It’s No John Milius, But Robert E. Howard Likely Would’ve Been Proud
“I live, I love, I slay… and I am content”
My fandom runs deep for Conan The Barbarian and his Hyborian Age.
I’m therefore pleased to report that 2011’s Conan The Barbarian holds up quite well upon revisit, and looks sharp on 4K. It also remains true that the film is not able to escape out from under the shadow that Director John Milius and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger cast with their 1982 feature film about the same character. That film became iconic for multiple reasons: One being the insertion of Milius’ own particular creative genius and worldview, another being a star turn for future superstar Arnold, and lastly, it was a massive hit. But while that film is an outright classic which I will not diminish in any way here, it’s more of an auteur’s vision of the world of Conan The Barbarian as created by Texas-based pulp author Robert E. Howard than it is a true representation of Howard’s world.
With Conan (2011), director Marcus Nispel (helmer of both the Friday The 13th reboot and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot), writers Thomas Dean Donnely, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood, and even all the producers and cast, seem to have been laser focused on getting Howard’s vision onto the screen. And for the most part that approach really works, allowing the film to stand the test of time far better than I’d imagined it might. Back in 2011 I liked the film, was convinced that Jason Momoa was right for the part, and proceeded to generally forget about the movie… much the same way it seems the general public did. The film was not a box office sensation and while everyone involved hoped it would be a franchise starter, that was not meant to be. This is one of those instances where that really is something to be sad about. Whereas this Summer proved that Hollywood will crank out entry after entry into franchises that audiences have no passion for, and spend hundreds of millions doing so, the mid-budget franchise that Conan could have been feels like a loss for fandom. The creative team had a unified vision, the talent on screen was strong, and the creator’s vision was honored. If only audiences had responded in kind. Granted… star Jason Momoa’s box office clout has only risen, and perhaps this colors my revisit more positively… but maybe it could resurrect this franchise if Momoa so desired? A fan can dream.
That praise isn’t to say that this is a perfect film. In many ways it all clicks together to make a solid, enjoyable, romp through sword and sorcery. But never quite lives up to a surprisingly strong first act filled with imaginative gore and a child-Conan exhibiting badassery under the tutelage of his father as played by Ron Perlman! That’s no slight on Momoa’s strong performance, but rather the adventure Conan sets off on doesn’t quite feel as iconic as it could have been. That said, there’s an effort made to show Conan in many of the settings he’s known for in the books… as a thief, as a sea-born pirate, and as an avenger. Rose McGowan appears to be having a blast as an evil witch-daughter to Stephen Lang’s warlord-magician (who is of course responsible for the slaughter of Conan’s people). It’s all portrayed with a lust for life, a bawdy disposition, and plenty of gore. No one involved attempted to round off the edges for a PG-13 rating, and that helps the film as it ages. I’d guess that revisiting Conan in another decade or so will likely increase my estimation of it even further.
Perhaps where it suffers the most is in its video-gamey climax. Filled with CGI and trying to up the spectacle, the final showdown between Lang’s evil warlord-wizard and the cunning Conan is less interesting than it should be. This might have been where the temptation for modern filmmaking grandeur won out over homage to the creator. But the majority of the swashbuckling feels brisk, lively, lived-in, and in tune with the fully fleshed out age of Howard’s imagination.
The Barbarian lives, loves, slays, and is content. So too this fan… except the slay part.
Oddly, while Conan (2011) was a 3D release in theaters, and while the disappointing Legend Of Hercules 4K release that is timed to drop at the same time as this does include a 3D version… there’s no 3D version of Conan on this release. That’s meaningless for me as I don’t have a 3D set up, and don’t plan to. I just think it’s weird to have removed the 3D version. This certainly can’t be considered a definitive version of the film without that. I do seem to recall that this film was converted to 3D in post-production, however, and that there were issues with parts of the image popping that weren’t supposed to. Maybe the 3D post-conversion will never be seen again?
I’d also say that while the film is colorful and filled with Hyborean wonder, the 4K experience was not mind blowing or game changing. It looks great, I just don’t know that it is demonstrably better-looking than the Blu-ray release likely was. And this isn’t always true with 4K. Sometimes the film looks radically better and jaw-droppingly so. Conan looks good. But an upgrade to 4K probably isn’t mandatory for casual fans.
Perhaps most exciting to learn from the bonus features is that stunt/action team 87eleven worked on this film. Future John Wick and Atomic Blonde helmer David Leitch is all over these bonus features, shown training Momoa in the style that has gone on to change the face of action cinema today. It makes one dream all the more of this franchise rising from the ashes with Momoa still in the lead, and a top-of-their-game 87eleven helming all the action.
The bonus features are numerous, highly enjoyable, and definitely contributed to my overall experience of the film. Hearing one talking head after another share love and respect for Robert E. Howard does my heart good, and increases my estimation of their creation. This is a wonderful release of a largely forgotten film that deserves a long-lasting following as it beautifully represents a character that has lived on and will live on for generations.
- The Conan Legacy
- Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan
- Battle Royal: Engineering The Action
- Staging The Fights
- Audio Commentary: Director Marcus Nispel
- Audio Commentary: Jason Momoa & Rose McGowan
And I’m Out
Conan The Barbarian (2011) hits 4K Blu-ray from Lionsgate Sept. 19th, 2017