Saturday, 19 May 2012


The most entertaining thing about this new Conan movie may be the screenplay credit, which it says is based on 'the character originally created by Robert E. Howard. Only in Hollywood can something be 'originally' created, as opposed to created. The oddest thing about the film is that the Cimmerian's name is pronounced 'CONE-in', like Conan O'Brien, the talkshow host, rather than 'Ko-NAN', the way it generally has been before. Though in fairness, even the latter often comes out sounding more like the former when it's said in conversation. The assumption that another Conan movie needs be made rests, I suppose, on the idea that you can do more justice to the character with someone other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The reason here is to make something closer to Lord Of The Rings than Robert E Howard, and director Marcus Nipsel does a fine job of that—there are moments when Conan's world is both stunning and believable.

In fact, this version is somewhat truer to Howard's world than any of the Arnolt adaptations were.Although it also sets up a simple revenge-style plot, it gives more of a taste of the various nation-states within the Hyborian Age, and gives Conan two sidekicks, neither of whom get enough of a look-in, but the very idea that they'd recapitulate Conan's corsair days is nice. It has a nice line in wenching scenes too. Sadly, Conan keeps leaving people behind, which means Nonzo Anozie, playing Artus, winds up auditioning to be the black Brian , while Said Taghmaoui as the theif Ela Shan is a kind of Grey Mouser to Conan's Fahfrd, but he too doesn't get much of look in. It is interesting, however, that his return in the film illustrates the law of Last Reel Compression, in which time slows down (or speeds up) in line with the running order of the film, and distances shrink if necessary to allow the characters to move from one place to the next to impossible deadlines (see also John Carter).

For all his flaws as an actor, Arnolt was not a bad Conan. He had the anabolic profile necessary (in fact, bore an eerie resemblance to Frank Frazetta's paintings of Conan, see below left) and his accent reminded us that the Cimmerians are indeed northern barbarians. The Governator's problem was trying to keep a straight face (making an interesting contract with, say, Wilt Chamberlain's trying not to) and not softening the character. Jason Momoa, a method-acting veteran of Baywatch Hawaii, actually begins with a sort of softer Conan and gets harder as the story progressing, until he is pretty convincing by the end, if only as a hero, if not Conan. It's sometimes hard to conceive of him as Ron Perlman's son—Perlman is good in the role of his father, and the battlefield birth scenes are excellent, but Perlman brings a lot of baggage from his grotesquerie roles (Beauty and the Beast, Hellboy). But at one point, Momoa too strains the straight face test, when he says 'I live, I love, I slay' I couldn't help but hear Allen Sherman's comedy Greensleeves in which the knight wishes he 'could give up smoting for good'.

The highlight of the film, however, is Stephen Lang, sporting impressive new pecs (and teeth far too perfect for any Hyborian dentistry), as the villain Khalar Zym. Lang is a tremendous actor who has shone in many smaller parts, for Michael Mann in the TV series Crime Story and in Manhunter, as Pickett in Gettysburg and ten years later as Stonewall Jackson in Gods And Generals, and as Ike Clanton in Tombstone), but here he gets to indulge himself, and he sells the character completely. Rose McGowan as his daughter is somewhat less convincing, though the two play a fascinating sort of incest scene, which suggests more motivation and might have conveyed Zym's supreme manipulation. But when McGowan goes one-on-one against the heroine, Rachel Nichols (above left), the battle to be convincing almost reaches an apex of futility. Nichols, like Momoa, starts off drawing incredulity, but tries hard to grow into the role. She's hindered partly by a script that flips her between being aggressive fighter and proto-feminist role model and being screaming damsel needing Conan to rescue her from distress. And the solution is to end her climatic battle with a wisecrack, which actually works.

Which brings us back to the original question, what is the point of another Conan movie if it isn't going to do anything new (which would include going back to the old, pre-movie, idea of the character and his world). As we're bombarded with remakes of the comics and pulps of our (and ours via our parents') childhoods, Howard, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, is perfect fodder for adaptations that will always fall just short of being totally satisfying. And that is because they lack the sense of wonder the originals had. Their makers, and indeed their audience, brought up on JK Rowling and teenaged heroes, may lack it as well. My worry is that our generation, which rediscovered Howard, may have lost it as well.

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