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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Conan the Destroyer (1984) review



Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), Grace Jones (Zula), Wilt Chamberlain (Bombaata), Mako (Akiro), Tracey Walter (Malak), Sarah Douglas (Queen Taramis), Olivia D'Abo (Princess Jehnna), Pat Roach (Thoth-Amon/Monster), Jeff Corey (Grand Vizier), Sven-Ole Thorsen (Togra), Ferdinand Mayne (Keeper of the Horn)

Directed by Richard Fleischer

The Short Version: The bloodthirsty barbarian, having quenched his taste for revenge, is tempered for this lighter, funnier, but still gritty sequel that shares a lot more in common with the mediocre 2011 remake than the 1982 original. Conan might be billed as a Destroyer, but he's got jokes in this formula adventure that's a whole lot of fun if you can separate it from the blood and guts, fantasy fury of the first film. At times feeling less like a sequel, and more like one of those CONAN rip-offs, but with a much bigger budget, it's one of the finest pieces of  'B' movie escapism despite causing many a troubled brow for the devotees of Robert E. Howard. It is I, the Chronicler, who will tell you of the good and bad of this tale of high adventure.

Conan is tasked with escorting a virgin princess to procure a magical crystal that will unlock a sacred horn hidden away in a mountain crypt. If successful, Conan is promised by the bewitching ruler, Queen Taramis to return the dead Valeria to him, and a kingdom of his own to rule. Leading a band of thieves, warriors, and the powerful Captain of the Guard in Shadizar, the journey leads them across distant lands and into dangerous encounters with magic and monsters.

It's not the popular opinion, but CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) is just as good a movie as CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), but for very different reasons. An enormously entertaining 'B' picture, Fleischer's film is the barbaric equivalent of the Saturday matinee features of old. Recycling old cliffhanger templates that were popularized for the modern age with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), CTD is a near perfect example of the formula adventure. The original intent was to create something with broader appeal; something that was the polar opposite of John Milius's classic manly movie milestone; and in that, they succeeded well beyond expectations.

There's the musclebound, valorous hero (a more Herculean Schwarzenegger); his trusted sidekick (comedy relief, Malak); a wizard (Mako as additional comedy relief); a fierce warrior woman (Grace Jones, who got too carried away in her fight scenes); an insidious, deceptive villain (Sarah Douglas, who else?), and the requisite quest; in this case, a multi-faceted one. Conan must find one item that will unlock another. These are all ingredients integral to the Sword and Sorcery genre. Without these things you've got the cinematic equivalent of something smelly stuck to the bottom of your shoe like THE INVINCIBLE BARBARIAN (1982); or hilarious, unbelievably retarded celluloid mistakes like ATOR, THE BLADE MASTER (1984). 

There had been over a dozen similar films made prior to CONAN THE DESTROYER going into production. It's budget (estimated at $18 million dollars) would probably cover the cost of most of them; and with a sizable sum of money behind it, there's an air of sloppiness about CONAN 2 you'd expect to see in a motion picture made with a fraction of the cost. 

In the first movie, there's a couple shots where blood bags are noticeable, but in the sequel, things are a little more glaring. On a few occasions you can see the swords bend during fights; Toth-Amon, upon transforming into a mottle-faced monster, isn't able to close his mouth. It just hangs open; the nose moves, though. At the end of the movie, Dagoth turns into a slimy, amphibious looking monstrosity that, in certain shots, looks like a rush job; and in some instances, the thick padding is obvious. Perhaps Grace Jones was originally part of the fight, and Rambaldi didn't want the suit performer getting hurt underneath all that rubber?

Regarding Carlo Rambaldi's Dagoth creation (Andre the Giant was inside of it), he could do fabulous work (like E.T.), but some of his creations might of looked good on paper, but didn't translate so well upon their construction. That useless giant King Kong robot from the '76 remake for instance. Dagoth is another. It looks menacing enough in a few shots, but when you get a longer look at it, the beast looks like Swamp Thing's cousin's sister's brother... twice removed.

