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Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Directed by: Marcus Nispel

Premise: A remake of the 1982 film. A swordsman seeks revenge on the warlord who slaughtered his family.

What Works: Allegedly, there are moviegoers out there who like the work of Michael Bay, Marcus Nispel, and Zack Snyder. If these creatures actually exist, this is the film for them. 

What Doesn’t: The remake of Conan the Barbarian was directed by Marcus Nispel, who had previously directed the 2004 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the 2007 remake of Pathfinder, and the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th. Those projects adapted established and in some cases esteemed motion pictures, ripped out and discarded everything that was special, unique, or artistic about them, and refabricated them as an industrial product. Conan the Barbarian ought to be a fitting project for Nispel since the original was not a great film and its subject feeds into Nispel’s loud, violent, stupid, and quasi-mythological style. But Nispel is a protégé of Michael Bay and he shares Bay’s reductio ad absurdum understanding of everything cinematic. Although the original was not great there was a masculine charm about it, in part because it was an early attempt to do a grown up fantasy film (The Lord of the Rings owes it a debt), and it was a story of a man’s journey from vagabond to ruler. The remake of Conan the Barbarian has none of that. The title character is a muscular swordsman who gets into fights and that is as complicated as the filmmakers understand it. The film ignores anything potentially interesting about its character. The machismo of the original film is discarded and the remake does not replace it with anything. Conan could be a potentially interesting character if he were handled by someone with an understanding of the story’s masculine themes or someone who delights in vulgarity like Eli Roth or Robert Rodriguez. But the Conan of 2011 is not a barbarian; he has been tamed by marketing committees and computer graphics; this remake of Conan the Barbarian ultimately has less in common with the 1982 original and more in common with The Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and Prince of Persia. Because the filmmakers have no understanding of story and their only understanding of myth is that the heroes must have big muscles and even bigger swords, the film is packed from beginning to end with scenes of Conan fighting and killing although it is never clear who he is fighting or why. And because the film never stops with the fighting it gets numbing and even boring halfway through its running time. The mindless focus on action might be excusable if the film had some memorable, unique, or merely interesting fights and stunts but the whole film is executed lazily without a shred of originality or visual flair. In fact, there are quite a few visuals that are ripped off of other films such as The Lord of the Rings, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Star Trek: First Contact.

Bottom Line: With everything that was charming about the original lost, the remake of Conan the Barbarian is a compromised and empty film. Even though its predecessor was not really a great film, the remake is not even good. 

Episode: #354 (September 4, 2011)