So Julie and I saw Conan tonight. I'll give it to you in brief, if you don't want to read a detailed review:
This was not a home run. It was not the Robert E. Howard Conan that we were promised, with one caveat: Jason Mamoa was fantastic. I give them an A for effort and it's not being too gracious to say it was a solid base hit.
So now a more detailed review. Fair warning: there will be minor spoilers in this review. Nothing major, but if you're avoiding spoilage altogether, you might give this a pass.
First things first. This is absolutely not a remake of the Arnold one. The only thing it has in common is the "revenge for my dad's death" plot. The events of the story are completely, 100% new (well, new as in, they weren't anywhere to be found in the Arnold flicks). So that's something.
Now, let's get the bad out of the way first: the problems from the standpoint of an actual Robert E. Howard Conan fan.
The Presentation of the Hyborian Age is wrong in every single way.
1. Apparently the Hyborian Age is all desert and beachfront, with a big honking skull-shaped volcano in the middle.
2. Apparently Cimmeria is agrarian and idealistic. They're warriors, but there doesn't seem to be a reason why...that being said, and in fairness, their village did look fairly Celtic in flavor.
3. Did you know that Hyrkania is a safe and sheltered place that is pronounced "Hi-ar-kania," with a long "i" and all short "a's"? Because that's how they pronounce it...repeatedly...seriously, like 15 times in the space of 10 minutes. We never actually see it; they just name drop it a lot (badly), so I don't know if there are proto-Mongols there or not, but not judging by how they spoke of it.
4. They had Zingarans that looked like Turanians.
5. They had Argosseans (actually Messantians, as if that was a country) that looked, well, I'm not sure what they looked like. Ever see the Highlander episode "Comes a Horseman?" You know what Kronos looks like in the flashbacks to the Bronze Age? That's the rulers of the apparently impotent, tribal and barbaric land of Messantia.
6. The City of Thieves was all right, except that they didn't call it Arenjun...it was some made-up name that I forget.
7. Another problem--the main locations in the movie are made up whole cloth and don't appear in any Howard writings at all (and the film doesn't even give a nation wherein they're located).
8. Those beast-men-dudes: were they supposed to be Picts? If so, why were Picts in loyal service to a Hyborian warlord/necromancer?
Now the sad thing is that a tiny bit of attention being paid could've solved a lot of these problems--making the "Zingaran slave camp" a Turanian one would've been fine, and having them head to Shadizar instead of Messantia--no problem (though for Shadizar they'd have needed a bit more decadence). I found it odd that Messantia was some kind of bizarre desert wasteland, but the invented temple where the monks reside looked just like Argos.
And for crying out loud, is it really that hard to pronounce "Hyrkania?" (Hint: there are two possible pronunciations that can be viewed as correct, and neither has a long-"i" sound: one is "Heerkania," and the other is "Hurkania." Both have long "a" sounds in the second-to-last syllable)
They pronounce Acheron wrong, too, but a lot of people do that, and it's not egregious enough to pick nits over in this case.
So here's the issue--they did just enough research to badly name-drop, but apparently didn't care about getting the kingdoms whose names they drop right. And seriously, there's plenty of source material out there, guys. It wouldn't have taken much more effort to get some production design and costumes proper.
So they really just dropped the ball on the presentation of the Hyborian Age. It looked way too Mad Max.
The other thing that bugged me was the MacGuffin. I won't give too much away, but there's a huge buildup about the MacGuffin, and it seems to me they didn't actually do anything with it. Plus, there's a bit set up in the very beginning about the Cimmerians guarding these pieces of an ancient magical artifact to protect it from misuse...that's kind of crap. Cimmerians wouldn't guard something like that. It's magic and they hate magic. Rather, they would've ground the pieces to dust and let the dust blow away in the wind. But I'll let it go because, well, we'll get to the Acheronian Artifact bit when we talk about Khalar Zym later.
Finally, there's a bit of schizophrenia with Rachel Nichols' character Tamara. They couldn't decide whether she was a badass or a screaming girl who needed to be rescued. She bounced between the two roles faster than John Kerry pandering to two opposite crowds in 2004. Personally, I'd rather they stuck with the badass. I liked her much better sticking people with swords and punching people in the face, than I did when she was screaming for help in a shrill squeal.
Finally, there were a lot of wasted opportunities. An ancient menace that they talk about resurrecting is wasted. The tentacled horror that appears in one scene, wasted. The MacGuffin I mentioned earlier. Wasted.
Now the good.
1. Jason Frickin' Mamoa. This dude plays an absolutely outstanding Conan, and that's worth a great deal of screwed-up production design. He plays the character to the hilt. I get the sense he's actually read the stories. He knows Conan. I believed he was Conan, and his performance carried me through the movie. There's even times when you get the sense that his desire to take out Zym isn't to avenge his dad, despite him referring to "the man who killed my father," but out of his on Cimmerian sense of duty--Zym was a rat bastard who wiped out a village to take a piece of bone, so he needed killing, and Conan was going to follow him to the ends of the Earth to do it. I can buy that from Conan. He even says at one point, "If you're going to take out a Cimmerian, even a boy, you'd best make damn sure you kill him." He also utters one of only two lines of dialogue in the film that are actually from a Conan story (the one we all saw in the teaser trailer).
2. Khalar Zym. When I first heard the "one hero rises to save the world" bit I threw up in my mouth a little. But I bought it in the context of the film. Why? Two words: Acheronian Artifact. Once you bring in a guy who wants to give birth to a new Acheron, you've justified the world domination bit. Look, for example, at Xaltotun in The Hour of the Dragon. And to be fair, Zym never actually takes over the world, or even really a kingdom. He's just a megalomaniac necromancer with a war band, who thinks he's gonna. In short, he's actually a very Conan villain, sort of a cross between Xaltotun and Thoth-Amon when he appears in "The Phoenix on the Sword"; that is, this guy really wants to be a powerful necromancer, but he needs an artifact and wisdom from someone else to achieve it.
3. Marique. I'm not a fan of Rose McGowan at all, but she chews up scenery nicely in this flick, and really gets her rocks off as she sinks her teeth into the role of a burgeoning necromancer--she also casts one of only two real spells we see in the film, which results in a pretty cool battle sequence.
4. Rachel Nichols naked. 'nuff said.
5. The setup in the beginning actually starts with the "...between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of," speech. Unfortunately, it never gets to "Hither came Conan," because it forks off into the movie's setup, which is okay, I suppose.
6. The good Howard reference. I got really excited when someone announces that Conan, "Stole the heart from the Elephant's tower, and slew the sorcerer Yara!" It's just too bad they didn't show us that episode.
7. Ron Pearlman. He's pretty badass as a Cimmerian chieftain and as Conan's father. He's the face of Cimmerian culture and tradition in the film, and it's a good face.
8. The kid who plays Conan as a child. The one battle scene he has (which I won't spoil) may actually be the most "Conan" part of the movie.
In the end, they made a modicum of effort, so I'll give them an A for effort. The presentation of the world was really poor, but the performances were great, and the villains suitably Conan. If this movie had gotten the production designer from the 80's flick to redo the Frazetta-like look of the Hyborian Age from that film, and if they'd not wasted so many potentially great opportunities, they could have had a triple, or even a home run. As it stands, it was a solid base hit. Unfortunately, the theater was only about 25% full, which doesn't bode well for future installments getting it right as they move forward. At the very least, it was a fun ride, and it's worth it to see Mamoa's portrayal of Conan.