As I slide inexorably towards my mid-30’s, I tend to look back on the films of my youth with an expected - if not somewhat rose-colored – sense of nostalgia. These past several years, it seems that Hollywood has been sharing that same reminiscence. If I still had the naiveté of my youth, then perhaps I just might have been looking forward to this sudden resurgence of remakes.
What Gen-Xer wouldn’t want the opportunity to revisit – maybe not the memories - but at least the stories that we were initially charmed by in the first place? And judging by what we’ve all seen, it’s been a mixed bag at best. That being said, you’ll have to forgive me if I find Tinsel Town’s motives somewhat suspect. This year alone has been quite an 80’s revival, with remake offerings such as Arthur and Fright Night with other 80’s cult faves Red Dawn, Footloose, and The Thing slated for release this year. In my past reviews, I have discussed ad nauseum about the merits of this recent wave of remakes so I’ll spare you my diatribe here. (editor’s note: click on the Movies tab for more of these ramblings…)
Now the latest film to hitch a ride aboard the remake express is Conan the Barbarian. A film unforgettably brought to us nigh thirty years ago by none other than the muscles from Brussels himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It didn’t matter that Sir Ah-nuld’s acting was stiff as a board or that you needed a set of adamantium claws to cut through his accent those days. Not only did it become a star-making role for the relative unknown former Mr. Olympia, the original film went on to gross what would be the equivalent of over $100 million box-office by today’s inflation. In other words, despite the film’s scathing reviews and indisputable camp factor (whose idea was it to put a wig on James Earl ‘Darth Vader’ Jones anyway?), the original Conan the Barbarian turned out to be a blockbuster by anyone’s standards.
So thus begs the question: Can another relative unknown re-launch a beloved franchise? Can Jason Momoa (Stargate: Atlantis, HBO’s Game of Thrones) step up to the plate and fill the loincloth vacated over twenty year ago by Schwarzenegger? Clearly not an impossible task, considering that another remake proved it quite possible just last summer with The Karate Kid - a remake that not only changed major plot points from the original, but also changed the race of the main character. By the way, Karate Kid (2010) grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million dollars domestically alone.
So does Momoa’s Barbarian conquer the screen? Sadly no, it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, Momoa is just fine as the vengeful Cimmerian. In fact, if I had to be 100% honest, I’d have to say that Momoa fits the part better than Arnold did. Even though Momoa may lack in stature compared to Schwarzenegger, he more than makes up for it in brooding intensity and fighting ferocity. I’d easily rank his performance as Conan (in terms of screen presence) as compelling as Leonidas and Beowulf. The only problem is, despite 90 million dollars, an impressive cast, and ridiculously superfluous 3-D, the film cannot quite find anything significant to do. What’s even more disappointing is that Conan had nothing new to offer to the character’s mythology or the franchise - a fact that made this particular excursion ultimately hollow. Pretty to look at, sure. Gory violence, you betcha. But hollow nonetheless.
As I mentioned earlier, I do feel that this version of Conan was truer to Robert E. Howard’s (Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja) text, but the storytelling in the film fell flat underneath the weight of its own misguided ambitions; ambitions that manifested themselves in the form of pointless CGI, contrived ‘been there done that’ battle sequences and the ‘won’t this look cool’ slap-on 3-D. If the filmmakers were truly concerned with adding more dimensions, then perhaps they should have started with some character development.
Joining Momoa on this less than fantastic voyage is the radiant Rose McGowan (Planet Terror, WB’s Charmed), the always reliable Ron Perlman (Hellboy, FX’s Sons of Anarchy) and Rachel Nichols. (G.I. Joe, P2). Now no one person is to blame in particular - everyone showed up to set and delivered their lines – but the charm of the original, as cheesy and campy as it was, is all but devoid in the remake. Conan is a badass to be sure and he has all the suitable amounts of childhood tragedy. I just felt like I was riding in the rear car of a rollercoaster assembled, a la Frankenstein, from about half a dozen other roller coasters.
Ron Perlman portrays his ill-fated father. Unfortunately for Perlman fans, while he adds undeniable screen cred, he doesn’t get much screen time before he’s dispatched. It’s not hard to see why Mickey Rouke backed out of the role, trading sword and sorcery for the sword and sandals flick, The Immortals, also due out later this year. Avatar’s Stephen Lang plays the film’s antagonist, Khalar Zym, who is definitely cashing in on maniacal bad guy roles. The love interest, for lack of a better term, is depicted by the voluptuous Rachel Nichols, who is the vestal virgin and object of Zym’s affection. Why? Blood of a virgin, blah blah blah, fulfill my destiny, blah blah, the throne will be mine, blah. We’ve all seen that story a million times haven’t we?
The only who looks like they’re really having any fun is Rose McGowan. Rose plays Lang’s witch priestess daughter, Marique, who’s nearly unrecognizable beneath some amazing make-up, and provides this sword and sorcery flick with its only real sorcery. Oddly enough, McGowan was lined up to star in the remake of Red Sonja a couple of years back, produced by her Planet Terror director Robert Rodriguez. The film got stuck in Development Hell and Rose eventually had to abandon the role due to an injury she received while making Planet Terror. Ironic? You be the judge.
I wish I could say that Conan was just some ill-conceived cinematic abortion and be done with it, but I can’t. I wish I could say that it was just poorly directed, but it was not that either. Director Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Friday the 13th (2009), who seems to be making a career out of doing remakes, is a capable enough director who is quite adept at handling action and violence. I walked into this flick wanting to like it; I just didn’t, and judging by the most recent box-office tallies, I’m not alone.
I had the same exact issue with another recent high-concept fantasy 80’s film remake, Clash of the Titans, which I felt made very similar missteps in its execution: ramped up special effects, respectable cast and burdened with the unnecessary saddle of 3-D.
Being epic just for the sake of being epic rarely pays off nowadays, regardless of whether it’s a summer film or not. When it works, such as the case with War of the Worlds or Ocean’s Eleven, it’s pretty damn impressive. But when it doesn’t, buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Anyone remember, King Kong, Godzilla, Burton’s Planet of the Apes, The Day the Earth Stood Still? And even if a film is epic, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be soulless. In as much as remakes don’t need to try to out-do their predecessors. So take some of your own advice Hollywood: if you build it, they will come. Just make sure that what you build is someplace that fans, both new and old, will want to spend some time in.