Being less than receptive with my expectations along the way for this the second treatment of legendary author, Robert E. Howard’s iconic barbarian Conan, I ultimately come away from our encounter considerably surprised. Thus, this treatise. That might not sound all that compelling at first, but being a lifelong fan of everything Howard wrote in this universe, my surprise is actually pretty epic from that perspective.
I have covered the un-filmable nature of H.P. Lovecraft’s work in the past, and most don’t realize that there are many similar hurdles to visualizing Conan on the screen from its pulp-based print roots. Now, ironically, while the original version with ‘Ahnold,’ is well received and moderately rated, for the longest time I over looked its relationship to the source material, or should say lack thereof. To this day my biggest memory of the original film was coming to the end while sitting in the theater and seeing the closing shot of him as king sitting on his throne, and suddenly, I was way more excited about the potential for future sequels than the movie that had just ended! It’s an indelible mark on me to this day, and suffice it to say, the disappointment in the sequels to come was also quite epic.
Don’t get me wrong, the original was entertaining in its Hollywood way, and Ahnold acquitted himself well, but he really wasn’t ‘Conan,’ at least not in spirit. Now this new kid, Jason Momoa, he takes it to a different level and much closer to the rakish, raven-locked, fiery, hot-blooded killing machine Howard envisioned. But I am getting a little ahead of myself, so let’s digress a bit.
The original – lets call it Conan 1- starts out by doing the cursory village raid, and enslavement of Conan until he is a full grown man, referencing none of his growth years and alluding to the fact that he was a slave the bulk of his life, which is erroneous. In Conan 2, the director, Marcus Nispel, shows me right out of the gate that he is serious about Conan as Howard brought him to life and actually started the movie with his iconic, brutal birth on a battlefield! Of course we get to meet his mother briefly and Ron Perlman is impeccable as his bearded mountain of a father. Here the attention to the books is great story telling, with Conan running the ‘mans’ race as a teen and doing so with a man’s capability. There of course, is the riddle of steel and his testing by his father, all with great attention to the original. When the raid comes and the brutality of his father’s death is driven home, Conan’s destiny is appropriately sealed for the future in a much more compelling way than Conan 1.
When we get to rest of the movie with the adult Conan, it is so much darker and less mainstream than its predecessor. It is violent and bloody and Conan does not compromise, and this alone rings so much truer to Howard’s vision than Conan 1 did! Then it is all classic intrigue and dark mysticism, once again a Howard staple. Don’t get me wrong, James Earl Jones was great as Thulsa Doom, and Sandahl Bergman was a stunning Valeria, but that was almost the debilitating problem with Conan 1 – Ahhnold was surrounded by skilled actors and he at this point in his career was NOT one!
With the modern Conan, the antagonists are equally as heinous as the original, in the form of a power mad warrior despot that wants to raise his dead witch wife to rule at his side, with the help of his twisted witch daughter. The vehicle for all this is an appropriate Howard-like mystic witch mask that imparts unimaginable power to the mask owner. Opposite these antagonists is a real actor in Momoa that not only shows the wolfish yet mighty physique that is Conan’s legacy, but also the athletic ferocity that is iconic in this characters ability to take on adversity with impunity. Ahnold had some of this, but nothing near what Momoa brings to the screen in the form of presence. Of course, in the new one there are the authentic touches of Conan’s gruff yet charming nature with women, love of carousing and utter disdain and maximum brutality toward enemies. All of this is reflected in the scenes filmmaker Marcus Nispel chooses to include in the story and is a high testament to his knowledge and appreciation for the original material and skill in bringing it to the screen, without loss of storytelling nuance.
As this comparison readily points out, the superior nature of the modern version’s character portrayal is undeniable, but what about the story that propels the action? Well, in both Conans there is the requisite sorcery, delusions of godhood and epic sword battle yet at the end of the modern version it’s a little less heroically climactic but yet as with all aspects of the homage to the true Conan, it is more in line with the vision of the creator and not so much the epic ending that conventional Hollywood would have provided. And, that suits me quite well. You, modern Conan, are far more authentic in the end, and that’s what feels right to this long time fan, even though ironically, you can’t be called a great film!
That’s okay. I don’t mind and I think Robert E. Howard and I both smile in appreciation, anyway!