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As the summer winds down, Hollywood always unloads the slop at the bottom of its action-and-adventure barrel, serving up steaming piles of Expendables and Final Destinations that disappoint anyone desperate enough to flee for air-conditioned theaters. And thanks to the desperately sweaty among us, that means that it’s a time when trash equals cash.
In other words, being a bad movie in August is more common than pit stains. Sucking, though, takes talent. And, oh, does Conan the Barbarian suck gloriously.
Conan doesn’t just suck because of its convoluted – and frequently ignored – plot. It sucks because the fight scenes look inspired by early editions of Street Fighter. It sucks because Morgan Freeman narrates a couple of scenes as “that disembodied voice that sounds like Morgan Freeman and explains what’s happening onscreen because none of it makes a lick of sense,” then gets disrespectfully kicked to the curb. And Conan sucks out loud because it treats men and women like mouth-breathing caricatures of violence and sex.
The original Conan, where Arnold Schwarzenegger first planted his flag as an action hero, wasn’t much of a world-beater when it came to gender politics either. But that movie – which, it needs to be added, was made almost 30 years ago – was big and ridiculous and fun. The only big things in director Marcus Nispel’s remake are Mamoa’s oft-flexing muscles. This one can be plenty ridiculous too, but only so far as it encourages a lot of fun ridicule.
Let’s try to explain the story: Conan was born on the battlefield after his mom took a sword to the stomach. (Worst. C-section. Ever.) When he’s a teenager, he kills a whole bunch of baddies and is trained to fight by his father (Ron Perlman), the leader of the Cimmerian tribe. Then Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) rolls into the village, kills Pops and the rest of the Cimmerians, and Conan swears revenge. There’s plenty more about bone skulls, dead witches and incest, but it’s all about as comprehensible as it sounds.
Besides, it’s not as if anybody’s going to see Conan for the plot. The movie’s got hunky guys who avoid shirts, splattered blood-n-guts projected in three dimensions, and exaggerated sound effects that suggest crushing some dude’s head makes a sound not unlike that of a ripe peach hitting a baseball bat. If eyeballs can orgasm from stimuli overload, Conan is trying its damnedest to make them do it.
Conan is the kind of movie that makes me yearn for Mystery Science Theater 3000 – it’s a special variety of terrible that actually entertains. And with dialogue like, “That’s the perfect place for an ambush!” and “This is something I must do alone,” how could it not be? It’s not a movie so much as a hodge-podge of images thrown at you both expositionally and literally, thanks to post-production 3D. (As always, the process churns out a dark, occasionally blurry, product.) Even the actors seem to know how lame it is; Mamoa, who burned up the small screen as Khal Drogo on HBO’s Game of Thrones, sleeps through a strange, bro-tinged accent that calls to mind frat parties, not the Hyborian Age.
If you’re foolish enough to stop and breathe during the mayhem, some odd questions inevitably start to pop up:
Why are those people hauling a massive boat on elephants’ backs through the jungle?
When did Conan have time to build a human-launching catapult?
Did the line, “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content,” get somebody laid in that last scene, or did I just have a stroke?
There are rarely any answers in Conan, save for one moment that hints at a drop of self-awareness. As the plot throttles towards climax, a knife-fingered gal (Rose McGowan) who lusts after Daddy Zym is preparing to collect blood from the damsel-in-distress (Rachel Nichols) – which will transform Zym into a god, or revive his dead wife, or something. She grabs a big ole sword, toys with it for a minute, and says, “When it cuts, the pain is almost like pleasure.” I know the feeling.