Monday, August 29, 2011

Remakes: Redux, Or Ridiculous? -- Barbarians of the Box Office

Long after the years when Hollywood movies had storylines to go with their myth and magic and practical effects melded realistically with the characters onscreen--there came an age undreamed of. An age when excessive computer graphics, badly edited fight scenes and characters lacking any substance whatsoever wore their misguided auspices atop a tumultuously troubled brow. Let me tell you of a movie with absolutely no high adventure!



Just as New Coke was greeted with scorn prompting the return of what came to be known as Coke Classic, I will refer to these films as both NEW CONAN and CONAN CLASSIC for reference purposes. After being in development since the 1990s, a new Conan film--or in this case, a re-imagining/reboot/remake--was finally forged by the suits in Hollywood and unleashed to a predominantly lukewarm reception on August 19th, 2011. Like nearly every other fantasy picture that explodes out of Tinseltown these days, CONAN is busting at the seams with action and bloody excess. This amounts to very little without any heart at the center to drive the bells and whistles that is the life blood of this kind of movie.

While the 1982 film knew exactly what it was and had purpose, a plot and a point, this new version stumbles along, bumping into walls jumping from one situation to the next. Characters, their traits and motives seem to change with such rapidity you can barely keep up with who's who and how they fit into the scheme of things or why some of them are even there in the first place.

Marcus Nispel, the current "go to" guy for remakes of better movies covers the Hyborian Age in extreme fashion sending our hero seemingly hundred of miles from one location to the next with no allocation for the passage of time. These constant and abrupt scene shifts do little apart from showing off a computer generated landscape prior to another flashy fight scene. I don't think I've seen an American movie with this much action in quite a long time. Most of it is highly unnecessary and seems to exist solely to satisfy viewers with the shortest of attention spans. For example, there's a brief battle aboard Conan and Artus' ship that does nothing to propel the plot other than an attempted kidnapping of Tamara. It's of the "Hey, let's put a fight here. It's only been a few minutes since the last one" school of 'Bored Audience 101'. This ADD approach drains the potential power of those action sequences that are built up to be the most significant. By the time the big finale arrives, you're either exhausted or numb from the endless onslaught of slaughter. However, one of the major differences between the two films are in how they begin and both opening sequences are critical in defining what comes after.


Whereas the original CONAN began with Mako's deep, gutteral utterance of a violent, turbulent and very dangerous world, NEW CONAN starts off with a less than enthusiastic oration from Morgan Freeman. His thoroughly disinterested overview of the plot leads into a strange, almost unintentionally hilarious introduction to Conan. Corin (played with a similar lack of conviction by Ron Perlman) and his Cimmerian warriors (including his pregnant wife) are in the midst of battle when Corin's wife is mortally wounded and Conan is born via crude (and extremely quick) C section. While the blood caked couple have their last touching moment together, their enemies are seemingly, and amazingly oblivious to the big barbarian with his back to them catering to his dying wife. Astonishingly, the battle continues on around them even as baby Conan is pulled from his mother and hoisted up into the air!

In total contradiction to NEW CONAN's goofy beginning, the original begins in a far more theatrical fashion with the forging of a blade while the pounding resonance of Basil Pouledouris' score announces itself. Conan is already born, but a young boy. We get a single scene between father and son atop a mountain regarding a man's trust in his sword before the classic "Pillage the Village" sequence arrives. William Smith--an icon in cinema and television--is only in the film briefly, yet delivers this cautionary diatribe to his son with far more verve than all of Perlman's scenes combined. Nothing against Perlman, his character has a frazzled, stoic, intimidating look and that's pretty much it. The dialog he's given is clunky and Perlman seems almost embarrassed to say any of it. NEW CONAN does little to grab the audience from its opening despite throwing a lot of blood and viscera at the screen; something CONAN CLASSIC carefully built to during its suitably barbaric opening ten minutes.

CONAN CLASSIC genuinely felt like a story was unfolding before your eyes. It was epic in scope and execution. Everything from the locations to the people living in them felt real despite the fantasy nature of the script. You identified with the characters and their predicaments following them along on their journey. None of this happens in NEW CONAN. It suffers from the same sickness that befell the recent CLASH OF THE TITANS remake--cinematic dysentery brought on by an over abundance of stylized, empty excess. You've barely absorbed one of the numerous story conceits before the film quickly moves on to the next one effectively relieving these moments of whatever grandeur they may have possessed.

At least the marketing for the new film embraces a modernized retro look as far as the poster is concerned.

