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.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.