1982 was a particularly potent year for hardcore, adult fantasy films (and an amazing one for genre film in general) with the triple whammy of The Beastmaster, The Sword and the Sorcerer and Conan the Barbarian. Bloody, bare-breasted, magical films that were by no means great filmmaking but were still such prurient, violent fun that they left an indelible mark on any hormonally-saturated, adolescent boy who saw them.
But Conan was the film by which, ultimately, others of its ilk were measured at the time. With a ribald, gore-soaked, sinewy script by Oliver Stone, atmospheric, richly detailed production design and directed with mercenary aggressiveness by John Milius, Conan the Barbarian was the biggest budgeted movie of its kind ($19 million) and firmly cemented its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Hollywood spotlight. Above that, it was successful at bringing the character and the tone of its creator's prose, Robert E. Howard to the big screen in a way no other adaptation of Howard's work has since--including this one.
Conan (Jason Momoa) is a Cimmerian during the Hyborian Age, born on a steaming battlefield--he's literally pulled from a fatal, gaping wound dealt to his mother--and raised by his warrior father, Corin (Ron Perelman, who it seems is contractually obligated to star in this kind of shit). Grown to a teenager, Conan is the most skilled young killer of his Cimmerian clan, whose worship of steel already hones fearsome warriors.
But that skill is overmatched when a warlord, Khalar Zym(Stephen Lang), searching for the final piece of a supernatural mask that can make him powerful enough to rule the whole of Hyboria, arrives. His witchy daughter, Marique (eventually played by Rose McGowan) traced the last shard of the mask to Conan's village. Zym invades, slaughtering everyone, getting the last piece of the mask, leaving Conan and his father for dead.
Fast forward 20 years and Conan is a hardened adventurer with a predilection for liberating slaves (and their women) as he searches ceaselessly for the destroyer of his village. Zym, meanwhile, has spent all that time looking for a "pure blood", Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whose hemoglobin is a catalyst for the mask's power. As Zym is on the verge of success, Conan comes across an old henchman of Zym's. Seizing the opportunity to work his way up the chain of command, Conan sees his chance for vengeance.
Directed with a workman-like competence by Marcus Nispel (The 13th Warrior) from a script by hacky McHackmen Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (who make me weep for what could have been had John Milius actually returned to the writing duties) Conan the Barbarian almost goes out of its way to undermine what made the original the sort-of-great cult classic it is, while getting the character completely wrong.
From the opening frames it feels off, the silly rearrangement of Conan's origins mucks up any real sense that Cimmerian's are an actual culture. Compared to the opening scenes of the original, where Conan learns of Crom, their ruthlessly indifferent warrior-God whose favor is only earned with the knowledge of the Riddle of Steel, this iteration--with the miscast Perelman's phoned-in performance--has all the gravity of a marble orbiting a ping pong ball. Cimerrian's are now merely pious metal smiths who worship the blade.
The character of Conan himself is similarly bereft of meaningful details or the sense that the writers even bothered to read any of the books. Sure, he's not that deeply drawn a character to begin with (and it's easy to forget how little dialogue Arnie had in the original film) but he had some basic traits that came across clearly, in particular his suspicion of the supernatural and fear of magic.
Here, in a scene where Marique unleashes some sand-warriors (practically ripped straight from 1999's The Mummy) Conan battles them as if they were just another nuisance. You never get the sense that he's afraid of anything.
Instead of the stoic, distrustful nomad, Conan is now a gregarious, almost utterly noble, vigilante who's seemingly sidetracked by freeing slaves for so long it's taken twenty years to catch up to Zym--a habit that would make more sense if he had actually been enslaved in this film. What made the setup of the first movie so effective was that it was literally patched together from the Howard short stories. The character was sculpted by his circumstances so you knew how and why he became the peerless warrior he was despite the dearth of exposition. Here, writers Donnelly and Oppenheimer seem to actively avoid anything that rigorous or skillful in their hopelessly linear, boringly unimaginative and shallow script.