There's far too much clutter. Nothing looks real. Every setting is over populated with vast constructs or a plethora of onscreen "touch ups" no doubt added in post. In CONAN CLASSIC, if a scene takes place in a desert, you're in the desert! If you're in a rocky valley, those are real mountains! There are real locales in NEW CONAN, too, only they've all been dressed and doctored to an outrageous level which is supposed to elicit "Ooooooooo's" and "Aaahhhhhhhh's" from the audience. I'm sure if Milius embraced the Lucas-isms of "updating" his seminal fantasy adventure, than we'd have a cluttered barbarian oasis for the '82 version as well. These fake computer generated images are pretty to look at. There's no denying that, only the movie never spends any time allowing us to soak up any of this expansive world before whisking us off to some other attractive setting. An epic is unfolding, but we're never allowed to experience it.


The plots of both movies are quite different, too. CONAN CLASSIC was a full bore tale of revenge rife with barbarians, blades, boobs and blood. Apart from Sandahl Bergman's character, a thick air of misogyny ran through it. Far removed from the fantasy films of the previous couple of decades, CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) was the exact opposite of kid friendly fantasy opuses like the trilogy of SINBAD films featuring Ray Harryhausen's stop motion effects work. This was an adult fantasy with a high sexuality quotient and a heavy samurai code of honor aesthetic. Conan seeks revenge for the death of his family and his people at the hands of a brutally frivolous bandit and his army. We follow the young Conan as he is bought and sold into slavery and in later years sold again to be a pit fighter. Once he's attained a level of cold "maturity", he begins his search for Thulsa Doom (who is now a revered, feared and powerful sorcerer who commands thousands) with his only clue to finding him being a sign of two snakes facing each other.

NEW CONAN follows the revenge scenario, but also concerns itself with the search for the Mask of Acheron, a satanic visard made from the bones of dead kings that gives its bearers destructive, god like powers. Clans of barbarians rebelled against these sorcerers destroying the mask in the process with each clan taking a piece of the mask and hiding the shattered remnants in different locations to keep the mask from ever being used again. We learn all this at the beginning from Freeman's bland delivery. Right after the films main villain, Khalar Zym, attacks Corin's village, we learn he's already found the other pieces, but lacks one and Corin apparently has it. The recovery of this final piece of the "puzzle" segues into the revenge portion of the plot. Zym simply attaches the fragment to the mask (was there super glue back then?) and viola, the mask of Acheron is back together again a mere fifteen minutes after we were notified it was scattered across the barbarian nation.

Also, Zym's intentions change from one scene to the next. One moment he wants the mask to become a god with unopposable power, then in the next he needs the mask to revive his executed and quite evil wife. But to resurrect her, his newly assembled toy requires a "pureblood", the blood of the last remaining descendant of the sorcerers that created the arcane head piece. While the quest schematic is more profound here than in Milius' movie, it's clumsily realized. Where Thulsa Doom seemed content with spreading his paganistic religion, overseeing cannibalistic orgies and administering pain and agony, Zym has loftier ambitions, but they're undermined by a hopelessly fractured narrative. Incidentally, NEW CONAN resembles CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) more than the grittier '82 production. That brings us to the character of Conan, himself.


Arnold Schwarzenegger was the literal embodiment of what the character represented and in some ways, was a bit more faithful to Howard's creation than most people give it credit for. Liberties were taken, but the spirit is far closer to Howard than NEW CONAN, at least in my view. As described above, we get a sense of time passing as we watch young Conan grow up moving from one disparate location to the next going from a slave to being a brutal pit fighter, to learning the art of the sword and lovemaking, to finally embarking on his quest for vengeance.

This first film version of Conan speaks very little dialog and uses raw cunning and brute force to stay alive, yet displays the aura of a simpleton when not engaged in battle or enjoying a woman. Like the novels, Conan was more of an anti hero being both a thief and also undertaking tasks for personal gain, although he does exhibit an honorable side at times. He's accompanied by two thieves (including the beautiful Valeria) and a cowardly wizard.

Nispel's movie immediately presents our would be hero as a ten year old feral boy who is already able to savagely kill close to a dozen armed and fang toothed attackers in what amounts to a rite of passage. After Zym attacks and decimates his home village, young Conan is left to die. He survives, becomes a pirate (which he did in Howard's novels) and seeks out Zym and his multitude of comic book followers. Jason Momoa's interpretation of Conan is a bit slimmed down from Schwarzenegger's version and talks a lot more even though the dialog he's saddled with is perfunctory and frequently delivered as such. Sometimes coming off as 'Surfer Dude Conan', the scripts written word fluctuates from medieval speak to something you'd hear in either HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEY'S or XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. Momoa does look the part, though, even if this new version is far removed from the way he's presented in CONAN CLASSIC. Momoa's Conan also gets some partners that randomly enter and leave the narrative. One is an African pirate named Artus (Nonso Anozie) and the other is a thief named Ela-Shan. The latter is totally nonessential and offers nothing to the film as well as being possibly the only thief in movie history who can't get in or out of a place without the use of a key!


