Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An age undreamed of...a Tuesday at the movies

My wife stated very clearly that she had no desire to see the new Conan the Barbarian film. Bearing that in mind I waited and chose not to see it on its opening day or through the following weekend so that I could be a good husband and spend time with her. Finally, on a Tuesday morning at 11:15am my patience was rewarded as I sunk into a cozy chair in a dark, sparsely populated theater and waited to see the epic and enchanting world of Robert E. Howard translated once again through the magic of the silver screen.

Conan the Barbarian is a literary wonder that was crafted by a man, some say a mad man, in the rural areas of an early twentieth century Texas. Mr. Robert E. Howard, a tough guy, a word-smith with a typewriter set before his story teller's hand clicked out the pages which detailed the adventures of an ancient world hero as that hero fought his way through showers of blood and hordes of foes both of flesh and of magic to wear a gleaming crown upon his troubled brow. In the few years Howard wrote Conan he managed to tell a gripping tale of a barbarian who lived by his wit and sword and rose from a blood-stained pup of battle to a mighty king. He wrote about action and adventure, but in the telling of his tales he gave us a complex character that would endure the test of time to still be admired as a titan of fiction today. It is that character which attracted the ever roving eye of Hollywood which sought to tell their version of his epic on the big screen. After seeing an Austrian body builder lumber around answering to Howard's character's name in a ghost of a shadow of the world of that pulp warrior we come to the August 19, 2011 release of yet another film version of the incredible Cimmerian.

I went in to this film expecting a mish-mash of elements pulled from the comic book days of the character and the previous films (the trailers certainly weren't encouraging). What I ended up seeing was a movie that in many ways captured the spirit of Howard's work while crafting a new and unique tale. This was a Hyborian Age recreated by folks who have obviously cracked a book and read the stories, but it was also a Hyborian Age that was designed for a film version of a classic literary character. There are names and locations pulled right from the source material, but there are also new events in the world's history and major characters written solely for this screen tale. In the end the movie overall felt like a writer who understood the character and the Sword and Sorcery genre took Howard's world and told his own pulp adventure. In other words the events of this film would fit well on the pulpy pages of Weird Tales or some other wonderful adventure rag of yesterday.
The character of Conan was, in my opinion, faithfully portrayed by actor Jason Momoa and he was developed with a convincing and fair method from his boyhood in the movie's beginning to his riding off into the wild distance at the movie's end by the creative team in charge of story development. Instead of garbled, accent-tainted speech (Schwarzenegger) and a character who quested for very basic and almost meaningless reasons this film instead gave us a Conan who was dedicated, thoughtful, clever, and powerful. Momoa did a wonderful job playing a man who was born on the battlefield, lived a life on the edges of the civilized world, and traveled with a variety of peoples whose skills and trades ranged from thievery to sailing. When his Conan grinned before a blow or in response to the word's of an enemy or ally I saw a grin that went back to the mind of Robert E. Howard and off the pages of so many old adventure mags.

The quality of the story was fair. It's safe to say that this was not the best film I ever saw and certainly was not the worst. It just was. I really feel that this was nothing more than a typical attempt to write a Howard-like action film. It didn't fall apart but it did fall short of being something massive. We were indeed given bestial men, since in the Hyborian Age one could see various peoples from various stages in human evolution. We also saw mysterious and dangerous beasts, and there was even some eldritch power wielded by a Rose McGowan that reminded me of why I don't like her in anything. The only thing really missing was the occasional horror experienced by the character when he stumbled upon something beyond his common experience. This movie could have used a moment where Conan was confronted with a Lovecraftian-type entity, but maybe that's just me wishing that things were exactly as they were written.
Looking at other reviews I find that the common problems movie critics (folks who are actually paid to be picky nags, believe it or not) seem to have had are that the film is not at all like the Schwarzenegger pectoral-fests of the 80s and that the film is too gory and violent. For these folk I have but one suggestion and that is that they sit down and read a couple of the original Howard stories. Perhaps "Rogues in the House" or "The Phoenix on the Sword." Based on the words of specific critics like Roger Ebert and Mick LaSalle, I think my advice, should they be open-minded enough to heed it, would perhaps give them at least more perspective on the world and characters they witnessed from their posh screening rooms. Also, I'd be likely to just scream at them if they actually thought that holding this new version up to the 80s films was even a valid method of judging such an adaptation. Marcus Nispel was obviously trying to adapt literary fiction and not rehash or reboot an old movie franchise. I can understand how this could be difficult to grasp since a non-reboot is so not 2011, especially if you look at other titles being released this year and even into the next. The reviews I've recently read that I am referring to can be found through these links:

Every movie I see that is centered on a favorite literary or fictional character of mine gives me cause to have certain reactions. I refer to those reactions under the umbrella title of "Geek-Out Moments." In this film I found that I had several. One such moment arose when Artus, played by a cool, sea dog-type Nonso Anozie, boasted for Conan, while the pair sat amongst whores and thieves, about how he found the Cimmerian as a young thief in Zamora after he defeated the sorcerer Yara in the Tower of the Elephant. That reference both blew my mind and cemented the fact that Nispel and his creative crew were digging around in the writings of Howard. There were also moments when the cinematography seemed to emulate the beautiful yet rough artwork of Cary Nord who, along with Kurt Busiek, brought a new age to Conan comics for Darkhorse. I even had a shudder of a pre-nerdgasm when I understood from Morgan Freeman's narration that the story was taking place in the timeline of actual events in the life of Conan, shortly after his time with Belit and her crew and before he came to live among the Cossacks.
From the beginning of this movie to the end I found it to be a fun adventure tale which touched on all the basic elements of a Conan story with some alterations. It was definitely true to the spirit of the writings of Robert E. Howard. Overall I found this film's story to be just what it should be and that is entertaining.

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