Marcus Nispel’s silly violent fantasy epic Conan the Barbarian is Hollywood’s second attempt at building a franchise based on pulp author Robert E. Howard’s signature character. The first yielded two films of diminishing quality – 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and 1984’s Conan the Destroyer – and is best remembered for launching the career of future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger whose Austrian accent in the films is so thick as to render the bulk of his dialogue unintelligible.
Playing the title role in the update is Jason Momoa whose muscles aren’t quite as gargantuan as his predecessor’s but whose line-readings are at the very least comprehensible. (His own accent betrays hints of Hawaiian surfer-dude.) Momoa is most famous for his recent turn as a Khal Drogo on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones a far superior work of hard-R sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Thrones like Conan the Barbarian boasts bare breasts and beheadings galore but beneath the sex and savagery lies real intelligence. All the titillating elements are icing on the cake for a series founded on compelling characters and ingenious storytelling
Not so much with Conan the Barbarian. The film begins with a lengthy prologue inexplicably narrated by Morgan Freeman that briefs us on the essential details of the film’s mythology – and you’d best be paying attention because the ensuing film treats story and character as so many enemies to be vanquished. The opening scene announces the movie’s savage B-movie ethos thusly: When Conan’s very pregnant mother is injured in battle (barbarians don’t get maternity leave) his father (Ron Perlman) delivers his son via an impromptu battlefield Cesarean photographed in graphic detail. A warrior is born.
The plot involves a grown-up Conan gunning for revenge against Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) the sorcerer-chieftan who killed his father and obliterated his tribe the Cimmerians when he was just a boy. Conan is something of a rock star in the marauding world his bloodlust not so all-consuming that he can’t stop to enjoy a flagon of mead with the odd topless slave babe. His credo is cogently expressed as “I live I love I slay I am content” – words to live by if there ever were.
On the path to vengeance Conan links up with a runaway nun Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whose special blood is required by Khalar to resurrect his dead wife. Or maybe it’s needed to conquer the Kingdom of Hyboria. Whatever. The attraction between Conan and Tamara is instantaneous and powerful – what girl can resist such charming lines as “Woman come here ” and “You look like a harlot”? Films like this can usually get by with one female speaking role but Conan the Barbarian offers a second: Marique (Rose McGowan) a scheming goth-witch whose affection for her father Khalar is clearly beyond familial. The role was originally written for a man.
Nispel’s previous films include two horror remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th) and the barely releasable Pathfinder. He directs with casual disregard for context rushing hurriedly from one bloody set-piece to the next coherence be damned. Action is paramount in Conan the Barbarian; the film is positively bursting with it leaving little room for anything that might engage us on any level beyond “guilty pleasure.” Some of the action is memorable some of it tedious but the violence is inspired. In one scene while questioning a man whose nose he’d hacked off just a few frames earlier Conan jams his finger into the man’s exposed nose-hole causing it to spew icky clear fluid. Now that is some enhanced interrogation.
At the height of his writing fame Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) becomes captivated by a small story in the New York Times about a family of four murdered in their Kansas farmhouse by a shotgun at close range. The diminutive bespectacled author known up to this point for Breakfast at Tiffanys and writing about the New York social scene heads out to Kansas for The New Yorker magazine with his assistant Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) who would later write To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee helps Capote fit into the small town that is rocked by the murders and introduces Capote to the townsfolk including the investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) who is hot on the trail of the killers Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Lee keeps Capote in check as does his editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) and longtime partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). But Capote is transfixed by Smith and ends up spending a lot of time with him in jail after the trial. Inevitably the small Kansas town tragedy leads Capote to his definitive work In Cold Blood becoming an obsession for the self-indulgent author. Capote seemingly wants to help get Smith and Hickock an appeal after they are convicted to hang for the murders of the Clutter family. But truly he is more concerned with himself. He lies cajoles and fools himself as he toils over the book. He tells people rather callously that he hopes their appeals will end so he could have an ending to the book. And when they do hang Capote is there. But he never completes another book ever again.
After critics saw Hoffman's performance at the Toronto International Film Festival one of the prevailing thoughts is that he's this year's Jamie Foxx. He's the man to beat for the Best Actor Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of the irritatingly gifted writer who could get anyone to talk about anything. Hoffman is known for getting into his roles rather deeply but he can go overboard and has been known to milk his parts to the point of stealing attention away from everything else in the movie (think Cold Mountain or Red Dragon). But for Capote he's expected to be over the top. Not only will Hoffman most assuredly get a nomination but the movie could be a Best Picture contender as well as nominations for Keener Collins and Dan Futterman for the screenplay. Another nearly hidden but precious role is handled nicely by Amy Ryan as Marie Dewey the Kansas housewife who coos over Capote's visit to their community and ends up giving him the credibility to gain access to the mindset of the town.
Taking this true story to the big screen is certainly a challenge when you have the classic film In Cold Blood out there but Capote fills in a lot of the gaps that the previous film--and the book--leave out. And it is also telling that there are two films being been made about Capote during the time he wrote In Cold Blood. Have You Heard? starring Brit Toby Jones as the diminutive writer and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee is due to be released in 2006. But Capote won the race--and could very well dampen the other's chances. Director Bennett Miller is old school chums with writer/actor Futterman and Hoffman--and Capote is obviously a labor of love between them. Futterman may get too wordy in a few of the scenes especially between Capote and Smith but under Miller's guidance they are tense moments nonetheless confined to a jail cell. Futterman had access to the actual letters between Capote and Smith and used them word for word in the script. Without comment Miller offers ugly sides to all the major characters and shows all of their duplicity in a stark and frank way. The film has a documentary feel to it sticking to the facts and avoiding any preachiness. It offers a window into the world of New Journalism and the poetic license seen in creative non-fiction and fictional biographies so prevalent today.