Conan The Barbarian (2011)


Nu Image Films/ Millenium Films/Paradox Entertainment

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Produced by Avi Lerner and Boaz Davidson

Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood

Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard

I had high hopes for this reboot/re-imagining of Robert E. Howard’s magnificent creation in the first five minutes of the movie because we see for ourselves what Howard wrote in his stories: that Conan was born on a battlefield.  It’s a horrifically gory birth as Conan’s father Corin (Ron Perlman) performs a rude C-section in order to fulfill his wife’s last wish: that she see her son before she dies.  And as men fight, slay and die around him, Corin holds up his bloody son for the Cimmerian god Crom to see.

That’s the only bit of REH we get in the entire movie as the longer it goes on after that, the more disappointing and generic it gets.  Young Conan (Leo Howard) grows up with a wild, hot temper that his father tries to discipline and direct to no avail.  There’s a nice scene in here that echoes a similar scene in 1982’s “Conan The Barbarian” where Conan’s father forges a sword and Ron Perlman is easily as good here as William Smith was back then when he played Conan’s father.  Unfortunately, Mr. Perlman is never given any dialog anywhere near as good as the marvelous speech about The Riddle of Steel Mr. Smith gets to deliver.  Conan’s village is wiped out and his father tortured by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) a powerful warlord hunting for the scattered pieces of The Mask of Acheron, a mystical artifact made from the skulls of long dead kings and consecrated in blood.  Whoever possesses The Mask of Acheron will have the power to conquer the world.  Khalar Zym wants The Mask in order to resurrect his dead wife, herself a sorceress of immense power.  Corin has a piece of The Mask which Khalar Zym finds with the help of his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan).

Twenty years later, now grown up to be Jason Momoa, Conan is a pirate who learns that Khalar Zym and his daughter plan to sacrifice a pureblood descendant of the wizards of Acheron to unlock The Mask’s power as he now possesses all the pieces.  Conan rescues Tamara (Rachel Nichols) who is the last of the purebloods but in a series of events that are horribly contrived and convoluted to give some sort of depth and meaning to the tired plot, she is captured by Zym and Marique and naturally Conan has to rescue her with the help of the master thief Ela-Shan (Said Taghmaoui).

Now, I’m sure this sounds to you like a thrilling movie but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Except for the scene of Conan’s birth, there is nothing of Robert E. Howard in this movie at all.  Despite the $90 million budget, this movie actually looks cheaper than the 1982 “Conan The Barbarian” and has none of the lush sets and exotic costume designs of that movie.  The big fight scene with sand creatures conjured up by Marique falls flat.  In fact, for a sword-and-sorcery movie there’s not much sorcery in it.

None of the problems with the movie I lay at the feet of Jason Momoa.  In fact, I liked him a helluva lot here and I only pray to Crom that he gets another shot at playing Conan as he did his absolute best and it’s not his fault he had to work with such a dull story.  And unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, he does a good job of showing Conan’s humorous side.  REH himself made mention in his stories that unlike most Cimmerians, Conan likes to laugh, have a good time and has a wicked sense of humor.  Jason Momoa gets that across.  Especially in a scene where he uses a bad guy to deliver a message via catapult.   And yet he’s totally serious when showing Conan doing what he does best: slaughtering by day, drinking and wenching by night.

Stephen Lang is an immensely talented actor and knows how to play a bad guy but the screenplay just doesn’t give him one to play.  And don’t ask me what my girl Rose McGowan is doing in this mess.  If you’ve been following my reviews you know I love Rose McGowan to death.  She’s enormously talented and due to her co-hosting stint on TCM’s ‘The Essentials’ where she displayed an extraordinary knowledge of classic movies I know she’s brainy as hell.  But this role is so brain-dead and devoid of anything meaningful I can only surmise she had hefty bills to pay and did this one for the money.

So should you see the 2011 incarnation of CONAN THE BARBARIAN?  I’m mixed on this.  On one hand, I say no because this is nothing but a generic barbarian movie that is Conan only in name.  Robert E. Howard’s character and his Hyborian Age do not come to life on the screen here. Stick with 1982’s “Conan The Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John Milius as that is the superior film even after all this time.  Hell, even Albert Pyun’s 1982 “The Sword and The Sorcerer” is closer to REH than this movie.  Even the score is disappointing but then again, the only way this movie could equal the magnificent music of the original would be to have Basil Poledouris do the music and he is regrettably no longer with us.

