Let us pause to reflect on the resurgence of the "R"-rated movie, 1980s variety. In recent years, raunchy sex comedies and gory slasher films have become not uncommon again, but action films have, for the most part, remained resolutely PG-13, the better to draw in younger audiences. If one is to say anything in favor of the new Conan the Barbarian reboot, it's that someone—presumably director Marcus Nispel—insisted on an "R" rating.
This should come as no surprise, since Nispel basically made his name on horror reboots (Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and his new sword and sorcery outing is ultraviolent, no question. But the beheadings and skewerings and noggins cracked open like coconuts (all with festive blood or brain-matter splatter in weak-tea 3D) here share the frame with action sequences that wouldn't look out of place in PG-13 fare like Robin Hood, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Unfortunately the new film compares unfavorably to any of these predecessors and, more to the point, the 1982 Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and scripted by John Milius and Oliver Stone.
Milius and Stone took a more serious, if not exactly reverent, approach to Robert E. Howard's original pulp stories and their mythical fantasy universe, whereas the new Conan is crass, witless, and literally laughable, approached solely as a product and with no seeming aspiration to genre artfulness. The new "braintrust" of writers (Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood) is not to be trusted, and Jason Momoa, as Conan, makes the director's job a hopelessly uphill battle. Momoa, also a model, proves that he's more of a poser than an actor: he's a cocked eyebrow, a squinty tic, and an assortment of bulges in search of a performance.
As narrator Morgan Freeman informs us, Conan is "a child born of battle" into "a time both bleak and brutal." In the absurd opening movement, Cimmerian boy Conan proves his mettle to his father (Ron Perlman) by single-handedly taking on several adult enemy natives (for some reason emitting loudly mixed animal growls). Conan begins to learn the ways of the warrior and attempts to become worthy of the sword, but dear old dad gets himself slain by magic-power-hungry warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang of Avatar, classing up the joint) and his sorceress daughter (Rose McGowan, sporting the latest in Freddy Krueger finger claws from the Barbarian Hot Topic), triggering a revenge-driven plot once Conan grows up to have pecs.
So this Conan is one part hero myth, one part fantasy with supernatural magic, and several parts "that guy's evil and deserves to die, preferably by being hacked to bits with this big sword." There are sidetracks establishing the Hyborian Age anti-hero's rep as a thief, and what will go down in history as the funniest love-scene break ever to blight a movie, precipitated by Conan's apparently catnip catch-phrase "I live, I love, I slay. I am content." Ah, if it were only that simple, Conan buddy.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]