Movie Review: “Conan the Barbarian”

Take away much of the myth, most of the sorcery and all of the humor of the 1982 John Milius-Arnold Schwarzenegger version of the sword and sorcery epic “Conan the Barbarian” and you’ve got an idea what the new  “Conan” is like.

It has a better actor as star — Jason Momoa (“North Shore” “Game of Thrones”). It has better sword play. It even has 3D.

But you lose the legend of Conan, you’ve lost the plot.

This Conan is “battle born,” a child ripped (literally) from his mother’s womb as she lies dying from wounds suffered in combat. The child-ripping scene is one of the movie’s “Oh no they DIDN’T” moments.

This Conan is a headstrong warrior, a killer even at middle school age. Not that they had middle schools in the Hyborian Age, the age of barbarians.

After his father’s murder at the hands of an evil sorcerer/dark lord (Stephen Lang), Conan cuts a wide swath through this dark epoch, slaughtering, wenching, leading a merry band of muscle-bound mugs on land and on sea, all the while hunting for the nameless thug and his witchy daughter (Rose McGowan) who killed his dad (Ron Perlman).

It’s a quest that takes us from one oddly-named city to another, a digitally-enhanced road trip without a laugh along the way. He frees a thief (Saïd Taghmaoui) and passes through assorted mythic quest signposts, some you’ll recognize from “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.”

And he interferes with the villain’s quest by taking up with “the pure blood,” a colorless lady monk colorlessly played by Rachel Nichols. Our bad guy needs to re-build a shattered ritual mask and spill “pure blood” on it to become omnipotent.

At least McGowan, given skimpy outfits and Freddy Krueger fingers to go with her whiter shade of pale skin and plucked Queen Elizabeth I-at-70 hairstyle, manages a little comical shiver every time she tastes the blood of an innocent she’s torturing.

And Conan? “I live. I love.  I slay. I am content,” Conan growls, barbarically. If only we could say the same — the “content” part, I mean.

What Hollywood macho man and writer-director Milius gave the muscle-bound warrior back in 1982 was a more compelling back story (years in slavery) and a more compelling narrative quest, all delivered with a wink and a leer. The “leer” is still evident in this film from the director of the latest version of “Friday the 13th,” Marcus Nispel.  We’re no more than 45 seconds into Morgan Freeman’s dull, stentorian narration before we see the first topless damsel.

Momoa cuts a fine figure of a Conan. I’ll bet he could have handled a little humor as well as he handled his oversized sword, but hiring writers from the godawful “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night” meant that he was pretty much on his own.

Lang is aging into a generic villain, forcing his voice into a growl as if that will save lines that state the obvious — “The mask is COMPLETE!”

At least Perlman, in a few early scenes, has dialogue worthy of the Robert E. Howard tale. He makes his boy a sword.

“Before you wield it, you must understand it,” he lectures, even if the kid isn’t listening. Someday, though, Conan will learn “the Mystery of Steel.”

And someday — let’s start with today — somebody’s going to figure out that you can spend all you want on 3D, locations and topless extras, but Conan isn’t Conan without the lyrical words that capture the barbarian and his barbaric age. Write this one off.

MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity

Cast: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Ron Perlman

Credits: Directed by Marcus Nispel, written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Jason Oppenheimer and Sean Hood, based on the Robert E. Howard novels.   A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:48

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