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.
Set in late-‘60s/early-‘70s Harlem Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a relative nobody an underling driver existing well beneath his gangster mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). But when Bumpy dies that all changes. Likewise street cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is small-time best known for having turned over a boatload of found cash out of the goodness of his heart. But in a way his status also begins to ascend around the time of Bumpy’s death. And so Lucas and Roberts both quickly rising through the ranks of their respective law-breaking and abiding hierarchies are on a collision course—each without the knowledge the other even existed. Frank doesn’t waste any time asserting himself once Bumpy dies and he will go on to become the only kind of drug peddler with a shot at staying power: opportunistic ruthless and not one to consume his own product. Lucas’ get-rich-quick scheme of importing Vietnamese heroin via U.S. soldiers’ caskets eliminates the middleman and nets him millions. But as is always the case one lapse in vigilance puts him at risk and Roberts is there waiting. Behold moviegoers the mother lode of acting duos—only we saw Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe together on screen 12 years ago in Virtuosity. Oh well. Truth be told the short time in which they share scenes has nothing on its buildup thereof but these two are a marvel in their own separate arcs. Denzel is the gaudier of them relishing his Scarface-sized villain even more than he did Alonzo in Training Day. It’s a top-notch performance to add to a career full of them and there are a plethora of scenes from which to choose for his Oscar reel. Crowe meanwhile isn’t quite as riveting as he was a few months ago in 3:10 to Yuma but that's partly because cinematic good guys always finish second in terms of watchability. And when the climactic confrontation nears Crowe dials up the tension a few notches. The marquee names though are but the tip of the iceberg in this star-studded affair which also boasts the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who recently co-starred with Denzel in Inside Man) Cuba Gooding Jr. Common Carla Gugino RZA John Hawkes Ted Levine and the legendary Ruby Dee. But Gangster’s (no longer hidden) gem is Josh Brolin currently enjoying a major resurgence. With apologies to Denzel Brolin’s deliciously hateful corrupt cop might be the best performance here. Ridley Scott--semi-legendary for his sci-fi (Alien Blade Runner) action (Gladiator) and feminism (Thelma and Louise)--is not the first director who would come to mind for a gritty talky urban period drama but he displays unforeseen versatility with Gangster. Nothing feels inauthentic here from the look of Vietnam-era New York City and its inhabitants to the documentary-style feel of the sparse action and it’s a surprisingly restrained effort from Scott that allows for such realism. Other filmmakers might’ve been tempted to deflect Gangster into shoot-‘em-up territory with say an action-centric take on the size of villainry possessed by Lucas but Scott does well in staying true to what this story is and is not about. And while there’s nothing especially groundbreaking or unforgettable about his effort Scott keeps the two and a half hours pretty compelling. Gangster’s unsung hero however is its real subject Lucas and his true story even more so than the one adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) from Marc Jacobson’s New York Times article. It’s a fascinating tale of everything that makes for good movies—race class money drugs corruption—brought to the screen vividly by a director who could potentially be in line for his first Oscar.