Monday, February 6, 2012
It’s not often cinema presents monomania in such flattering terms as Jason Momoa’s voluptuous physique and amused attitude, but these are the terms of Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian, a dramatization of what a life of violence will do to you: make you sexually irresistible, physically invincible, and supernaturally charming. But Conan the Barbarian is not about monomania any more than it’s about violence or feudalism or a killer ab regimen. It takes some time abandoning these pretenses, and even then it’s less a film than a sequence of literally unwatchable fight scenes strung together by the weakest of pretexts (happening upon a slave camp that needs liberating, happening upon some foreign soldier programmed only to fight like an Age of Empires warrior, happening upon a crime against fashion), but in a season of shallow salvation vehicles like The Help, at last there’s a film happy living down to itself.
Unfortunately, the first act is excruciating, not only for its sullen personality but for pointedly depriving us of the charismatic Khal we bought tickets for. First there’s a Galadriel prologue that is Morgan Freeman’s personal Waterloo, a guy that could narrate in his sleep somehow defeated on the absurd—and totally irrelevant—landscape of the Barbarianese. Then the first of, conservatively, 14 battles, the first of three shouting-at-the-sky moments, and a deathless childhood sequence with exactly one joke: Little tween Conan walks into the great hall carrying the heads of the five adult warriors that tried to waylay him. But eventually Conan grows into a smiley beefcake mercenary violently correcting injustice as he pursues his revenge. The violence is outsized yet still queasy, the battlefield Caesarian that baptizes baby Conan letting you know exactly what flavor of head-bashing savagery to expect (i.e. torture porn), but it’s mostly fake enough that you stop wincing and cheer once you adapt, and, as I mentioned, you're spared by fight scenes that you couldn't make out if you tried.
Which is somehow appropriate to the rest of this juvenile production: cranial squibs, spirit gum facial hair, visible dentures, an all-rise climax structure that makes Michael Bay look like Bela Tarr, a cage of wood and rope managing to sink in water, a powerful, magical mask that nobody uses. The constantly screaming damsel of a love interest wouldn’t be allowed on Glee, and the villain is straight out of the Star Wars prequels. A quarter of the film—Remember: 14 fights!—is blurry action, and the rest is marked by the same battle shots we’ve seen—arrows flying, men in unison holding the front line—like the Gap selling watered down Paris Fashion Week. But Conan the Barbarian isn’t trying to be Saving Private Ryan. It’s more than happy being the Starz show Spartacus and Fitch. And as a medieval-pulp-inflected sword-and-sandals quest-cum-wargasm (every possible pun intended), it has a fair amount of fun. Or maybe that’s just infatuation talking.
It's a good time for fans of shirtless Dark Age dudes, what with Sam Worthington's dull clay yielding to more expressive heroes, from the wiseass (Jason Momoa), to the British (Henry Cavill), to the barely subtextually gay (Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell). Momoa is so charming, combining the best of historical demigods (sculpted marble, humorous entitlement) with a modern attitude (the amused smile of the coolest guy in the room), that he easily earns our affections as he liberates the land. Momoa even gets in a couple topical zingers that aim to, if not justify all this gross-out violence, at least nominally underpin it: “Barbarians may be warriors, but they do not sacrifice their children and enslave their allies like the priests and princes of the civilized world.” Take that, Obama! Even some of the fantasy works, as in a thrilling sand-fight told with coherent visuals, driven by mystery, and elegantly escalated to the breaking point. The Magic: The Gathering art direction is occasionally marvelous, and we cover so much ground there's always something new (castles, ships, muscles) to excite our fancy. And at the very least, there’s so much action it feels like only forty minutes have passed when we arrive at the Aztec city of Dinotopia for the credits. It hardly makes a unified piece—from a lugubrious life-of-violence lecture to a rip-roaring freedom tale—but the lesson of 14 battles and 1400 influences is clear: Throw enough at the wall and something has to stick.