Saturday, September 3, 2011

That's no Valyrian steel.

So I saw the new Conan movie.

I know, I know. Shut up. I plan to cancel it out by watching not one but two independent films about uncomfortable subjects in the near future, and possibly also some of the DC Film Shorts Festival films. Calm down.

But. Seriously. Conan retread, right? We all remember this guy. Personally, I thought it was kind of mean to make Schwarzenegger play a character whose name had two Rs. Kind of like naming a kid with a lisp Sam Samuelson or something. I read the odd Conan comic as a kid, and they had a sort of endearing earnestness to them that the first film picked up on. Sure, Conan's hacking away with his sword and being all "no, Brigitte Nielsen, only men fight!" but you kind of get the feeling that his heart's in the right place, leather underpants or no, and Schwarzenegger brought a weird seriousness to the role that felt like he was trying really really hard to sort of channel this character through the film's ridiculousness, which in turn made the whole film seem like a very silly joke being pulled on the exasperated Conan.

Not so the new Conan (Jason Momoa, left). As you can see from his Very Serious Expression, there is no room for frivolity in the new Cimmeria. Also, Momoa wears this same expression - a combination smirk, weird-scrunchy-brow-thing for roughly 98.9% of the movie. You may remember Momoa from the HBO Game of Thrones series, where not much in the way of acting is required of him, because 1) he's speaking in a made-up language and 2) his character doesn't really need to do much but grunt, scowl, and deliver the occasional gibberish speech while doing that clenched-fist-elbows-to-the-sides pose that means I am about to invade something or am totally making policy here, folks or just a great deal of the cultural implications of this series are extremely problematic, and I am only watching it so I can deconstruct it later on the Internet. His Conan is kind of a douche, without enough rakishness to pull it off, so he just comes across as a bully.

Anyway, this Conan is sort of a birth-of-Conan epic thing, and it actually shares a great deal with Game of Thrones in that, unlike the far-out video game-like original Conan, they grab a bunch of cultural markers and sort of squish them together in a big, uncomfortable-making soup. Also, this movie lends itself well to watching in a mostly-empty theater so you can keep up a running commentary on it.

So! Conan gets right into it with a big, blood-and-guts montage showing a Very Bad Man trying to take over the world with the aid of a magic mask that looks sort of like a Lovecraftian starfish you're wearing on your face, and getting his ass handed to him by a group of free-living barbarians who band together, revolt, and smash the magical doohickey.

Of course, there's a prophecy that One! Day! some goon will return who will put the mask together and then, crap, that will suck, so for some inexplicable reason, the Cimmerian tribe who get a chunk of the mask hide it...and then build a village right on top of it. Which is weird, because, prophecy, right? I'd sneak over and hide it under the village of someone I didn't like.

Ron Perlman turns up here as Conan's dad, wearing about eight pounds of hair and beard extensions and looking altogether like he did in Quest for Fire. I like Ron Perlman, it's also nice to see him pop up in movies whenever a large, misshapen guy is called for (as opposed to Peter Dinklage, when a small, misshapen guy is called for). It's sort of like oh, Ron Perlman! Nice running into you here! Conan and his dad live in a tribe that seems sort of roughly based off of the Tlingit, heavy on the mukluks, matted hair, and hide capes.

As conveniently foretold moments earlier, the evil guy shows up with a cohort of snarling henchmen that look kind of like a group of Iroquois who wandered through a body modification festival and said yes to everything being offered. See, Conan and his peeps are the sort of upstanding barbarians - freedom, fierceness, being left alone - that the Tea Party vaguely envisions themselves as, except in tricorner hats, whereas Zym's henchmen are horrible, Orc-like savages with bad teeth. You can tell the good and bad guys apart easily, because the good guys appear to have access to floss and Listerine, and the bad guys have an advanced case of trenchmouth.

Zym's goons slaughter the Cimmerians, although wee Conan kills, like, fourteen of them, then zip off into the sunset with their magical mask while wee Conan goes on to become some sort of super-handsy swordsman/bandit thing. There's an early stab at making Conan seem altruistic when he frees a group of slaves composed of whiny, wimpy men and hot topless chicks wearing necklaces on their foreheads and loincloths, who follow Conan in a giggling mass to a port tavern where that kind of snakecharmer, Casbah-y music is constantly playing.

Conan's still searching for Zym, who, despite having the magic mask, has apparently taking twenty or so years to actually getting around to doing anything with it. Anyway, blah blah blah, prophecy, very conveniently Zim needs a pureblood descendant of the ancient whatever to sacrifice and bring his sorceress wife back from the dead, so he stuff? Aiding him in this effort is his daughter, played by Rose McGowan with no eyebrows, a bad manicure, and an inexplicable access to both high heels and MAC makeup.

Which, can I just say, to everyone who tans and/or goes out into the sun without industrial strength sunscreen and a burqa, McGowan is pushing forty, and she looks amazing.

So, blah prophecy blah, the pureblood is living in this sort of Grecian monastery where the monks are all cute, giggly twenty-somethings wearing nighties, and she's conveniently close to Conan's age and sort of hot. Which spurred a discussion about why the princess is never, like, older or frumpier or whiny or whatever. We digress. With Zym and his creepy offspring in hot pursuit, Conan and Tamara take off, except for some reason Tamara ends up wandering through the forest alone on the flimsiest of pretexts (sex!) and gets captured so that Zym, his kid, and their cohort of hooded mumblers can stand around her in a very drawn-out sacrifice scene, giving Conan enough time to zip over and engage Zym in a battle royale.

There's fighting, falling masonry, more fighting, a fight scene on top of a big wooden wheel that's ripped off of the hamster wheel scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, a scene with a tentacled monster that's ripped off of the Star Wars trash-compactor-monster scene, and then goodness and abs triumph over evil and wrinkles, the whole fortess redoubt comes down, and Conan and Tamara have a tender parting scene in which Conan (no joke!) dumps her off of his horse and is all, it was fun, whatever and then thunders away into the sunset while Tamara looks at him with very confused expression on her face.

And that's it! Is it awful? The dialog is pretty horrible, Momoa's acting chops are sorely stretched and his lines delivered in a clench-jawed mumble, and he and Tamara have zero chemistry. Perlman and McGowan are game, though, particularly McGowan, who rips into her over-the-top character with gusto and actually seems to be having a lot of fun, eyebrows or no. There are a lot of boobs, but in a sort of HBO-esque background way that makes them actually really not scintillating at all, and Tamara seems to be trying a sort of Kiera-Knightley-in-Pirates thing, except she can't actually act and seems sort of baffled in every scene. Which is weird, because certainly there were a few other actresses hanging about who would have had fun with such a silly role?

I dunno. Final verdict? Maybe a C, because some of the supporting characters (especially Momoa's friend, played with cheerful brio by Nonso Azonie, another Game of Thrones alum) are having a good time with it, there are a few clever special effects - a scene with sand zombie/warrior things is actually cool and well choreographed - and they spent enough money on the CGI to save the movie from clunky effects. It's also nice to see a lot of actors of color in a movie where it's handled like no big thing, instead of pulling a Prince of Persia and slathering a bunch of white actors in fake bake. But I deduct points for Momoa not spending nearly enough time naked, which is why I went to see it in the first place. If there's a sequel, I'm going to want more naked.

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