Marcus Nispel’s baby-oiled, blood-slick Conan the Barbarian remake kicks off with a whopper of an origin story: Conan’s father (Ron Perlman) uses a dirty dagger to perform an emergency battlefield Caesarian on his wife, yanking out a howling infant in the middle of the scrum. The mother, who doesn’t even flinch, says, “I name him Conan.” Then she dies. Unfortunately, nothing else in the film is as barbarically batshit as that. And when the word “barbarian” is in the title, somebody better make with the unapologetic violence.
After his birth, we get a glimpse of Teen Conan, who seems to have learned a lot from Dad: He bashes bad guys’ skulls against rocks until chunks of skull go flying — and the vicious action is suitably nasty. But when Conan grows into a skull-cracking adult, his brutish demeanor mellows, and he even flirts with respectability. He’s played by the beefy Jason Momoa (the barbarian from Game of Thrones); he looks fearsome enough, but he speaks better English than Arnold Schwarzenegger did in 1982, which is problematic. Schwarzenegger came off as a convincing, guttural brute when he said his goal in life was to “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” When Momoa says, “I live. I love. I slay,” he delivers the line with a fluid command of the English language that seems altogether inappropriate and not at all monstrous.
The film follows Conan’s quest to avenge his father and the destruction of his village, but despite all the limb-hacking, throat-slitting, and brain-matter-splattering, this barbarian is a peach. He may stuff a piece of cloth in a woman’s mouth and call her his “property,” but, for the most part, he seems to be an almost absurdly well-behaved Robin Hood, freeing slaves, charming the ladies, and back-slapping fellow psychopaths. When he winks at a hot slave girl (Victoria’s Secret model and former Brett Ratner girlfriend Alina Puscau), she bounds willingly into his arms (apparently, all that time spent as a caged-up sex slave left her horny). His awkward romance with a “pureblood” nun is the stuff of an opposites-attract rom-com. The adaptation’s blend of disgusting violence and principled behavior hews too closely to Robert E. Howard’s absurd pulp originals, in which this uneducated, bloodthirsty barbarian came to stand for some knightly code of conduct — less a wild man than a prince in exile.
Conan’s cuddly nobility and battlefield barbarity just don’t jibe, and the remake might have been better served had the film ditched the half-assed political correctness and gone full-on barbarian. In the film’s credits, the character list has seven Topless Wenches and eight Nuns. If you’re going to make a nasty action flick about a retrograde warrior, you need to push that ratio more aggressively toward Topless Wench. Horror-porn films and art-house rampages like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising have ratcheted up our tolerance for gore to such a level that Conan’s megaplex-ready violence seems too safe and controlled. It needs more disgusting killings: spilled intestines, a few more severed appendages, perhaps a castration or two. Unfortunately, like so many action flicks, the new Conan hovers in that uncanny valley between camp and horror: wild enough to titillate for a few fun fight sequences, too safe to leave much of an impression.