If you give a Cimmerian a sword, he’ll want a shield. If you give him a shield….

22Aug11

Yesterday night, I saw the new Conan movie. And it was….not horrible?

There are two things I should admit before I go any further. The first is that I didn’t go out to see this movie on my own. I got to see it for free, thanks to my boss paying for the trip. Which means I’m more inclined to be charitable, since I can’t complain about wanting my money back, or spending too much on the food.

The second is that while I’m a fan of Conan the character, I am a fan based entirely on Robert E. Howard’s original stories. I have not read any of the stories other authors wrote about the character, nor the original 70s era comics, and I didn’t see either of the 80s Conan movies. I did read the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord comics, because the preview issue featured Conan slicing a man in half in one whole page splash panel. But it’s the original works that have informed my view of the character, and that means I don’t recognize the lamentation of women as a core part of Conan.

As for this movie, the main problem is that it’s forgettable. The only parts that aren’t involve violence and gore, and while that’s not inherently wrong for an action movie set in a grim fantasy world, this seemed to go over the top quite a bit. Everyone who gets killed (not injured-this only happens when someone dies) seems to be juiced more than anything else, as blood flies off the dying in big splashes. It doesn’t quite reach the highly pressurized sprays of the anime stereotype, but it still came off as ridiculous, and not in a humorous way. I’ll admit that I don’t know what happens when someone is cut with a sword in real life, a fact I’m not ashamed of, but I don’t think it works quite like this.

I could probably harp on issues of plot and scripting, but to an extent, that’s unfair. There’s no egregious plot holes that leap out at you here, and no one goes into an action movie for tightly plotted scenes. The bigger reason why it’s forgettable boils down to Jason Momoa and the way the fights are choreographed. I won’t claim that Jason Momoa is a bad actor, and he certainly fits Conan visually. But everything he says comes out as a sullen half-growl. Conan as a character can be grim, but he’s a man of “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths.” The first part is only half realized, and the second never comes across in a believable sense. As for the fighting, it’s decent, but never spectacular. The best sequence is probably when the teenaged Conan kills 4 Picts unarmed and alone, and that was already part of a preview before the movie was released.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend it. I like Conan, and I want to see a good Conan movie, and this just isn’t it. Really, if you want to get into Conan, you can’t go wrong with either reading the original Howard works, or the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord comics; the former only has a few weak spots (with some troubling racial issues, though I believe that was more the nature of the stories as works for hire than Howard’s own views), and the latter is just spectacular all around. The movie, not so much.

Now, for some nitpicking.

The movie spends a lot of time showing Conan’s village, so it can mean something when it gets destroyed. But I don’t want to see Conan as an orphan, or the last of his kind. This is not because he can’t have a tragic past of some kind, it’s because it doesn’t matter. Conan is a guy who has wanderlust, and he’s the only Cimmerian he knows that likes to travel. It’s a much simpler origin, and I think it works better than giving him a quest for vengeance to drive the movie. Does it make him a little aimless? Yes. But it means that he can also laugh sometimes, or have an honest smile, without seeming like he’s given up on getting revenge. And having him get accidentally sucked into some kind of sorcerous plot is more believable than his father somehow having part of a magic Macguffin, and Conan interrupting the plan just as it’s finally nearing completion.

That would also help with another issue I had, the fact that all the different areas of Hyboria felt unconnected. This is a hard thing to get on the screen versus the page, but Hyboria is meant to be Eurasia+Africa before they became separate continents. It was an attempt to ground the world in a more realistic geography, so it didn’t come off as “Go from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, then to Plot Point C for the final battle!” But that’s exactly how it felt in this movie. If the rest of the movie was better, of course, I probably wouldn’t care about this at all.

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