Saturday, August 20, 2011

Marcus Nispel: Safeguarding Sword and Sorcery (Conan the Barbarian)

Jason Momoa, Conan the Barbarian, Lionsgate Films, 2011.

When Robert E. Howard birthed his pulp rag tales during the Depression, the world saw the dawning of an entirely new era of make believe. In the tradition of Doyle and Burroughs, yet liberating itself through grafted worlds of invention, the universe of Conan the Barbarian inducted the narrative genre of sword and sorcery into the game. Howard's courageous creation set the stones for Lewis, Tolkien and many others.

Likewise, in the realm of film, the high fantasy branched out from Fleming's The Wizard of Oz and Powell's The Thief of Baghdad and met somewhere between Zorro, Robin Hood and Spartacus. The Sixties saw the rise of the "spaghetti gladiators", sword and sandal pictures which oozed cheez from Biblical or historical roots. Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad the Sailor sealed the past and the mythic unknown through Ray Harryhausen's visionary creature effects. All the while, fanboys were reading Le Guin, Andersen and Brackett.

John Milius' Conan the Barbarian (1981) made a star of Schwarzenegger while materializing Howard's intangible world through the director's own stylistic and thematic fixations. The subsequent movies, Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985) carried the kitschy torch in transgressive fashion.

Marcus Nispel's new version of Conan is rip-roaring, blood spattered and fascinating. His frenzied pacing and neo-classical framing combine for a modern yet timeless retelling of Howard's muscular tales, steeped in Christian mysticism and fevered folklore. Jason Momoa, past star of Baywatch and Stargate:Atlantis, is no stranger to beefcake and sci-fi/fantasy schmaltz, and emerges triumphant as a B-movie star here, his bronzed bod and determined gaze sealing the identity of this new God-like incarnation. Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan and Ron Perlman all get to chew up scenery, fitting snugly into their Comic-Con genre friendly niches. Tyler Bates' colossal score fits the fire and ice of the film peerlessly.

Nispel began his career with a well done remake of horror masterpiece Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He then continued with the underrated sword and sorcery flick Pathfinder. Conan seems the logical culmination of a deliciously grimy inception as a horror/fantasy helmer. The robustly envisioned, hyper-violent otherworld he brings to life, the terse masculinity of Howard's prose is faithfully brought to cinematic life.

The pure drive-in splendor of yesterday's trash aligns smoothly here with the present trend of muscular CGI blockbuster, marking this re-make as one worthy of your time.

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