out to five tribes in order to prevent its reconstruction. But, years later, a madman wants that mask pieced back together so he can not only take over the world, but also resurrect his beloved dead wife.
Enter Conan, who was literally born on the battlefield, with his mother wearing battle armor and holding her own against a raiding party. Born and named during her last breath, Conan is raised up to the heavens by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman, Hellboy).
Conan the Avenger
In comparison to the other barbarian lads, Conan seems to be a runt, but he’s a brutal runt who slaughters a group of invaders during a routine endurance test and rite of passage. All things considered, though, this new Conan doesn’t suffer much; he certainly doesn’t suffer to the same messiah-like extent of Ahnuld’s barbarian. There’s no Wheel of Pain this time around, but there are plenty of orgies, or at the very least bevies of bare-breasted babes.
As presented in the Milius account, that suffering lent Conan a bit of pathos, which may or may not be necessary in a time and place where heads roll with wild abandon.
Even so, there isn’t all that much to relate to with this new Conan (Jason Momoa, TV’s Game of Thrones). His mother was dead moments after his birth and he witnesses his father’s death years later. Granted, Conan’s own actions play into that death. But Conan doesn’t live in Bruce Wayne’s world of vigilante justice; he lives in a brutal world where no self-respecting barbarian would shed a tear at the death of a loved one. There’s no time for that.
In place of a deeper sense of character, the story does offer a much bigger world for this Conan. He travels through a world that’s a mish-mash of times and places, a collage of architectural styles and engineering capabilities. And he’s given a broader skillset, as it’s told this barbarian spent a portion of his youth sailing the high seas with pirates among his globetrotting adventures.
That world allows for an exponentially more ambitious visual appeal compared to the 1982 flick. An argument could be made that at least in the respect of scope and environment creation, this Conan is the most fully-realized of the summer’s crop of comic book fare.
The Virgin and the Vulgar
As should be expected, Conan is loaded with action, but much of it falls flat amid a flurry of disengaging sword fights. All told, that makes for a rather lackluster, albeit visually slick, experience for the first half of the movie.
Then something pretty cool happens.
A virgin enters the picture.
That would be the pure blood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols, the 2009 Star Trek reboot), whom Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, Avatar) needs to resurrect his wife. Her full name is much longer and her introduction, which includes her questioning Conan’s singular name, fills the rest of the movie with a welcome energy and a vicious sense of humor. She’s loquacious, he’s monosyllabic. She’s pure in blood, he’s anything but. She’s a soulful monk, he’s a fleshly brute.
Together, they make for an interesting team. But the screenwriters don’t seem to have enough faith in the simple beauty of their unlikely pairing. Instead, the two trade verbal barbs, become a sword-fighting duo, make passionate love, then part ways in the very next scene with neither one feeling the slightest pang of emotional attachment. It’s abrupt, it’s clumsy, it’s kinda funny. But the funny in this case doesn’t seem to be intentional.
Thankfully, as circumstances would require, the two cross paths again and that leads to an entertaining climax that features the kind of action set pieces that would’ve benefited the first half.
Conan the Collage
It’s easy enough to dismiss a movie like Conan the Barbarian. At times it feels less like the setup for a series of big screen movies and more like the pilot for a syndicated TV series akin to Highlander or Xena: Warrior Princess.
And, although Conan’s stories date back to the early 1930s, there’s a whole world of cinematic imagery that this new movie seems to have plundered from, including David Lynch’s Dune, Ray Harryhausen’s classic mythological flicks, TV’s Rome, Gladiator, 300, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, heck, even the cheesy Flash Gordon of 1980.
So, once again, this Conan the Barbarian is a mixed bag.
Physically, Jason Momoa doesn’t carry the same formidable physique as Schwarzenegger, but he does offer very similar acting chops and he fills Schwarzenegger’s sandals sufficiently enough. He’s not a particularly bad actor, he’s simply one who is suited for a barbarian’s role. He’s charming in his own right and he does what he can with lines like, “I live, I love, I slay and I’m content.”
The following review is based on the 2-disc Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy edition of Conan the Barbarian. A single-disc DVD-only edition is also available.
Even though Conan the Barbarian flopped in its theatrical run, this Blu-ray release is a solid package, offering entertaining supplemental materials and a state-of-the-art video and audio presentation. Overall, and not really surprisingly, there’s an expectation throughout the behind-the-scenes footage and commentaries that they were starting up a nice new franchise for themselves. Success was seemingly a certainty. But the final box office tally would say otherwise.
The set includes two running commentaries, one by director Marcus Nispel and the other with co-stars Jason Momoa and Rose McGowan.