Instead of creating a swordswoman the equal of Conan in the mold of Sandahl Bergman's iconic Valeria, we get a female monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols) who is the focal interest of the antagonists in obtaining the last "item" required for the Mask of Archeron to revive Zym's dead sorceress wife. The monastery she lives in also provides some last minute backstory that enters and exits without any defining audience identification. We suddenly learn that Khalar Zym has a vendetta against this brotherhood for burning his wife to death! Of course, after five minutes this plot point is discarded as quickly as it arose. Another fumbled moment involves Tamara. While she is skilled in fighting (showcased during the scene where she escapes the monastery and is pursued on horseback), this proficiency is seemingly forgotten about for the duration of the movie relegating Tamara to damsel in distress mode for the rest of the picture. Rose McGowan is also on hand here as the incestuous and eyebrowless daughter of Khalar Zym. She's easily the most interesting female in the film, yet she's never given much room to do anything aside from swoon over her father and slash people's faces with her razor sharp metallic claws.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Conan mythology and its presentation in the original movie is the depiction and treatment of women. While there's strong women characters, the old stigma of women as "meat" is alive and well within Howard's stories. The misogyny lingers longer in Milius' movie than in Nispel's. Women are treated as breeding stock or to be dominated and sacrificed by the male characters. For NEW CONAN, it's more of an afterthought, something of a wink at the audience. Even Momoa's Conan playfully asserts to Tamara, "Woman, come here!" This male domination motif is pretty much discarded from there. But for every tavern wench, there's a Valeria--a strong female character that acts as both a love interest and a balance for our determined hero. CONAN CLASSIC succeeds yet again in portraying a well defined woman warrior whereas NEW CONAN fumbles once more.


Crom, the god of the Cimmerians, is featured throughout the Conan mythology and also in both 1980s films. The theme of religion is also heavily felt within CONAN CLASSIC. Much is made of assorted gods and even minor details that give us some background on them; enough background that gives added insight into the characters in the film. However, NEW CONAN abandons such things and that famous word, "Crom" is heard only once in the picture and that's at the beginning and Conan isn't even the one saying it! It's yet another flagrant detachment from the source material in what appears to be a misguided attempt to one up the mythology in a vain effort to best it with non stop action and only fleeting moments of familiarity. Crom would not be pleased.


Since nearly thirty years have passed since 1982s CONAN THE BARBARIAN, the depiction of combat and special effects has drastically changed since that time. Even though there are fewer of them, the battles and sword fights in CLASSIC CONAN far outshine the flash and gloss of those seen in NEW CONAN. Kiyoshi Yamasaki fashioned some modest, if thrilling sword fights for the 1982 feature. The editing of these scenes heightened the strength of the battles and accentuated the gory finality therein.

The gore was raw in its brutality with the shots of a blade slashing the body of an actor without any cutaways while blood flowed freely from gaping wounds. Prior to this film, Kuei Chi Hung's respected, if underrated swordplay film, KILLER CONSTABLE (1980) utilized this distinctive technique of having sharp implements slashing, or entering flesh without a close up or cutting away to a prop loaded with a blood pack. Over the years, the usage of squibs and blood packs has seemingly become an extinct practice.

It's difficult to tell what the fight coordinator of NEW CONAN (Jonathan Eusebio) has designed since the editing is so incredibly atrocious. Either the camera is too close to the action or the film cuts rapidly--sometimes multiple times(!)--within a single take barely allowing a shot to breathe. We see a lot of swords slinging around, but rarely ever an intricately choreographed battle. For years now, Hollywood has adopted the HK style of fight choreography and NEW CONAN attempts it, but fails miserably. The only time the action succeeds here is when its single strikes followed by a splash of CGI gore. The lack of decent action design is also compensated for by the loud, overbearing sound effects of blades penetrating bodies and that of bones being pulverized. Yet one of the handful of modifications to action films of today. When all else fails, make sure your sound effects are distinct and suitably unsettling.


Early poster design for the original CONAN from Frank Frazetta!

