Notice how the title says “in the nose” rather than “up the nose”? Well, that is because Marcus Nispel’s CONAN does not merely thrust a finger up the nostril of the viewer but slices the goddamn flesh and cartilage protrusion off of one’s face and proceeds to force its finger into the newly formed, gaping, fleshy cavity that results from such an action. And this also happens to be a scene in the film and that very finger thrust into the nose of an unhappy villain belongs to our title hero. Our very angry, very misogynistic and all too shirtless title hero.
The aforementioned scene could have found a home in a delightfully sleazy, 1970s era, American trashterpiece (and perhaps a similar scene does) but this is not such a film. This is the type of moviemaking that is the antithesis of gleeful 70s sleaze. It is over-produced, under-developed and source material basterdizing pulp. And not the type of pulp that is aware that it is such a thing. And that, perhaps, is the biggest problem with CONAN. Amidst all of the plentiful dismemberments, beheadings, CG sand ghost demon monster assholes and enough woman bashing to make Oprah feel a need to come back to daytime TV, there is no sense that the film is aware of exactly what it is (or, more so, what it should be). No, Nispel clearly and unfortunately had bigger aspirations and he comes nowhere close to reaching them.
CONAN starts off in grand, post-LOTR epic-movie scope. We are treating to daunting geographical vistas, some above average production design and wardrobe work and even some Morgan Freeman-lite narration work. This is not the grimy, John Milius crafted landscape we became familiar with in 1982. It is established mere minutes in that Nispel WILL make a bigger film than Milius did and he will do so at the expense of any sort of coherent narrative, regardless of if Morgan Freeman has the honor of delivering what little of it there is or not.
Rather than feeling like any sort of extension of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) and/or CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), which were created in a time where sword & sorcery films had an audience (and a rather awful music scene) to support them, CONAN 2K11 feels more like a result of post-300 and/or GLADIATOR-esque cinema. In other words, it layers on the cheese with the best (read: worst) of them yet it maintains an air that feels contradictory. Where GLADIATOR, at its most base narrative, was a B-movie with an absurdly large budget and high profile cast/director that knew how to excel the pedestrian material into an Oscar darling (note: this is not an endorsement of the film, I am not a fan), CONAN has the same B-movie tropes yet rather than aspiring to be an awards contender, it seems intent on having blockbuster clout. Nispel has rather obviously crafted this film in an attempt to make the character appeal to the lowest common denominator of the general public: he is attractive (I guess…), muscular, has long hair, carries a sword and speaks in mostly vowels. Oh, and he fucking HATES women. Of course, these are many of the traits that made the Schwarzenegger iteration of the character so beloved, but there was a sincerity (and perhaps a sympathy) that his portrayal of our barbarian hero that is all but lost here, and instead replaced with a level of vanity and cynicism that would not be out of place in a film helmed by Michael Bay, and by a female character at that.
The character aside, where CONAN really fails is in telling a half-decent story. I’ll admit, I don’t go into a film featuring a dude wielding a big sword expecting some David Mamet dialogue or clever plot wankage, but I would like to have something coherent to pay attention to. Nispel delivers a fairly standard revenge tale that is filled with plot holes, contrivances and missed opportunities. The first portion of the film focuses on Conan as a child and is easily the most exciting part of the movie. There are even some genuine suspenseful moments and the fight choreography is pretty nice (which may be a testament to young Conan’s performance over the android that is Jason Momoa). It all falls apart once the head baddie and his daughter, played by Rose McGowan, start a search for the “pure blood” who is some chick that Conan starts dragging around and telling to shut up a lot. The reasons for this search are barely explained, if at all, nor is the reason that she is pure or her ancestry or much of anything for that matter. It is all an excuse to have Conan travel from one place to another with different groups of people and break a lot of bodies into a bloody mess. If that is all you want, enjoy it as that is all that you will get.
The only truly enjoyable aspect of this shoddy attempt at telling the most simple of stories, is how goddamn absurd it ends up getting. For a film that really has no idea what it is trying to be, it tries a lot of different shit. When Conan is not killing other warriors he faces off against CG sand creatures that appear to be rejected SFX tests from THE MUMMY RETURNS and some kind of fucked up Cthulhu wannabe sea monster. What is even better about these moments is how ill explained they are. The sand creatures are a result of evil McGowan’s supposed magic powers in which she is able to blow on sand and make that shit come to life. Right. I’m not buying that. The sea monster? Well, someone else can try and explain that one to me as I’m pretty sure the film did not. It came and went and that was that. I will admit that it looked pretty nifty for what the film probably cost to make though, at least more so than the absolutely laughable sand demon monster guys.
If you have read this far then you should have rather easily come to the conclusion that I did not enjoy my time spent with CONAN. It was too goddamn long, incoherent and, well, boring for me. It covered no new ground, did nothing fun or exciting with the character and relied on only the most excessive aspects of the source material. I’m not one to be easily offended and misogyny may have a place in art and/or entertainment (I welcome all hate mail for that statement), but it is not justified or even funny here. Conan repeatedly pushes women, tells them to shut up and even physically forces them to. There is ample T&A, nearly all supplied by women who appear as slaves (or, as the credits refer to them: Topless Wenches), but it is treated as set decoration. The 1982 film featured plenty of the Three B’s: boobs, blood and beasts. But it did so with a sincerity that is nowhere to be found here. If CONAN can exist as anything, it is a lesson that merely making a bloody, booby filled movie does not mean you have done the original, R-rated film justice it means that you didn’t pay attention to what made that film successful in the first place.