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Blu-ray Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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Although the Marcus Nispel directed 2011 film Conan the Barbarian may bear the same as 1982’s John Milius directed work, and although they may feature the same character from the Robert E. Howard stories, the new film has little resemblance to the original.  In fact, one kind of questions giving the film the same name at all as it implies a remake of the original rather than a rebirth of the franchise and the latter was the intent here, not the former.

Where the original featured a stoic Arnold Schwarzenegger wielding a sword and beating folks up, here Jason Momoa takes on the role of the Cimmerian.  Although a large man, Momoa isn’t the size of Schwarzenegger, and, the size Schwarzenegger lent to the character, as much as anything about those films, is what remains in the public consciousness.  It is therefore a might startling to see Momoa in the lead here, but—again unlike Schwarzenegger in the original—Momoa can act and display emotion on camera, making the character far more three dimensional than the earlier portrayal.  In fact, if one were forced to choose the better of the portrayals, Momoa could easily win the contest due, in no small part, to his ability to deliver lines.

The question of whether or not this new film is better than the original though is harder to answer.  Certainly, more money was thrown into this film and Nispel’s movie is bloody and vaguely disgusting in a way that Milius’ is not.  From the opening scene in which a young Conan takes out a gang of baddies near his village and returns with their heads in tow, one knows exactly what they’re in for from this new Conan.  The film relies heavily on Conan’s ability to spill blood and revels in the way in which blood flies out of the human body.  There are, in short, more than one grimace inducing scenes in the film.

As is quite naturally the case, the story finds Conan going up against an evil man who wants nothing less than to control the entire world (and to bring back his dead wife).  Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) has the goal of putting back together a crown made of bone fragments which, when touched by the right blood, will come alive and grant the user exceptional powers… or something like that.  The end result of his machinations though will, undoubtedly, result in world domination and only Conan can stop him.

Conan the Barbarian is a swords and sorcerers film where strange powers from beyond are regular and our hero has to do battle with warriors created from sand.  While the film offers some explanations of how all of this can happen, it is far more interested in the fact that such odd creatures can and are called forth than with convincing the audience of the plausibility of such an event.   It is enough, in the film’s estimation, to have Morgan Freeman provide a voiceover at the beginning of the film talking about the dark magic of a past age and then to dress Khalar Zym’s daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), in some truly odd outfits with weird makeup and have her called a witch.  Conan gets a love interest in the film, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) and best bud, Artus (Nonso Anzozie), but their characters aren’t particularly deep either.  Artus is there to have someone Conan can talk to, and Tamara is the damsel in distress.  The best performance may be given by Ron Perlman as Conan’s father, but he is in the film for all too brief a time.

Conan the Barbarian will work for an audience if that audience is able to simply accept whatever the reasons may be for what is taking place on screen and revel in the oddities and destruction.  For most however, it isn’t all quite enough, and the repeated use of 3D effects where swords, arrows, spears, rocks, etc., come out of the screen towards the audience only serve to pull the viewer out of the film and make its other flaws more obvious.

Unfortunately, that is a huge shame as the world that Nispel and company have created for Conan to inhabit is fantastic.  It is varied and full of potentially interesting characters and locations even if none of them are explored in depth in this film.  The particulars of this exact movie may not work all that well, but it is a world that I would happily revisit and I would love to see Momoa reprise the role for another feature.  The poor box office take of the movie makes that unlikely, and we are worse off for it.

The film is, as one would hope, absolutely stunning here.  The colors are rich and vivid, blood flies with graphic detail and it is almost possible to see every grain of sand that whips up into a monster to be defeated by Conan.  Black levels are excellent as well.  The film sports a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack with great directional effects and a very alive sound field.  From the smallest sound to the largest, everything seems present and distinct here.  Both in terms of audio and video, a tremendously great job was done with the film’s Blu-ray presentation.

The Blu-ray set contains the standard sort of featurettes one would expect.  In addition to a 3D and 2D copy on the Blu-ray disc, there is also a DVD and digital copy download code included.  The featurettes themselves are composed of two different feature length audio commentaries, one with Nispel and one with Momoa and McGowan.  There are also two behind the scenes pieces, one tackling how the action sequences were filmed and another on how the fights were choreographed early on by the stunt teams.  There is also a piece on the history of Conan and another on Robert E. Howard.  Save the one featuring early pre-viz stuff but the stunt team, all of these definitely have an EPK-like feel, but the enthusiasm many working on the film have for the character and his universe tends to appear authentic and make one root for the movie to be better than it actually might be.

High gloss and slick (sometimes with blood), 2011’s Conan the Barbarian is a movie that seems destined to be forgotten even if the franchise will almost assuredly be resurrected again at some point.  However, Momoa’s performance as the hero of legend is almost enough to carry the day.  Almost.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.