But on the opposing appendage, Jason Momoa is terrific to watch and he nails the character.  It’s not his fault the director and screenwriters let him down.  And his performance in the movie deserves to be seen.  Otherwise 2011’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a major letdown for fans of Robert E. Howard.

113 minutes

Rated R

Planet Terror


Dimension Films/Rodriguez International Pictures/Troublemaker Studios

Written and Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Produced by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan

Once upon a time there was this street in Manhattan.  42end Street.  Now before you jump up and say; “It’s still there!” Let me say that no.  It’s not.  Oh, 42end Street is there.  But it’s not there.  Give me a minute to explain.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s you could go to 42end Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and on both sides on the street there were nothing but movie theaters.  Cheap movie theaters that showed double and even triple features.  And when I say cheap I mean $2 or $3 bucks.  That’s right.  You could go see two movies for three lousy dollars and stay in the theater until it closed.  There was this one theater that showed nothing but a triple bill of kung fu movies.  The theater that was home to “The Lion King” for many years used to be the raunchiest XXX movie theater in Times Square.  These theaters opened early and closed late.  Real late.  If you had $20 bucks in your pocket you could stay on 42end Street all day long and most of the night cruising from one theater to another until you were all movie-ed out.  Of course you shared the theater with potheads, drunks, bottom feeder drug dealers, prostitutes, unemployed men hiding out from the world, teenagers cutting school and their ilk.  But if you didn’t mess with anybody they generally didn’t mess with you.  Back in the day the rule of thumb was: “don’t start no static, there won’t be none”.   The movie theater staff had the same policy.  Folks would light up their joints, pass around 40s of malt liquor, pints of cheap booze, smoke cigarettes openly and put their feet up on the backs of the seat in front of them.  But as long as they were cool, the management was cool.   In short, the environment was as saturated with depravity as the movies shown.

The movies that were shown in these theaters, which we now popularly and affectionately refer to as ‘grindhouses’ were far from Academy Award winning films.  They were Grade B, C, D and more oftentimes than not, Z exploitation flicks.  Blaxplotation.  Kung fu flicks.  Spaghetti westerns.  Horror.  Italian ‘giallo’ thrillers.  Splatter.  Made on the cheap and designed to be nothing more than sensational pulp entertainment that you forgot the day after you saw them.  Oh, there were exceptions, to be sure and a lot of those movies transcended the trash and are still highly regarded to this day.  But the 42end Street of those bad old days is gone forever.  I know, I know…people go on and on about it’s ‘safer’ now.  It’s ‘cleaner’.  It’s more ‘family orientated’ and I’m all for that.  I still think it was more fun back then.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a project called “Grindhouse” where they attempted to give modern day movie goers a taste of what the movie going experience was like back then.  “Grindhouse” was made up of two complete and separate films on a double bill along with a handful of fake trailers for equally fake films.  The two movies, “Death Proof” and PLANET TERROR were aged and battered to replicate the way films looked back then since those prints were shipped all over the country from theater to theater and not handled with the best of care.   So when they were shown on the screen you had all these scratches and more often than not whole sections of film missing and spliced together.  “Grindhouse” even made use of vintage 70’s/80’s advertisements and theater announcements.   It was all designed to be a Valentine to that entire movie era of gleeful sex, violence and gore.

The problem was that a lot of moviegoers didn’t get the joke.  I remember reading that audience members were confused by the sections of the movie that had ‘missing reels’ and demanded that they see the missing parts or else they wanted their money refunded.  Supposedly there were complaints from theater owners about the 3 hr+ running time of “Grindhouse” Whatever the reason; “Grindhouse” was an ambitious experiment that failed at the box office.  Too bad.

PLANET TERROR begins with go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) quitting her job and hitting the road to pursue her dream of being a stand-up comedian.  She herself doesn’t think she’s very funny but since everybody she knows says she’s hilarious she figures what the hell.  Cherry literally hits the road when she’s almost run over by a convoy of Army trucks heading for a military base outside of Austin, Texas led by the smirkingly sinister Abby (Naveen Andrews) and Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) who are looking for canisters of a top secret biological weapon hidden at the base.  In a movie like this it’s almost a given that things go wrong.  They do and the biological weapon is unleashed in the form of a sick-looking green mist that infects the townspeople, turning most of them into flesh-eating mutant zombies and leaving only a handful of desperate characters who must band together to stay alive during the hellish night.

