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.
Wonder what Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) was like as a boy? Well even as a youngster he had a keen interest in (eating) human anatomy but as we see in Hannibal Rising he wasn’t born a cannibal. It all started in World War II Lithuania where a young Hannibal is left an orphan after he watches his whole family die at the hands of war criminals. In the eight years that pass only the hope of revenge has kept him afloat. After escaping the orphanage at which he was bullied Hannibal finds his uncle’s Japenese widow Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) who lives in a similarly lonesome state. They strike up a very close bond in which she helps him tap into the memory of his family’s death--most importantly and painfully his young sister’s--while he more or less let’s her live. Not the case for those who wronged him but hot on Hannibal’s murderous trail is a French inspector (Dominic West) who both sympathizes with and greatly fears the madman-child Lecter. And given that Anthony Hopkins has thrice played a grown-up Hannibal and Brian Cox once everyone should know how this prequel ends. With Anthony Hopkins having lent his unmistakable visage to his now iconic Lecter no actor would be given a fair chance to do the same for a young Hannibal. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) often tries his darndest to contort his makeup-scarred face so that it alone will frighten viewers but an actor either looks like a psychopath or doesn’t; Hopkins with the utmost respect looks like a straightjacket escapee whereas Ulliel looks like an over-exerting actor. Forced scowl aside he’s creepy as a near mute in the movie but it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the young man who would go on to become Hopkins’ Lecter. Li (Miami Vice) looks incredible and easily 20 years younger than her actual age. She does what she can with her mysterious and emotionally stunted Lady Murasaki but it’s an odd character to begin with. In a supporting role Englishman West (HBO’s The Wire) adds a needed subtle performance and fits well alongside the past lawmen in the Hannibal series and Rhys Ifans as a villain continues his trend of unpredictable role choices. Hannibal Rising is astonishingly the fifth installment in a franchise that truly lost its luster after Silence of the Lambs and the neglected Manhunter. Of course the franchise is only kaput if the latest doesn’t make enough money but this should have been stopped years ago—at least as a movie series. As novels the saga is much more sustainable because author Thomas Harris who makes his Lecter screenplay debut with Rising can get away with murder (no pun intended). But while Rising is far from over the top director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Harris can’t make the movie nearly as tense as any of its novel or film predecessors. Webber is an editor-turned-director and it shows: The film is masterfully shot by Ben Davis (Layer Cake) and put together by the director but once Webber gets down to the movie’s blood and guts (pun intended this time) he can’t deliver much excitement at all. Ultimately Webber takes his restraint too far.