Thursday, 15 March 2012

Conan the Barbarian: It's not actually that shit!

I finally succumbed to the phage. I saw the all new Conan film on sale in a video rental store for under a tenner and had to have it. Until that point I had resisted the temptation as, anticipating the shitness, I'd promised myself that I would only buy it once it was under seven quid. I paid eight so once again my utter lack of self-discipline prevailed, as it so often does. That, no doubt, is the reason why I tend to live unhealthily, have a huge library of really quite crap films and only twenty minutes ago nipped out for some ciabatta so I could wolf an enormous sausage sandwich rather than eat the healthy, low GI muesli my erstwhile other half painstakingly sourced for me from an extortionately expensive farm shop (thanks babe). On the whole this personality quirk is a self-destructive defect but I reckon in the right circumstances it could make me a pretty awesome tory MP. A shame then that I consider them all to be a bottom-feeding gang of blood-sucking slags.

So then, Conan the Barbarian. It was evident from the first announcement of the pre-production of this film where it's core values would lay. Robert E Howard, the complex and doomed creator of Conan, never wrote a story with that name, or in fact any that included the name of the titular character in their title. It was coined by Roy Thomas for the popular 1970s comic line and later adopted by John Milius for his legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in 1982. It's a curious phenomenon in modern cinema that we as an audience are considered too stupid and lacking in concentration that stand-alone titles a la the Bond series are no longer considered appropriate. In the case of Conan however the habit was started by the editor of the 1960s paperback collections of Howard's Conan stories and henceforth we read Conan the Warrior, Conan the Freebooter, Conan the Usurper etc. What readers weren't fully aware of at the time was that this editor, L Sprague de Camp, actually had the temerity to rewrite some of Howard's prose (something which has thankfully been ejected from the most recent collections).

The books proved hugely popular, largely thanks to their luridly painted covers by Frank Frazetta (and later by his successors like Melvyn Grant), leading De Camp and fellow pastiche author Lin Carter to pen their own Conan novels. Within twenty or so years a host of other authors had added to the Conan mythology and Howard's original output of just twenty-one short stories (and four fragments), collected in four or five paperback volumes, had been utterly dwarfed by a parade of mostly terrible sequels and prequels to the existing canon (to date their have been a staggering fifty additional Conan novels by a number of authors, of variable quality). The biggest problem with the Milius adaptation, as well as the Marvel comics, is that it is not really a film about Howard's Conan, but a film based upon Frank Frazetta's paintings of Conan. Milius and screenplay writer Oliver Stone rejected any of the Howard background or plots, opting instead for a Conan that grew up a muscled slave and is motivated by a hackneyed 'You killed my famileeeeeeee....' plot device. It was utter bollocks from a purist perpsective but still managed to be massively entertaining thanks to Ahnuld's unique charisma and Milius's bombastic, ultra-violent eye for capturing the sword and sorcery genre. A risible sequel, Conan the Destroyer, veered further from the Howard roots and firmly into Marvel territory and, depite abortive attempts to continue the franchise, Conan disappeared from cinema screens in 1984 (although not from televisions thanks to increasingly lame attempts to exploit the property).

Imagine then the delight of Robert E Howard fans when the announcement was made around 2009 that an all-new big budget Conan movie was in the offing. That very year there had been joy and disappointment in equal measure as Michael J Basset's Solomon Kane movie, based upon the lesser known Howard character, had achieved some success. Bassett's take on Howard themes being a modest success was a good sign, after all it was slick, had a reasonable budget behind it and was a well crafted fantasy film with a pleasingly dirty, muddy and bloody take on a 16th century puritan avenger's quest for redemption in the face of creeping death and evil. Unfortunately it had FUCK ALL to do with Howard's stories. Bassett, seemingly in love with the image of the character, like Milius and Stone before him, ejected the entirety of Howard's actual story output in favour of an invented backstory and a 'You killed my surrogate family and later my faaaaather....' plot device. There is definitely a theme developing here. Is it really impossible to garner emotional investment in a heroic, sword-wielding character without 'You killed my famileeee/faaaather/haaaaamster' angle? Even when the original source material managed quite successfully without it? As it happens, no it isn't impossible.

The very afternoon of the day I bought the all-new Conan the Barbarian, Philippa and I saw John Carter at the cinema. Apart from the utterly distracting and gimmicky 3D, which we did not have the option of eschewing, it was a grand and warmly faithful adaptation of a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, an early 20th century contemporary of Robert E Howard (although older, Princess of Mars predated the bulk of Howard's output by a good fifteen years and was in fact an inspiration on the Texan's approach to adventure stories). Most impressively the film-makers did not feel pressured to preface matters with a cheap gimmick designed to 'short-hand' the protagonist's motivations.

With this freshly in mind I felt justified in blowing my allowable Conan film budget by a whole Earth pound. Despite it having the Ron Perlman 'seal of quality'. And despite the direction being handled by Marcus 'Pathfinder' Nispel and Conan himself being played by the muscle-bound wooden dolt who was Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. And even despite the decision to film it in 3D, ensuring that any number of action scenes will, to the 2D viewer, lack any logic, common sense or believability. None of these things were a challenge to me, although Philippa's reticence to watch it given my previous months of declaring my belief that it will be utter rubbish certainly was. She relented and in the event it wasn't rubbish, in fact the first half was really encouraging, despite the 'You killed my faaaaather...' hook. The father in this case being Ron Perlman. Who will literally be in absolutely anything. I should point out here, once again, that there is never any expicit mention in any Robert E Howard story of Conan's father, let alone the manner of his death. What we do know is that Conan was a formidable fighter, even as a youth, and an acknowledged, respected and battle hardened warrior by fifteen. In this respect this film gets Conan the character right from the offing. Our introduction to young Conan sees him brutally dispatch a number of villains in a breathless and exhilirating display of prowess. At this point, very early in the movie, my hopes for the film soared. I even forgave the death of Perlman/villain introduction and, once I saw Jason Momoa as grown Conan for the first time I was pleasantly surprised. He looks good, muscled yet lean and athletic, has an engaging manner and raw charisma, and is believable as a shrewd operator. All the things a good Conan should be and the polar opposite in many ways from what we have seen before. This Conan has already had adventures, is a seasoned sailor and leader of men and has a set of pirate buddies to fall back on. Great stuff. Unfortunately things steadily begin to fall apart thereafter. The villain is appropriately villainous but lacks any real believability in his motives and his crazy magic, once implemented, seems to do precisely nothing. Rose McGowan's turn as his bizarre, witchy daughter has more substance but she is sparsely used and eventually falls as a foil for Conan's love interest, a female monk whose name and general value to the story I have managed to forget already. There are some fun fights here and there, although the violence never lives up to the promise and sheer viscerality of the first half hour, and the overall look of the film is rather attractive, if somewhat generically fantastic. Sadly, in the third act it becomes largely a dark, cave-bound affair and the final confrontation between Conan and his father-killing nemesis is a big disappointment, concentrating as it does on exploiting the 3D gimmick rather than a suitable, cinematic climax to what began as a fairly epic and bloody affair. The sooner 3D just fucks off the better cinema will be.

In conclusion then Conan the Barbarian succumbs to the same pitfalls of previous adaptations, but it does manage to be its own film. It is not a remake of Milius's Conan and, in Jason Momoa, manages to create a likeable Conan character that is as close to the Howard original as we have yet seen, but it is not all the way there. As a hard core Howard fan I am not nearly as disappointed as I expected to be and there are signs that, should another installment get made, this franchise could go some way to really doing justice to Howard's vision.

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