The man behind Conan was a shy, Texan pulp author with a weak heart named Robert E. Howard, who resembled either David Costabile, or a young Michael Lonsdale, depending on which snapshot you look at. Howard, going by contemporary accounts, may have suffered from depression. He maintained a lengthy correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, and he killed himself at the age of 30 when his mother sank into a coma after a long battle with tuberculosis. Outside the circle of pulp-fiction aficionados, we generally know Howard’s work from three Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles from the 1980s: Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonja. The three share the same format, more or less: a muscle-bound hero, a damsel in distress, a greedy, powerful villain, colorful sidekicks, an elaborate landscape set in Howard’s fictional “Hyborian Age.”
The 2011 film called Conan the Barbarian seems to have little interest in ’30s pulp stories, and only a little more in cheesy ’80s epics. It emerges as another figurine in the ongoing retooling of 1980s pop touchstones for know-nothing 2000s consumers, following The Smurfs, Transformers, TRON, The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, to name only a few. Producers and promotional media tend to agree that these are not “remakes” or “sequels” but “reboots,” but a reboot seems to be nothing more than a remake of the idea of the remake. The only thing that seems different is the illusion of “something new” that’s now a mandatory part of the upsell between a dying franchise and its supposed resurrection. That, and the 3D surcharge that nobody seems to be enjoying, unless you look at the grosses.
Even considered in those terms, the re-whatevered Conan feels unexpectedly low-rent, even with its multimillion-dollar backdrops and earsplitting, rumbling soundtrack and—presumably post-converted—3D imagery. It’s a crap movie that seems to have come by its crappiness honestly—the downtown version of Clash of the Titans, with no evidence of improvement, but swaying with a drunken confidence to get freak-nasty and give grown-up ticket buyers their money’s worth.
Let me be clear: It’s so, so not a good film. Ron Perlman coddles a rubbery, animatronic infant in the first scene. The plot makes no sense. Stephen Lang is Goro from Mortal Kombat, under an assumed name. There’s some creepy, incestuous thing going on between him and his daughter, played by Rose McGowan, who at long last has been transformed into the image of her former fiancé, Marilyn Manson. Conan’s love interest is played by Rachel Nichols, whose main talent seems to be looking like a very beautiful moron, regardless of circumstances. At the helm is German music video director Marcus Nispel, who cut his rebooting teeth on 2003’s reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was followed by his 2007 reboot of Pathfinder and his 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th, all of which should tell you everything you need to know about his Conan’s absence of visual clarity and indifference to awful dialogue.
Still, one thing it cannot be accused of is faking the funk. Conan’s characters, none more than the boulder-titted hero himself, accept any pretext for carving up flesh and hacking off limbs. The movie seems downright quaint and early ’70s with bare (female!) breasts and an unapologetically promiscuous hero. As mega-budget productions like these go, you have to tip your hat when they resemble Hobo with a Shotgun as much as Sucker Punch—and if McGowan’s character seems only to wait around for an opportune moment to pay homage to Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, well, that has to be worth something. And if you walk out of the film at any point, at least stick around after the Lord of the Rings-thieving prologue to see something truly novel: a CGI fetus Conan in a CGI womb being attacked by a CGI sword. No movie is so bad that such things can’t bring a smile to the hardened cinephile, weary of bland, safe mediocrities of the age of PG-13.