Way back before my teenaged years, when I was a much smaller person than I am today, I collected comic books without much rhyme or reason. Every Sunday after church, I would go with my Grandpa to a little corner store, and I’d be allowed to buy a couple of comics. I chose these at random, as much for the cover as anything else, and so I never really followed the continuity of what was going on. This changed later, but that’s not the point.
Along with various titles like the Micronauts, the X-Men, Rom: Spaceknight, and Shogun Warriors, I would occasionally notice comics about a barbarian named Conan. These never really grabbed me, but I would read them now and then, if there were nothing more appealing.
When I started playing D&D at age 10, I was intrigued by the mysterious Appendix N of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. This gave various books as inspiration for the game. Tolkien’s “Ring Series” was mentioned. Yup. I knew that. But most of the others were mysterious to me. Leiber’s “Fafhrd & Gray Mouser”? Moorcock’s “Elric” and “Hawkmoon”? Jack Vance? Who were these people?
Howard’s “Conan” series. There we go. That was familiar territory.
As a teenager, when I was away at summer camp, my parents would sometimes throw a comic or magazine in with their care packages. Knowing my love of swords and sorcery, this would occasionally include the Savage Sword of Conan. Sure enough, these rollicking stories did remind me of a D&D game. There were monsters, evil wizards, treasures, and…continuity.
Now, my lack of continuity with the stories began to bother me. I felt like I’d come into a D&D campaign in the middle and missed all the exposition. As a result, these stories ultimately failed to make me a Conan fan.
The Coming (and Going) of Ahnold
Like many people, I’m sure, my first “real” exposure to Conan was the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. I enjoyed it, though I thought it was pretty goofy. I developed a pretty platonic crush on Valeria, Queen of Thieves. Her sexy bod didn’t interest me, but I liked the idea of fighting alongside her. I liked Subotai, too, and Mako’s performance as the wizard. But Arnold’s Conan? Nope. Not interested in him at all.
The dreadful sequel did not help Arnold’s case. No matter how fabulous I think Grace Jones is.
Some years later, I finally actually read the Howard stories…and loved them. What a massive difference! Howard’s Conan is sleek, fast, and brutal, not a muscle-bound goofball. And he was whip-smart, cunning, and, above all, funny. On purpose. Arnold’s image of Conan faded from my mind, replaced by a smaller, more wiry man with black hair that framed his face like a lion’s mane. Conan was now a character I gave a crap about.
So when I heard that an actor I find unbearably hot, Jason Momoa, would be portraying Conan in a new film? Oh, yeah. I was excited.
The New Film
Due to circumstances, I didn’t see the new movie opening day, so by the time I saw it, the critics had had their say, and what they were saying was highly mixed. I was prepared for the worst and hoping for the best. I stacked the deck by seeing it in a favorite theater, but it had already been pushed to one of their smaller screening rooms. No balcony seats. Grrr. Oh, well. At least they use real butter on the popcorn.
The new movie is enjoyable. It’s no more the be-all, end-all of Conan films than the Arnold film, but I feel like they hit a little closer to the mark. Sure there are plot holes, but Jason Momoa is ten times the Conan Arnold was, even if the writers (or the editors, possibly) gave him terrible dialogue.
Right off the bat, that’s probably the weakest link in this film: the dialogue. I love smart writing, and Howard’s writing is often very smart. The writing in this movie was weak. No snarled oaths. No snappy come-backs. No dire threats. It’s very formulaic, and there are no real surprises in it.
Having put that aside, the story’s pretty straight-forward and fun. If you want no spoilers, you might want to click away, or skip to the bottom where I sum up. You have been warned.
Conan (pronounced CONN-an, as it probably should be, since Howard indicated the Cimmerians were supposed to be the forerunners of the Irish) is a Cimmerian boy with something to prove. He is utterly unmatched in ruthlessness and savagery, even as a teen, and he proves his right to be trained as a warrior and fight among his people.
Unfortunately, his people, including his father (played by Ron Perlman), are guarding a piece of an evil artifact that’s being hunted by the evil warlord Khalar Zym and his witchy daughter Marique. Zym steals the artifact and leaves Conan seemingly caught in a death trap with his father. Ron Perlman sacrifices himself, and Conan’s quest for revenge begins.
Morgan Freeman, inexplicably narrating this but refusing to appear as a wizard (Arnold movie reference), tells us that Conan grew up amongst thieves, warriors, and pirates. And we have to take his word for it, because suddenly, it’s 20 years later, and Conan is killing slavers, alongside his pirate buddy Ufaka, apparently having been searching all this time for revenge and doing a relatively poor job of it.
Conan ends up rescuing a thief named Ela-Shan, which turns out to be good later on. Having found a clue to the people who destroyed his people, he then proceeds to brutally slaughter his way up the ladder towards Zym, killing people in delightfully grisly fashion. Frankly, this is where the movie picked up for me. Momoa’s Conan is so much fun to watch while fighting! He fights smart, fast, rough, and dirty. He uses the terrain, and everything nearby becomes a weapon in his arsenal. This is how I always imagine Conan. Grinning as he mercilessly dispatches his foes.
Okay, this is getting long, so let’s sum up. There’s a priestess named Tamara that Zym needs to reforge the artifact and gain lots of nasty necromantic powers. Conan rescues her, uses her as bait, launches a man from a catapult to deliver a message to Zym, fails to kill Zym in a really neat duel involving warriors made of sand, and leaps into the sea to be rescued by his pirate allies. He then makes love to Tamara, loses Tamara, gets Ela-Shan to help him get into the city of evil (I told you it was good he rescued him), confronts Zym, and drops both Zym and the artifact into lava…I think it was lava, at least.
So yeah. Solid stuff, but nothing shocking or really *new*, y’know?
So what did I really dig? Well, I liked Conan fighting with lots of different weapons. And he fights with *lots* of different weapons. I also enjoyed that Tamara was no shrinking violet. She was no Valeria, but she held her own and was generally non-useless. Mostly. Conan’s love interests tend to come in two flavors: rowdy ass-kickers (Valeria, Belit), and helpless damsels (whose names I forget). This one is somewhere in between, but I don’t recall groaning at her doing anything too goofy or being useless.
Understand…I *hate* shrinking violet female characters in action stories. I love women who kick just as much ass as men. Give me Grace Jones or Sandahl Bergman over Olivia d’Abo any day.
I don’t know what the future holds for my relationship with the greatest of all barbarians. I don’t have any interest in playing his MMORPG or an RPG set in his world. I’d love to see more movies, especially with Jason Momoa, but, given the film’s reception, I’m not sure how likely that is.
Perhaps only Crom knows.
Do you enjoy the character of Conan? Do you think I’m loopy for liking Jason more than Arnold? Do you think everyone’s missed the mark so far? Let us all know.