The music is also another area where CLASSIC CONAN slays its newer incarnation. Tyler Bates monotonous score isn't a patch on the bombastic cues from Basil Poledouris. From the very first evocatively tribal beats during the impressive credits sequence to the cues of chanting monks, much of John Milius' movie is uniformly theatrical in presentation. Bates' soundtrack is terribly static, often repetitive and hasn't a single memorable cue. It fleetingly imitates and aspires to be as opulent as the music heard in the original, but never once comes close to attaining the majesty of Poledouris' varied and celebrated soundtrack.


Monsters are on hand here, too, in the form of a gaggle of sand demons summoned by Zym's witch daughter, Marique. There's also some sort of gigantic octopus beast that resides beneath a dungeon prison below Zym's fortress. CONAN CLASSIC had a vampiric succubus, desert demons and a gigantic pet snake hidden within one of Thulsa Doom's temples. The obvious difference here between the two movies is that one version uses practical and optical effects while the other is strictly done in the computer. Both have limitations, but the edge here goes once more to the original movie. The sexual succubus that nearly takes Conan's life in the '82 film looks horrific with her yellow eyes, fangs and taloned fingernails. The giant snake adds a visible air of depth since its blatantly obvious this mock up is interacting with the actors. The tentacles are all we see of the computer generated octopi in NEW CONAN which, of course, was added in later. I'll take Nick Allder's hydraulically controlled creation over a flat CGI beast any day of the week. The sand demon sequence is a lot more successful even though it seems to go on forever. Conan must fight not only the witch spawned sand creations, but also Khalar Zym with assist from Marique.

NEW CONAN is a loud, if virtually empty fantasy actioner with nothing going for it save for a lot of flashy imagery that appears to be a 'Best Of' collection of sporadic moments strung together in the hopes of making something remotely resembling a cohesive movie. Nothing gels and Marcus Nispel--who last entered barbarian territory with the even worse joke of a movie PATHFINDER (2005)--has, like a lot of directors in recent memory, made a career out of remaking much better pictures of years past. The script is chaotic and all over the map just like the finished product. When Conan first encounters Khalar Zym, he's soundly thrashed yet at the end, once Zym has finally embraced the power of Acheron, he's anything but formidable. The awesome power of this mask is boasted of during the opening yet we never see it put to use! The finale seems to go on forever and is lacking in excitement which may have a lot to do with the over saturation of action during the previous 100 minutes.

While CONAN CLASSIC isn't perfect, it has far more creativity and a greater sense of scope and grandeur despite its limited means when compared with today's state of the art capabilities. This preoccupation with CGI, while allowing for a lot of at one time untold delights to be envisioned, is little more than a Pandora's box that acts as a filmmakers blessing, but also a bane as well. NEW CONAN is yet another example of style over substance and possibly when enough of these movies bomb, studio execs will finally take notice and bring things like exposition and coherence back into the fold instead of insulting the audience with the cinematic equivalent of eating too much cookies, candy bars and ice cream. It's not good for you, either. Like so many of the other vapid remakes from the minds of the 'out of ideas' scriptwriters in Hollywood, the only thing this new version of CONAN has going for it are its ornate costume design and a faster pace which in turn sacrifices everything that was good about the original--a plot that makes sense and characters you can care about. Stick with CONAN CLASSIC, it still holds up admirably thirty years after its initial release.

***All CONAN THE BARBARIAN 2011 images and poster images were taken from google images***

Cool Ass Comics: Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian Edition!

With the new CONAN movie out I thought I'd showcase some of the grittier, more adult oriented covers from a handful of my surviving SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic magazines as well as some from CONAN SAGA, a magazine that reprinted tales from both SAVAGE SWORD as well as the color comic CONAN THE BARBARIAN. This B/W comic mag was an amazing fantasy read for those who loved barbarians and artwork from the likes of Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta.

These publications also had wonderfully designed portraits book-ending the mag featuring everybody's favorite Cimmerian battling various enemies and beasts with a scantily clad, impossibly well built lovely just waiting to be rescued. Each magazine generally contained two tales of savagery with the co-feature not always about Conan. The cover at the top of the page is from issue #81 with the story 'The Palace of Pleasure' being one of the more misogynistic I've seen. It also features inks by the artist that got me into these books, Ernie Chan. Joe Chiodo did this surreal cover artwork.

Here is the very first SAVAGE SWORD I ever received. CONAN THE DESTROYER had just come out, and having been collecting the more kid friendly CONAN comic books, my attention turned to these far more gritty adaptations. Finally seeing the Cimmerian on the big screen got me hooked and after showing a curiosity for these mags upon seeing my first one in a barber shop, I had to have some of them. My mom would never buy them for me, though, till this issue from September, 1984. It's easily one of the goriest and sexiest issues I've ever come across. The issue also came under fire from some readers and non readers alike for the level of violence and bare flesh contained therein. 'Treachery of the Gray Wolf' is the lead story and again features the inks of Ernie Chan! Joe Jusko did this amazing cover.

