Despite being a wasteland so terrible people were inventing time machines just to get out of the place, the '80s were a pretty cool time for B-movie genres.
Ninjas swept the nation like a plague in black pajamas, setting the stage for years later, when Chris Farley would slap the hell out of some dudes with a pair of giant salmon. Speaking of the dead, zombies also rose once more from their graves to remind us that eating internal organs isn't just for foreigners. And did you like Star Wars? Good because you got enough third-rate ripoffs starring space ninjas and fey droids to last you from here to a galaxy far, far away.
Fortunately for those of us who love genre flicks, we still get a lot of that stuff. Yet another '80s product has not been so lucky: the barbarian movie. For years, films like Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, and The Barbarians swept the big-screen steppes until suddenly they didn't. This was because, much like the Mongols before them, they were responsible for the loss of 10s of millions of lives (mostly barbell-related injuries). And since no one can learn from their mistakes, now we get to relive that old horror with a brand-new remake of Conan the Barbarian.
Long ago, an evil kingdom used a magic mask to conquer all the land--until the barbarians shattered the mask and scattered its shards among their people. Hundreds of years later, a nameless man (Stephen Lang) is looking to reunite the mask and make himself a god.
His search for the last fragment brings him to the village of Ron Perlman, chief and father to young Conan (played as a kid by Leo Howard). After Lang kills Perlman for the final piece of the mask, Conan vows revenge -- but doesn't get his chance until years later.
When he's all grown and bulked up and played by Jason Momoa, aka that horse-guy from Game of Thrones who's always shirtless and killing. I'm not sure how they expected that to work in the titular role of Conan the Barbarian, but that's Hollywood for you. Always surprising.
It's equally surprising that the first few scenes of Conan are pretty good. You got baby Conan being born mid-battle after his mom gets an impromptu C-section from a sword. You got Ron Perlman wearing such a massive beard and dreadlocks it looks like he skinned a quad full of hacky-sackers. Then young Howard goes mini-hulk all over some other barbarians and it's gnarly and bloody and hey, this thing might be all right. It's half awesome and half dumb. Just the way I like my men.
Then the damn-giving dries up as quickly as hope during a Seattle sports season.
The original Robert E. Howard stories were cosmopolitan and arcane. His Conan had a big sword and iron thews, sure, but he was also a cunning thief. The new Conan resembles this in looks and spirit -- this is a big, strange world, and Momoa is as likely to trick his enemies as he is to bash their noses off -- but the movie has the pulp feel with none of that juicy pulp flavor. The side characters are flatter than an anorexic halibut and the rules of magic and such are "it exists." While the general plot details are clear enough, the specifics are murky, though maybe that's just because everything is too loud to hear the exposition.
Then there's the dialogue, which runs from "..." to bland stuff like "Barbarian! She belongs to me!" Of course, there's not much room for clever lines when director Marcus Nispel has to wedge in so much hoisting of objects while bellowing to the sky that Heaven's been calling in noise complaints for days.
Still, it's a semi-rollicking adventure, and I give it points for actually adhering to the source material. The new Conan holds together just well enough to overlook all the times it fumbles away the chance to be good.