Saturday, August 20, 2011

Conan the Barbarian - Review

Sword and Sorcery tends to embarrass itself at the movies. The genre is simultaneously deathly serious and silly beyond all reason so it's easy to see how that might all go wrong. It seems less ridiculous if you're reading the story in a book. I don't know why, it just does.

So making a new Conan is a risk. It's a risk because any movie in the genre is a risk. It's also a risk because the original Conan movies were pretty darn good and who can top Arnold? Conan IS Arnold and Arnold IS Conan. It's a risk because too many people already know what Conan is and what Conan ought to be. Everyone has preconceptions the new movie has to live up to.

Well, I think they did good.

No, it's not brilliant. It's not as great a movie as, say, Iron Man, but then nothing is. What it is is solid good fun.

The plot is the plot to Conan and nothing particularly new. His village is slaughtered and his father is killed, he advocates independence and individual dignity, he glories in slaughter while he roams the world searching for the men who killed his father.

The world is Conan's world. There are still cities of thieves and barren wastelands and everyone is either predator or prey. The villain still has overblown and outrageously unappealing plans to gain ultimate power so he can trash the place even farther. No one is building anything and as far as I can tell no one is producing food for anyone. The first time I saw the first movie I understood that the economy did not work. But, oh well. It's a fantasy.

Still, they've added a level of sophistication to the world that was less apparent in the earlier movies. (Confession: I've not read the books, nor the comic books, where I'm told that Conan is far far from a muscle-bound dummy.) We see Conan as a boy and I think that those sequences support the idea that he always was something rather special and rather frightening.

The political landscape is one where there are slaves and slaves masters, and then there are barbarians. Conan divides women into the categories of "warrior" and "whore." In his village woman were warriors and respected, which emphasizes the divide between the free barbarian tribes and those people under subjugation. The sub-villains are barbarian leaders who submitted their own people to dominion.

Conan himself is portrayed as clever and rather shrewd, even if it's mostly implied between sword battles. In keeping with modern sensibilities about atmosphere and sanitation, everyone looks rather in need of a bath and the battles include copious blood splashing about. Actually, come to think of it, someone actually *took* a bath in the movie. They had a tub on the deck of the pirate ship. Conan actually had some body hair as well... pit hair and some on his chest. I was specifically looking for this because body-builders tend to Nair their entire bodies and the norm for barbarian movies has been slick hairlessness, as if barbarian warriors waxed. So, yay, hair! The ladies still all had nice make up, but that's okay.

Bottom line... they did Conan proud. This is good, solid fun that no one will have to pretend later that they had nothing to do with. I'm looking forward to the sequel.


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