Let me say right off the bat that if you’ve got a sensitive stomach and really don’t enjoy the sight of bodies being Swiss-cheesed by thousands of rounds of machine-gun fire or pulled apart like fried chicken and devoured then this isn’t the movie for you.  Robert Rodriguez doesn’t hold back on anything in this one and the sheer exhilaration of the violence in this movie might freak out some people.  There’s stabbings with hypodermic needles, zombies are doused with gasoline and incinerated, zombies are blown up, run over, decapitated and that’s the light stuff.  After seeing this movie my wife Patricia was speechless.  Seriously.   Depraved souls like myself are going to have a great time with this one.

You really have to throw out everything you thought you knew about movies to appreciate PLANET TERROR especially if you’re someone who’s never seen a movie that’s less than ten years old.  That’s because in terms of acting, cinematography, special effects and story, PLANET TERROR scores as being a successful throwback to the 70’s/80’s style of movie.  It looks, sounds and feels like somebody was rummaging around in a long forgotten storage room somewhere and found a lost John Carpenter flick from the 70’s.

A lot of the fun comes from the eclectic cast, all of whom look as if they’re having an absolute blast because they throw themselves in the ridiculously loopy story with gusto, energy.   While they’re all having fun with the material they respect it and make even the most bizarrely outrageous plots twists seem logical.  Freddy Rodriguez is really good as the mysterious badass El Wray who apparently can do anything and do it with a James Coburn-ish cool I found tremendously appealing.  And it adds to his mystique and badass status that El Wray is an average sized, average looking guy.  He certainly doesn’t look like a cat who can walk through a wall of zombies with nothing but a pair of switchblades and take ‘em all out.  Josh Brolin’s performance was one that struck me as oddly familiar for some reason and I couldn’t put my finger on it until the second time I watched the movie: he’s doing Nick Nolte.  In appearance, voice and mannerisms he’s a dead ringer for Nick Nolte in his younger days.  Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey are a lot of fun as brothers.  Biehn is the local law while Fahey runs the best BBQ shack in Texas.  They brothers have spent years feuding over the family BBQ recipe but put their differences aside to fight zombies.  There’s some nice cameos and small but memorable supporting bits courtesy of Stacy Ferguson (of The Black Eyed Peas) Bruce Willis, Nicky Katt, Tom Savini, the Original El Mariachi himself: Carlos Gallardo, Q.T. and Robert Rodriguez’s patch encrusted leather motorcycle jacket.

But the movie belongs to Rose McGowan and she knows it.  From her opening scene to the closing she owns the movie and strides through it with a confidence and sly smile that seems to be communicating something private to those of us watching it.  She’s beautiful, funny, serious, droll and best of all; she plays Cherry Darling with respect.  It can’t be easy playing a zombie fighting go-go dancer with an M-16 for a leg but she plays it straight enough with just the right shadings of humor that we go along with it.  I’d like to see Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman try to play the same character half as well.

So should you see PLANET TERROR?  Absolutely.  I applaud Robert Rodriguez for saying “the hell with it” and just going all out crazy with this one.  I mean, if you’re gonna make a movie then dammit make a movie as if you’ll never make another one in your life and that’s how PLANET TERROR plays.  It’s a wonderful homage to a  style of filmmaking we don’t see anymore and it’s done with such brilliant energy and imaginative power that I was truly sorry when it ended and I can’t say that about too many movies I see these days.

But again I have to warn those of you who are sensitive to violence to steer clear of this one.  Especially since there’s a scene involving a little boy and a handgun.  I realize that even though it’s a movie there are those who take such scenes as that one very seriously and would rather not see scenes such as that one even though you don’t actually see anything.   And if you decide to watch both PLANET TERROR and “Death Proof” on the same night (which is really the best way to see ‘em) let me make a suggestion: Watch “Death Proof” first then PLANET TERROR.  Even though in the theaters they were shown in the opposite order trust me on this one.  I think you’ll enjoy it a lot more.  Then go email Robert Rodriguez and demand a movie starring The Crazy Babysitter Twins.

105 minutes