SAVAGE SWORD #175 contains 'Blade of the Demon Slayer'. Conan finds the most mesmerizing blade he's ever seen and sets out to get it only the arcane blade is after him, too. Dorian designed this unusual cover. This issue also features a pin up gallery of Conan by Dave Simons.

Issue #176 contains a rousingly interesting tale entitled 'The Three Deaths of Conan' wherein our hero is captured by a wizard who delights in revealing to Conan various nasty ways in which to bring about the barbarians demise. Another pin up gallery is here, this time from James Fletcher. The striking cover is the work of Earl Norem.

'Fury of the Iron Damsels' headlines SAVAGE SWORD #179 and is of great interest in that it features Valeria stealing a coveted idol. Conan and Red Sonja set out after her to retrieve it. Along the way, Conan and co. run into the Iron Damsels, a gang of lady killers who swore vengeance on him as well as a gang of thieves who are also after the idol. Another Conan tale, 'What Dwells Below' closes out this issue. Earl Norem drew the cover.

Issue #192 features my all time favorite team of artists of this title--Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Ernie Chan! 'The Cape of Dark Dreams' is part three of 'The Skull on the Seas' story. Conan and the Khitai pirates are trapped on a dangerous island inhabited by reptilian men. Two other stories close out this issue--one of a young Kull and another of Red Sonja. The amazing cover was the work of Bob Larkin.

This 200th issue spectacular is jam packed with savage goodness and features that titanic trio of Thomas, Buscema and Chan! This bizarre tale is titled 'Barbarians of the Border' wherein the past mixes with the present as Conan shares pages with his creator, Robert E. Howard! A Short History of Conan and The Father of Conan are two features that close out this spectacular issue. Joe Jusko drew the kinetic cover.

This was my first issue of CONAN SAGA and sports a grand cover by Earl Norem taken from SAVAGE SWORD #24. The covers were chosen at random and seldom, if ever reflected the story within. Giant spiders and barbarians go hand in hand and this cover exemplifies that. 'The Haunters of Castle Crimson' is the lead story and is more horror oriented than most other Conan tales. It's adapted from Howard's 'The Slave Princess' story. A Solomon Kane story closes out the mag as well as the very first letter column for this reprint magazine.

For a time, Conan was known as 'Amra' after defeating another Amra, the Lord of the Lions, who had captured Conan's lover, the lovely pirate leader, Belit. In so doing, Conan also earned the respect of the faithful black lion, Sholo. Issue #38 covers Conan's days when he was possessing the 'Lion Spirit' and was referred to as Amra by everyone but Belit. This is the first of the four part Jhebbal Sag legacy. 'The Beast King of Abombi' is the title of the head tale. A lengthy and insightful Roy Thomas article is featured as well as a Conan/Red Sonja team up and a pin up gallery. Bob Larkin did the cover which was first seen in SAVAGE SWORD #27.

'Long Night of Fang and Talon' is part two of the Amra saga and features lots of action and monsters as well as seeing Conan traveling around with the loyal and fitfully powerful Sholo, the black lion. Both must rescue Belit from the dungeon of the mind controlling Beast King, Abombi. An early tale of King Kull follows it as well as a history of Kull. Ernie Chan did the exceptional cover art.

Issue #40 is part three of the action packed Amra saga, reprinted from SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN #26 and covers several years from Conan's days on the Black Coast to the Pictish forests. A tale of young Conan follows it. Earl Norem designed the cool cover.

While I'm not crazy about this cover, it is the exciting conclusion to the Amra saga adapted from Howard's 'Beyond the Black River' series. Lots of action close out this epic storyline. Incidentally, no artist is credited with the cover and it's not one of the more attractive designs. A Solomon Kane story, 'Blades of the Brotherhood' closes out the issue.

And finally, this cover for CONAN SAGA #44, reprinted from SAVAGE SWORD #42, features the cover taken from SAVAGE SWORD #35. What's special about this one is that this was the very first SAVAGE SWORD I ever laid eyes on and it was in a barber shop. The gruesome Bob Larkin cover kept my mother from allowing me to skim through this magazine I instantly fell in love with. The main story here is 'The Devil Tree of Gamburu' adapted from Howard's 'Conan the Buccaneer' novel. Here, Conan battles amazons and man eating plants!

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