History may repeat itself.
When John Milius' 1982 Conan the Barbarian was first released it did not garner very positive reviews. It did modest box office in initial release but, mostly through the presence of pre-A-lister Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the years subsequent to its release has acheived cult, and in some circles revered, status.
Marcus Nipel's Conan the Barbarian will probably enjoy a good opening weekend but its hard to tell whether the film will continue to have legs beyond that. After all, most of the target audiences already have video games at home and may not want to see one unfold on the big screen.
This Conan does have a plot...somewhat. Conan, the last Cimmerian (Jason Momoa, Stargate Atlantis; Game of Thrones), seeks revenge against Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang, who seemed much more sadistic in Avatar) for murdering his father (the ever reliable Ron Perlman, who gives the material the necessary but right dose of gravitas to give the film some sort of weight). Ostensibly the "MacGuffin" of the piece is a bone mask with the power to restore the dead to life and bring immeasurable power, but it seems like less of an impetus to drive the story forward as it is an excuse to get from point "A" to point "B" and from CGI enhanced fight scene to CGI enhanced fight scene. And, unfortunately, this film follows the recent trend of Mtv style dizzying "quick cuts" and close up shots that obscure (or hide the lack of ) the fight choreography. Some scenes it seems as the film was sped up which leaves one confused as to what has just happened. One character in particular has a weapon with a very unique feature, but due to the manner in which the fight scene is shot that feature is almost lost even in the midst of its application in the fight. What those scenes lack in distinction are made up for in sheer brutality, and the sound master makes sure that every blow is audibly "felt", even if some of those sequences, despite the alacrity of execution, teeter on the edge of running too long.
The cinematography is servicable, if only to get a sense that this is in an era "out of time". The Lord of the Rings trilogy expertly showed how a sense of a sprawling epic can be established with just a few panoramic or aerial expansive shots. The cinematography here works in opposite, confining the action to a few set pieces which seem interchangeable with each other, making the world in question seem jarringly insular, which is an egregious failing for a film such as this, as the overall feel of the production makes it seem like it was produced for "Starz" or "HBO" (in fact, the latter's series Game of Thrones imbued more sense of the epic with far less).
And Tyler Bates' score doesn't help matters. While it does a fine job of underscoring what takes place on the screen, there is no sense of identity or differentiation. In fact, at times it seemed like he simply substituted his score for 300 and sent in the print. However, the pacing is fast and relentless, with very little "down time" between sequences. Perhaps Nipel's vision going in was to treat the audience as though it were afflicted with ADD. Unfortunately, the 3D only serves to enhance the films cinematic flaws, painfully accentuating the use and nature of minatures as set pieces, for example.
What saves this production are the performances, particularly star in the making Jason Momoa. A far cry from Schwarzenegger's recalcitrant, steamroll through enemies hulk, Momoa imbues the title character with a catlike litheness and ferocity, however all done with tongue firmly in cheek and with a twinkle in his eye. When Conan undertakes actions and attitidues that are anathema to our current PC and post-feminist culture, its endearing rather than offensible simply due to Momoa's charisma. While he never loses sight of the fact that his character has a burning thirst for revenge, Momoa is clearly having fun in playing the role and that sense is infectuous. Rachel Nichols (Star Trek, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) serves as human MacGuffin and love interest Tamara and, while the role does not call for much, she handles it adequately. However, both actors fall short in the "lust" department (this film does not call for much by way of romance) as they share little chemistry...thus the eventual coupling that takes place seems almost tacked on in a manner fairly reminiscent to Christopher Lambert's and Roxanne Hart's scene in the original Highlander. The surprising standout in the film is Leo Howard, who plays Conan as a boy. He brings even more ferocity and pathos than even Momoa. His performance is so compelling in the few scenes he has I could easily wait fifteen to twenty years or so to see a film with him playing the adult Conan, he's that good. Rose McGowan (Charmed), she who would have been Red Sonja, plays the main baddie's socerceress daughter Marique, imbuing a sensuality and wickedness that the production needs. What passes for character development comes primarily from the actors performances and not inherent in the story itself. Missed opportunities abound. For example, Both Conan and Marique have parallel father figure conflicts, yet nieither the scriptwriters nor the director do develop those conflicts in any satsifactory manner, as if such deeper considerations have no place in a sword or sorcery exercise...at least not in this one.
Conan the Barbarian is a popcorn movie, but a very likably fun one. I suspect anyone who has allegeance or fealty to the original film will not enjoy this one quite as much but where that previous production went for heavy-handedness, this one goes for Xbox thrills and pseudo flair. Its cheeky fun will practically ensure future cult status. One may not remember much of the plot much less the sequences, but the girls in the audience will remember Momoa flicking his hair. Sequels have been made on less.