The original “Conan the Barbarian” was the breakout role for a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fully embodied Robert E. Howard’s born-in-battle, muscle-bound warrior bent on revenge. It was a cheesy little movie in the best way, mindful of its pulp roots and the sword-and-sorcery matinees of yesteryear.
The reboot stars Jason Momoa in what is mainly an exercise in adolescent machismo with a healthy dose of misogyny. In other words, the new “Conan the Barbarian,” like the scaly beasts that its hero battles, is a dinosaur.
Conan is born into conflict, cut from the womb of his dying mother by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman). Director Marcus Nispel performs a nifty bit of narrative as his camera lands in the womb with Conan the Fetus, the muffled noise of battle all around. With the flash of a blade and a slash of daylight, Conan and we are tossed into the world amid bloody combat.
At his father’s side, Conan grows to resemble a professional wrestler, albeit one who has traded his stretchy pants for a red skirt. Witnessing the old man’s death at the cruel hand of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), Conan vows vengeance.
But Zym plans to kidnap Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the last pure-blood of the Sorcerers of Acheron. A spell requiring her blood mixed with a magic mask will make Zym a God, reigning hellfire for eternity unless Conan can stop him.
Although it’s rated R, “Conan the Barbarian” is best suited to boys under the age of 17 whose knowledge of females is limited to what they can find on the internet. Women in the movie are either heartless witches or fawning instruments of pleasure. Real men are steeped in blood and psychopathically cut off from their emotions or, as Conan succinctly puts it: “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” Oh, for simpler times.
But how sexy is Jason Momoa? I don’t know. Is torture sexy, as when he cuts off the nose of a bad guy and later sticks his finger deep into the wound to get his cooperation? Handsome and muscle-bound, Momoa moves like an athlete, but his acting chops are as limited as his charisma. (If you’re a fan of his work on the HBO hit “Game of Thrones,” you’ll be stunned at how unengaging he is as Conan.)
Lang makes an adequate, if clichéd, villain — he’s a far more versatile actor with greater range than his recent bad-guy roles in “Avatar” and “White Irish Drinkers” would lead you to believe. To intimidate the 6’4” Momoa, Lang ratchets up his performance, but in a world where brutality rules the day, he reads a little old and feeble.
Zym’s cruelty is certainly inventive (he traps and kills Conan’s father in a way that implicates his victim’s son) and his repertoire of magic includes raising indomitable, shape-shifting warriors from the earth. But sooner or later, Conan and Zym will have to go mano-a-mano, and craggy as he is, Lang looks like an old fart next to Momoa.
Rose McGowan looks like she’s having a ball as Zym’s sorceress daughter, Marique, who dresses in bizarre outfits, shaves her eyebrows, and is pasted in exotic henna tattoos. She means to replace the memory of her deceased mother in her father’s affections — yes, there’s a hint of taboo behind all those tattoos, but “Conan the Barbarian” never commits to being that kind of movie.
Director Nispel, who graduated from commercials to phoned-in reboots like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” keeps the action moving in technically proficient but unimaginative fashion. Shot in Bulgaria and employing cheap, off-shore digital effects and unimpressive post-production 3-D processing, this new movie has the same cut-rate feel of the original.
But back in 1982, “Conan” was supposed to look cheap. These days, pulp material gets A-list budgets and stars, and audiences expect movies like “Conan the Barbarian” to look great. It doesn’t.
The new movie has its moments, and easily pleased die-hards will probably love it, but “Conan the Barbarian” feels a bit like a money grab, latching onto an old property and lazily exploiting it rather than celebrating what made the material such fun in the first place.