‘Conan the Barbarian’ isn’t great, but makes up for it in blood

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Conan the Barbarian

Directed by Marcus Nispel

2011, USA, 113 minutes

This review is a (qualified) defence of Conan the Barbarian. Because it’s a good movie? Please. Conan isn’t a good movie any more than McDonald’s is a purveyor of fine food, or talk radio is a champion of intelligent thought. Here’s the thing, though: I enjoyed it. Obviously, if you properly calibrate your expectations, you can enjoy most the sillier aspects of life. But there’s more to it then that.

Allow me to put it this way: I drink Scotch. I love it. It is the water of life itself. Were God Himself to bleed, he’d bleed Scotch. However, when I get drunk—as barely employed writers are wont to do—I eschew Scotch and drink gasoline-flavoured rye. Who gets drunk on the good stuff?

When I want to think, taste, and be delighted, I take Scotch. When I want to stop thinking, get drunk, and gleefully lose the respect of my loved ones, I take bottom shelf rye in a plastic bottle. Similarly, if I want a film that delights and amuses, I’ll watch Merchant Ivory. If I want a film that entertains and bludgeons, I take Conan.

Big Dumb Fantasy

Watching Conan the Barbarian is a bit like watching Lord of the Rings reimagined by a team of confused thirteen-year-olds. I say thirteen-year-olds, because that’s the age when most people figure out what’s cool (“Wow, masturbation is amazing!”) but have yet to learn the important lessons of moderation (“I bet masturbating six times in a row would be even better!”). I say confused, because they don’t really know where the film is going. Finally, I say team, because this film has thirteen producers and has all the hallmarks of too-many-cooks.

That said, a team confused thirteen-year-olds is nothing if not entertaining, though sometimes inadvertently. Conan gives us outrageous fight after outrageous fight. Its design looks good (aside from the MacGuffin-of-doom evil mask, which looks like an anus) and cinematography is passable, when the 3D isn’t getting in the way. The plot is absurd fantasy-by-numbers that could have been half-baked by nearly any Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast during a mid-game Fanta break, but the film’s childlike-simplicity is part of what makes it satisfying, in a drunk sort of way. Big, dumb simplicity gives us such other guilty pleasures as a bone-crunching child berserker, a land ship carried by elephants, and death by trebuchet.

Nostalgia Goggles and Other Indulgences

The hallmark of a mature mind is forbearance—Bill Murray doesn’t sleep with Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation because it is a mature film. Conan, on the other hand, is an immature film, gleefully giving into every sophomoric urge allowed by the MPAA. Every skull smashed—and there are many—gratifies the reptilian part of the brain while uncomfortably entertaining the simian part that secretly wishes that all differences of opinion be solved with gratuitous violence.

Of course, violence isn’t Conan’s only indulgence. There’s also trite morality, a callous indifference to humanity, and petty revenge. These aren’t indulgences the reasonable person allows during sober life or serious film—but not all of life is sober, and not all film should be serious.

As to the critics and movie fans who lament that 2011’s Conan is worse than that classic 1982 film: come on. Don’t play that game. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan wasn’t a good film by any stretch of the imagination either. It was a silly sophomoric mess with a preadolescent sensibility—and that’s why we loved it. It wasn’t great cinema. I watched it in my friend’s unfinished basement, which was festooned with artwork featuring women in chainmail bikinis, after a game of AD&D. That’s roughly how this new Conan should be viewed.

The bottom line is this: now and again, we deserve to get drunk. Conan has blood and tits and fire atop a mountain of skulls, and by Crom, what else does a movie need?

1 Comment
  1. Al Harron says

    A very interesting review. Personally, I couldn’t enjoy this even on the level of mindless lizard-brain escapism: it was so poorly directed I could barely tell what was happening, so badly edited I started to get a headache, and so terribly conceived in general that I couldn’t even enjoy it as a “bad” movie.

    “When I want to think, taste, and be delighted, I take Scotch. When I want to stop thinking, get drunk, and gleefully lose the respect of my loved ones, I take bottom shelf rye in a plastic bottle. Similarly, if I want a film that delights and amuses, I’ll watch Merchant Ivory. If I want a film that entertains and bludgeons, I take Conan.”

    That’s the thing that really smarts about this film: Conan, as written by Robert E. Howard, is Scotch. Fantastic stories by one of the founding fathers of 20th Century fantasy, whose work is collected in Penguin Classics and the Library of America, and whose prose has been studied in over 50 years of scholarly journals, magazines and critical anthologies. They can be enjoyed purely on a “ripping yarn” level, but they are also full to the gunwales with symbolism and allusion. You can go to any other Sword-and-Sorcery film to get drunk, but Conan’s could be something special.

    To stretch your beverage analogy, this film is Scotch that’s been watered down to the point of tastelessness. Sure, you can still get drunk on it, but you’re still wasting perfectly good scotch when you could just get some beer.

    “The hallmark of a mature mind is forbearance—Bill Murray doesn’t sleep with Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation because it is a mature film. Conan, on the other hand, is an immature film, gleefully giving into every sophomoric urge allowed by the MPAA. ”

    To which I’d reply: “To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.” Not that I disagree that the film is immature, though, which is irritating since Howard’s original works are not. One is not inherently superior to the other, in my mind, but I think adaptations of a work should adhere to an equivalent level to the source.

    “As to the critics and movie fans who lament that 2011’s Conan is worse than that classic 1982 film: come on. Don’t play that game. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan wasn’t a good film by any stretch of the imagination either. It was a silly sophomoric mess with a preadolescent sensibility—and that’s why we loved it.”

    Despite my ambivalence to the film’s treatment of Howard’s work, I also disagree here. Unless you’re going to say the many obvious allusions to classic auteur cinema, the Nietzchean philosophising and Oriental Mysticism are “sophomoric” and “preadolescent,” which frankly wouldn’t surprise me. That said, at least that film had aims above “blood and tits and fire”: this film clearly had no such aspirations. Frankly, I don’t buy the idea that films shouldn’t attempt to be more than the base minimum. Plenty of films adhere to that philosophy, and punishing films that strive for more is anathema to me.

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