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.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Longfellow Deeds (played by Adam Sandler) is the owner of a popular pizzeria in the small town of Mandrake Falls N.H. He is a seemingly happy and well-adjusted guy whose main pastime involves writing greeting cards he hopes will one day be published by a big conglomerate like Hallmark. His enchanting life all but comes to a halt however when a corporate honcho named Anderson (Peter Gallagher) informs Deeds that his long lost relative Preston Blake has left him an inheritance of $40 billion a chain of media outlets a football team and a basketball team. Deeds heads to Manhattan to collect his endowment which includes a Diff'rent Strokes-style Park Avenue penthouse and befriends his late uncle's butler Emilio (John Turturro). When Deeds falls for tabloid TV producer Babe Bennett (played by Winona Ryder) who is posing as a demure school nurse he inevitably gets his heart broken and realizes that a 200-mile-an-hour lifestyle isn't for him. Mr. Deeds is a middle-of-the-road movie with a couple of good laughs most of which don't come from Sandler.
Sandler's portrayal of Deeds is peculiar. You would expect this small-town guy to have the same qualities that Gary Cooper had in the 1936 version but Sandler's depiction is dimwitted rather than polite and his character has a disturbing violent streak. His seems to channel his inadequacies into landing his fist in people's faces. But Sandler's character is not only mean tempered he's humorless too. Ryder (Autumn in New York) cunning Babe Bennett on the other hand did have a timeless quality and it is nice to see her acting goofy for a change. The script didn't call on her to say too much unfortunately and her character ends up being a caricature of a 1930s career woman. Surprisingly Turturro's (Collateral Damage) character the loyal butler with a strange habit of appearing and disappearing from a room generates the most laughs. Watch for cameo appearances by Sandler's buddy Rob Schneider and another by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Director Steven Brill who also directed Sandler in Little Nicky delivers a relatively flat and uninspiring New York City: in the scene where Babe and her coworker fake a mugging for example the street appears deserted rather than bustling. To make matters worse the bland visuals are littered with clichéd fish-out-of-water situations including Deeds' fascination with the huge apartment's acoustics and its vast housekeeping staff. The most disturbing aspect of the film is that after deciding that happiness is more important than money Deeds doesn't do anything worthwhile with the dough. OK he does give it all the United Negro College Fund but a gigantic plot hole seems to indicate that the organization will have to send it back. The point is Deeds never tries to do the right thing with the money; he just wants to wash his hands of it.