After Morgan Freeman (?) dispenses with the obligatory and meaningless voice-over exposition, Conan the Barbarian opens on the battlefield, where a pregnant woman absorbs the business end of a sword. Her husband, Corin (Ron Perlman) — who looks like an old-school character in Planet of the Apes — then kneels over his wife. “I have to see my son before I die,” she says. Corin reaches his hand into his wife’s vagina and, in one quick squishy motion, he pulls out little baby CGI Conan.
The message of the opening sequence is simple, and it is this: Friends don’t let friends see Conan the Barbarian sober. It should be seen in groups, and it should be seen while heavily inebriated. Bring a designated driver; he or she should go see Fright Night, which doesn’t need the alcohol to be intoxicating.
Conan the Barbarian loosely belongs to the category of cinema known as so-bad-it’s-good. Those films travel so far into the bad side of things that they bend around back into good, only Conan can’t quite break through to the other side of bad on the rebound. It bangs its head up against good like a concussed Slayer fan on a mission to achieve permanent brain damage, but it doesn’t break through as much as it simply dents the line separating good from bad.
It is a terrible film, but if you’re in the right frame of mind (read: three tits to a sheet), it has the potential to be wicked fun.
Jason Momoa stars as the title character, and Schwarzenegger — who originated the role in 1982 — he is not. The two have bad acting in common, but Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent and his stern demeanor obscured his lack of talent when it came to roles about men who spoke with their weapons. Like a wild boar fucking a hole in the ground, the grunts and snarls do come easily to Momoa (see also, “Game of Thrones”), but when he’s asked to deliver dialogue, two things become immediately apparent: 1) That he should keep his mouth shut; and 2) beneath 200 pounds of pure muscle resides the soul of a surfer douche. Each time he slices through another Pict, you expect him to Hang 10 and deliver a resounding “Gnarly, dude!” I suspect that wasn’t Robert E. Howard’s desired effect when he created the character.
The story follows a young warrior whose entire tribe is slain by a group of unbathed troops led by an equally unkempt man named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, inexplicably). Zym needs the last piece of a mask that will make him a GOD, and once he secures it from Corin, he leaves young Conan to watch his father die. Zym, however, still needs the essence of the world’s last remaining pure-blood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), to achieve his deific status. He travels in search of her with his sorcerer daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan). Meanwhile, Conan fills out quite nicely in the intervening years, and eventually crosses paths with Tamara. Zym wants to find Tamara so he can be a GOD (and bring back his dead wife), and Conan wants to find Zym so that he can break a surfboard over his head. The two eventually clash in a series of action sequences that look as though modern CGI has been layered over a Ray Harryhausen film.
Marcus Nispel, responsible for the heinous Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes, as well as a more successful so-bad-it’s-good flick, Pathfinder, approaches Conan the Barbarian with what can only be considered gleeful incompetence. It’s like one of those deluded “American Idol” contestants who lack in self-awareness. The joy is not in the bad performance; it’s in the overconfident reaction, like a diver who clangs his head on the diving board, lands in the water face down, and jumps out of the water exclaiming, “Nailed it!” Nispel thinks he is a talented director creating this bold, new version of Conan, when in fact, his munificent ineptitude has the unintended benefit of recreating some of the cheesy glory of the original.
What he does do well is keep Conan moving briskly. Barely three minutes will go by between fight sequences, which at least keeps Conan from being tedious or boring. Nispel and the committee of poo-flinging monkeys who crapped out the script over the course of a few bowel movements are never short of an excuse for Conan to pull out his sword and plunge it into fierce, sharp-toothed hobos holding topless women captive. Nispel liberally splatters the screen with CGI blood, sometimes in places where perhaps CGI blood shouldn’t be, like away from the action, for instance. The director also hilariously juxtaposes gratuitous violence with what can only be described as the Lifetime for Men vibe of the film.
Moreover, Rachel Nichols (Star Trek, G.I. Joe) acts like she walked out of a Katherine Heigl comedy and her romantic subplot with Conan amusingly plays into that belligerent sexual tension romcom trope. Lang (Avatar) does an admirable job for a role in which he’s terribly miscast, but only McGowan — of all the players — acquits herself well. She’s the only one I got the sense was trying to overact for effect, instead of earnestly failing to deliver a more determined performance.
Ultimately, Conan the Barbarian is a bad film, bad from the bottom. Trust me, it’s much worse than you can imagine without seeing it for yourself. That’s the challenge of Conan. Where is that line between so bad-it’s-good and so bad-it’s-atrocious? Conan straddles it, a result that will likely elicit a cacophony of exasperated laughter in theaters this weekend. Viewers may find themselves shaking their head and whispering under their breath, “Are you fucking kidding me with this?” But more often than not, even through all the bewildered regret, audiences will probably be smiling at the bold, audacious awfulness of it all.