None of the casting particularly works. Momoa, whom I had hopes for after his fine turn as Khal Drogo in the great HBO series, Game of Thrones is miscast both physically and in persona. He doesn't get the internalized elements of the character (which aren't even on the page anyway) defaulting to devil-may-care charm when he's not comically glowering and growling inane lines ("I don't want your kingdom. I want your head!") like Nathan Explosion at a LARP convention.
Stephen Lang is cashing a check here as the ersatz Zym, an antagonist with none of the gravitas of James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom (though that is an admittedly tough act to follow). Rachel Nichols looks like she's actually regretting her role as she's playing it--not something you see every day--while McGowan is downright awkward as Marique; she literally wobbles in her boots in one scene.
Conan the Barbarian reeks of half-assed execution and its inability to outdo even one aspect of the original. Even the stellar score by Basil Poledouris has been replaced by generic music more fit for a romantic drama than a bloody, epic adventure. There's very little Conan doesn't get wrong.
Nispel does get the gore of battle right and despite the near boredom the film inspires it looks like everyone had fun making it.
You won't have much fun watching it, but that's something, at least.
The weekend of ill-advised remakes by filmmakers who clearly don't get their source material continues!
Yeah, bitching about remakes of Conan the Barbarian and now Fright Night might seem like an exercise in frustration, and a bit silly. There have always been remakes and no one ever claimed either of these flicks were masterpieces to begin with. If anything scorn should be reserved for remakes of legitimately great films (I'm looking at you Oldboy) but aside from that, there are clearly better things to worry about (like bad projection!).
But Fright Night, like Conan, is just as much of an example of a film having a pretty easy template for success only to wind up shitting the bed. Where the original Fright Night, goofy in that charming '80s way it was, had a jaunty sense of old-school fun--helped by the lack of modern vampire burnout--the new, slicker 2011 version has nothing of the sort.
Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a Nevada high-school kid, living with his single mother (Toni Collette) who has only recently grown into a sense of cool after spending many years geeking it up with his erstwhile friend Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Now reveling in acceptance (or tolerance) of his peers and the spoils of his hot girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), Charley wants nothing more to do with Evil.
That is until Ed convinces Charley that his new neighbor, the hunky Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell) is actually a vampire responsible for a rash of disappearances amongst their classmates. Driven to protect his mother, who is clearly susceptible to Jerry's charms, and his increasingly incredulous girlfriend, Charley enlists the help of a Vegas horror showman, Peter Vincent (David Tennant) to take Jerry down.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock, a clue to how unfunny this shit really is) from a script Marti Noxon--who should have her WGA membership revoked--Fright Night completely subverts every element that made the original entertaining while sucking (ahem) the fun out the concept by going dark, making just about every character a shallow and/or unlikeable asshat. Fright Night compounds that misguided seriousness with comedic elements that are painful for how hard they try and fail to be funny.
The worst offender is the script which haphazardly introduces characters with embarrassingly rote dialogue and its plot, which is mapped out with all the forethought of a game of Tetris. There's no sense of depth or detail to the plotting, which makes one wrong choice after another, and isn't helped by Gillespie's tepid direction.
For a major film, Fright Night looks somewhat cheap and rather visually inert. It's going for a cold sterility, perhaps in an attempt to capture the some of the atmosphere of Let the Right One In--another symptom of its completely misguided tone and the writer's inability to at least capture one element of what made the original fun.
Farrell seems to be having a ball here, though, and he is certainly in the role. Yelchin is kind of a non-starter. Brewster is supposed to be somewhat unremarkable as a character but this is the first time I've seen Yelchin be unremarkable in a role. David Tennant hams it up as Vincent, a cross between Criss Angel and Russell Brand, as unfortunate as that sounds. Roddy McDowell is missed. Mintz-Plasse as Evil Ed is all the annoyance with none of the WTF of Stephen Geoffreys incarnation. "You're so cool, Brewster!"
Too bad, Fright Night isn't.
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