Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Life isn't easy when you are so weighted down with bulging muscles and sheer enthusiasm that it's hard to find your place in the world. But it helps when you have vengeance driving you.
Even though they are Barbarians, they are not untouchable. That is the hard lesson that young Conan learns when a foreign army invades his village, slaughters the people, and leaves him to die right alongside his father. Up until then he had a decent life. It was hard and full of bloodshed and loss, but his dad was teaching him the finer points of swordsmanship and how to be a decent warrior. But in that moment everything changed. Khalar (Stephen Lang) is after only one thing: the missing pieces to a mythical mask that gives its wearer the power of necromancy. It seems that the local do-gooders killed his sorceress wife and he wants her back again, so she can bring an underworld army with her and make him the most powerful thug on the face of the earth. But in order to activate the mask, he needs the blood of someone from one of the original necromancer bloodlines.
Twenty years later, he is still seeking her out, along with his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowen). But Conan (Jason Momoa) has grown up in the meantime with a grudge nearly as big as his muscles. He wants revenge for the death of his father and the destruction of his village. And if he has to kidnap the beautiful Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the last of the ancient bloodline, to do it, he will. This leads to a confrontation of sorcery and necromancy as the two enemies are pitted against one another in a battle that is both personal and otherwise. Overall, the movie isn't awful but it isn't magnificent either. It falls somewhere in the middle, hampered by the frequent gore and absurd departures from rational characterization. (Why would a pure little "monk" like Tamara get down and dirty for a night with Conan, and then return to her chaste monastery as if nothing had happened? And why would Marique take her on in a closed space and not use magic?) But the music is stirring and the performances are good. It is even a halfway decent plot with good visuals to fill in the gaps.
But that's when we get to the real problems here -- for me, maybe as a woman and maybe merely as a viewer, the film dragged in places, particularly when it was just Conan doing battle with sandmen, or a giant octopus-like creature, or simply a bad guy in the dungeons. It picked up the pace whenever Tamara was around but the downside is that in showcasing how cool Conan is, they kind of ignored the much more interesting characters -- like Marique, the stuff of Barbarian nightmares. This film is also simply beautiful to look at, with lush, rich surroundings that range from panoramic daylight to the dank underground. And I loved the costuming; it isn't much to look at for the first half, but when we get into the female priestesses and ceremonial robes, it's gorgeous.
Inspired by the earlier film in the same vein, one does not expect epic writing brilliance from Conan the Barbarian. One expects gorgeous women in distress, oiled muscles glinting in the sunlight, blood spraying in all directions, and some good old fashioned sorcery -- and that is pretty much what one gets. There were moments I really enjoyed, moments where I was bored, moments that disgusted me, and moments in which I wished it had simply been better. Because the potential was there, it just got kind of sidetracked in its desire to be a formulaic success.
Topless women make several appearances in the background for no real reason other than to display themselves; the camera peers down Tamara's shift more than once. She strips down for an explicit sex scene with Conan in which there is a lot of flesh and gyrating on display. There's also some creepy implications that Marique would be more than willing to take her mother's place as more than just a sorcerer.
Blood sprays, heads are severed, arms go flying, people are impaled, sliced into, and stabbed. It's brutal and gory; there isn't much non-bloody combat, so the machine I was using to skip through the more tasteless content was lit up like a Christmas tree on fire, jumping around here and there and taking out entire action sequences.
Marique has supernatural abilities that reveal truths to her; on occasion, her eyeballs flip back into her head as whatever power that is using her takes control. Tamara is nearly possessed by it as well. Blood is used to activate the necromancer's mask and Khalar uses it to summon the spirit of his dead wife back from the dead. Marique conjures up adversaries for Conan from the sand, supernatural beings that fight and perish as needed.