The sword-and-sorcery story begins with an infant Conan born via blade-induced Cesarian section on the battlefield, dug out of his mom's dying womb by his meat-pawed pa (Ron Perlman, "Season of the Witch"). Kid Conan (Leo Howard, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") quickly proves his worth as a warrior, just before his dad — not to mention his entire village — is killed by power-mad Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, "Avatar"), on the lookout for fragments of an ancient mask that will form into a powerful tool for evil.
Not making his appearance until a quarter into the movie, regular-size Conan (Jason Momoa, TV's "Game of Thrones") intends not to let that happen, but downs beers and beds babes (most notably the scarlet-haired Rachel Nichols, last seen providing the curves as Scarlet in the aforementioned "G.I. Joe") along the way. Where Schwarzenegger was consistently stoic, Momoa is more animated, given to smiling and sneering.
Aiding Zym in his quest for ire is metal-nailed sorceress Marique, played by an unrecognizable Rose McGowan ("Grindhouse"), who looks like a cross between the Red Queen in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and Tilda Swinton in a wind tunnel.
Director Marcus Nispel (fresh from rebooting "Friday the 13th") provides plenty of action — even one act too much, it could be argued with no opposition from me — and gears it all toward an appropriately bloody and violent hard-R rating, which is appreciated; he can't be accused of skimping on the elements that have kept Conan famous for nearly eight decades.
Yes, it's all silly, but we're talking about a character born in the pulps here. What do you expect? It's well-made, big-budget entertainment that's a little too in-your-face with the 3-D effects, but manages to look fantastic in every frame.
It's amazing that it's good at all, since two of the three credited screenwriters comprise the team that has churned out the kind of leaden trash that gives genre cinema a bad rep: "A Sound of Thunder," "Sahara" and one of this year's biggest turds, "Dylan Dog: Dead of Night."
Also surprising: "Conan" is narrated by Morgan Freeman. No, that's not a joke.
We'll credit Nispel for pulling the whole thing off. It's too bad it was a huge bomb, because this feels like a right first step to jump-start the franchise.
On that note, Lionsgate's Blu-ray includes a terrific featurette on the history of Conan, starting from the pen of tortured Texan writer Robert E. Howard to paperback reissues, Marvel comics, the Schwarzenegger film, the cartoon series, the live-action one (starring Ralf Moeller and his himbo hair), the video games and so on. I'm convinced a feature-length doc on the "steroid ox"'s place in pop culture could be made. —Rod Lott