Nispel’s commentary track is wall to wall with observations and comments, but perhaps the most striking element is his frequent reference to other movies, including Indiana Jones, James Bond, G.I. Joe, Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It corroborates the derivative feeling underlying Conan as noted in the review of the feature film. Another interesting tidbit is Nispel’s preference for the real as opposed to the digital. Kudos for that. He mentions the film being shot with 90% in-camera and “10% implementations.” But Michael Bay (who produced Nispel’s Friday the 13th remake) pointed out to him that Conan actually had more effects shots than Bay’s own Transformers.
Ultimately, the sense is that while Nispel is technically competent (including a couple astute comments about filming in 3D), there’s something missing on the pure magical side of things. All those successful titles he mentions carry with them a certain amount of risk-taking, magic, and financial reward; in the case of Blade Runner, it achieved a legendary status well after the initial commercial failure. Taking those movies and holding them up against Conan, a key factor separating the latter from that pantheon of great films is an intangible. It’s a sense of soul. It’s a sense of earnestness. The comments contained herein suggest a pure play for commercial success, leaving out the magic and the soul of the other movies.
The track with Momoa and McGowan is a complete surprise. They recorded the track together; it’s not a hack-track of two separate commentaries spliced together. The two get along very well and provide one of the most entertaining tracks in recent memory. Yowza. Parts of it play like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Momoa jokes that Conan’s father (played by Ron Perlman) looks like Harry in Harry and the Hendersons. Ouch. They also veer into Monty Python-esque territory when they briefly joke about Stephen Lang, the lead bad guy, riding a small, unimposing Pinto. That contrasts with Momoa’s grievances about his own horse, which was possibly his single biggest source of tension on the set. He calls the horse an “asshole” and “Satan.”
The track ends with some more terrific stuff. One is that both Momoa and McGowan wanted a tragic ending for the movie, with Tamara dying, in keeping with Howard’s stories and the notion that tragedy follows Conan and is a key motivator for what he does. The other is a humorous bit about Conan and Tamara bidding each other farewell. The comments made aren’t suitable for this publication, but they are funny.
Among the featurettes, Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan tops the list. It’s a nice little look at the creator of Conan and his short life (Howard committed suicide at age 30). Clocking in at only 11 minutes, it’s a Cliffs Notes-style biography, but what’s there is all good information.
Next up, The Conan Legacy (18 minutes) follows the character’s pulp fiction roots right on up to the latest in video gaming environments and the new movie. It includes some making-of footage, such as a funny little screen test with Jason Momoa on Mulholland Drive. There’s an emphasis on how the new film was made by Conan fans and their goal was to introduce a number of the character’s facets based on Howard’s source material. They figured that would be a good way to start an R-rated franchise. There’s a bit shutter when a comment is made regarding the “stylistic brilliance” of director Marcus Nispel’s remakes of Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre while Schwarzenegger’s Conan is somewhat derided in spite of its commercial success.
Battle Royal: Engineering the Action is a 10-minute behind the scenes look at the stunt work. An inadvertent chuckle comes courtesy of writer Sean Hood, who emphatically states, “In the climactic scene where Tamara is strapped to the wheel, they went to a REAL cave!” In fairness, the reality is pretty cool. Nispel mentions some World War II lore that says a Messerschmitt threw the cave. It’s also a gush-fest for Jason Momoa, who earns numerous accolades from production personnel for his ability and willingness to do a fair amount of his own stunts.
Staging the Fights is a 6-minute look at the live action pre-viz stagings of a few key fight scenes, embellished with some CG animation.
All of the above, along with the movie’s theatrical trailer, are packed onto the two-disc set’s Blu-ray disc. The second disc is a DVD devoted solely to the feature film.
Accessed without either disc, a digital copy of the movie can be downloaded for use on mobile devices. But, departing from the digital copy tradition that provides Windows and Apple options, the digital copy download access code supplied within the package is exclusive to the Apple platform via the onerous iTunes.
Picture and Sound
While the quality of the feature film’s story is debatable, the technical presentation of that story is not in doubt. Lions Gate has provided a reference quality set. The image, presented in 2.40:1, is crystal clear, showcasing the effort that went into the detailed production design and costumes. The audio is equally pristine, offering up the bloodshed in a rowdy 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. There is so much competence on hand technically, it’s a shame there isn’t more soul to accompany the ride.
Perhaps the one bone to pick is that both the 3D and 2D Blu-ray presentations are included on the same disc. Accompanied by the two running commentaries, that limits the technical options. And so it is the sole audio option is the DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 track. Subtitle options are limited to English, English SDH, and Spanish.
How to Use This Disc
Enjoy this new take on Conan for what it’s worth and appreciate the sublime kookiness of Tamara’s relationship with the barbarian. For those so inclined, the commentary track with Momoa and McGowan is worth going through the movie again.