"What is best in life?"
"To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of the women."
Of the many florid exchanges in John Milius' 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian, that's the one most frequently quoted, eternal fodder for third-rate Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations. Scripted by Milius and Oliver Stone -- a team that suggests the prose equivalent of attaching a hammer to an anvil -- the film could fairly be labeled cheesy and overwrought, but no one could accuse it of lacking purpose. Through Robert E. Howard's fantasy stories, Milius found in Conan the perfect vessel for his career-long obsessions with war, power and the essence of masculinity.
Cut to nearly two decades later, and Conan returns, just another property in need of a reboot, shoehorned into a marketplace that's already overstuffed with barrel-chested warriors and murky 3-D fantasy realms. Directed by Marcus Nispel, the music-video maestro responsible for similarly pointless remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, the new Conan the Barbarian doesn't have a fresh take on the material -- or any take at all, for that matter. There are swords and sorcery, pirates and monsters, taxed bodices and taxing mythology. In other words, there's the bare minimum necessary to summon this dismal movie into existence.
Via voice-over narration by Morgan Freeman -- who may at this point be available to narrate your morning commute -- we learn that Conan was literally born on the battlefield, forged in blood and conflict much like a blade in fire and ice. After witnessing his father killed and his village razed as an impressionable boy, the grown-up Conan, played by Hawaiian beef slab Jason Momoa, wanders in exile with sword in hand and revenge in his heart. His target: Khalar Zym (Avatar baddie Stephen Lang), a sneering warlord intent on world domination.
The byzantine plot involves Zym and his daughter Marique, a devious witch played by goth icon Rose McGowan, tracking down the pieces of a supernatural mask that will give Zym devastating power. Of course, such a mask would be utterly ineffectual without first being activated by the purified blood of the ancients — why, any fool knows that -- and that's where Tamara (Rachel Nichols), Conan's pedigreed love interest, comes into play as the damsel in distress.
With the battle lines drawn, Nispel cuts back and forth between the Zyms terrorizing the kingdom with torture, sadism and colorful bad-guy speeches, and Conan and Tamara beating back the forces of darkness one minute while acting like romantic comedy characters the next. Not surprisingly, evil wins out, but mostly by default: Lang and McGowan are appropriately hammy and vampy, respectively, but they're mainly a relief from Momoa and Nichols, whose soft-focus lovemaking scene really just consummates a relationship that belongs on Cinemax After Dark.
The new Conan the Barbarian arrives at a time when sword-and-sandal fantasies are flourishing on film and television, and the comparisons are hugely unflattering. From the lurid Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand and HBO's richly imagined Game of Thrones, to the visceral punch of movies like Centurion and Valhalla Rising, there's a charisma to the lead performances, and a complexity and passion to the filmmaking that's entirely absent here. Even the 3-D seems half-hearted: At least 80 percent of the movie could be watched with the glasses off, and the other 20 percent consists mainly of tumbling boulders and kicked-up dirt.
Conan the Barbarian is the worst kind of failure, the one where nobody shows up to play. Nispel and his collaborators don't try to mimic the Milius version, but they don't bother re-conceiving it, either, save to neuter the robust machismo that was the earlier film's lifeblood. They simply go through the expected paces for sword-and-sorcery adventures; if he wasn't called "Conan," he could go by any other name, and no one would be the wiser.