For those who voiced their disdain for Milius reworking Howard's creation, the vilification from hardcore REH fans came in great numbers for the sequel. Conan the Family Friendly Barbarian is only a Destroyer when he has to be. The rest of the time, he's a laid back, more mature savage; prone to smiling spells, and cracking jokes -- such as when he shows Jehnna a sword is preferable to a wooden spear -- "if you're going to learn how to fight, then learn with a real weapon... not with a toothpick!" 

There's a good deal of humor throughout; much of it coming from Conan's sidekick, Malak, the butt of barbarian jokes. There's a funny bit when he references his cousin's sister's brother finding a way out of the wicked city of Shadizar. Later in the film, Conan is doing his Hercules impression by bending some bars that Malak claims his cousin's sister's brother forgot to mention. As Conan nearly gives himself a hernia solving this particular riddle of steel, Akiro and Malak argue behind him whether it was his cousin's sister's brother, or his sister's brother's cousin. For the record, Malak did indeed say it was his cousin's sister's brother.

Paramount of this nuanced savage, and unusual for Iron Age denizens of the male persuasion, he shows no interest in ravaging the shapely form of Olivia D'Abo (who was only 14 at the time), despite her advances. Yes, our little princess was an aspiring Lolita of the Hyborian Age. Conan still mourns for Valeria, and in this movie, even prehistoric sword-slingers have a soft side. 

One a side note relating to the Jehnna character, earlier in the movie, the evil Queen Taramis instructs Bombaata to ensure Jehnna's virginity returns to Shadizar intact. Yes, the 7'1" Wilt Chamberlain, the man who claimed to have bedded down 20,000 females, is in charge of making sure a young woman's maidenhood remain untouched. That's comparable to having a deceased relatives burial handled by a funeral home run by Ed Gein.

Additionally, there were some that took issue with the campfire sequence showing a drunk Cimmerian; apparently some had forgotten Conan enjoyed his alcohol in the first movie, too; and as gruesome as Milius's movie could be, it wasn't without its own streak of funny business; only here, the comedy is about as subtle as the violence was in Milius's movie. The main difference being that while CONAN THE BARBARIAN was high adventure, CONAN THE DESTROYER was high camp. It's understandable why the hardcore REH set would be disgruntled. The first movie mixes and matches details from various Howard sources while the sequel is an even more loose adaptation. Thoth-Amon for instance, is a central villain in the mythology; but here, he's seen as just another wizard. 

When I saw CONAN THE DESTROYER in the theater, everyone had a great time with it, and laughed at all the jokes and seemed to really enjoy it. And I think that's all the filmmakers were going for. My grandmother dropped me off and the choice was either STAR TREK 3, THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, or CONAN THE DESTROYER. I made the right choice that day.

Arnold dropped 30 pounds for the first movie, but put 10 back on for the sequel. In this second round, Conan is more heavily involved in action sequences, often displaying a Herculean level of strength. This is particularly in evidence during the opening action sequence when Conan manages to bring two men and two horses to the ground. Lifting massive doors that haven't been opened in years, and bending metal bars are some of the Cimmerian's feats of strength. Arnold's portrayal might seem like a far more relaxed approach, but it's a natural progression for the character. He hasn't lost his savagery, he's just not prone to indulge it till it's necessary.

Regardless of what viewers think of CONAN THE DESTROYER, everyone that worked on it seemed to have had a fantastic time making it; well, almost everybody. The stunt guys that got badly bruised and broken bones from a no-holds-barred Grace Jones (making her film debut) were likely not in the best of spirits. Schwarzenegger was especially motivated in preparing himself for the role; and according to stunt legend Vic Armstrong, Arnold pushed himself to almost obsessive levels. He might party till 2am, but three hours later, he's ready for the gym. This congenial atmosphere translated to the screen.

Like Grace Jones, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain made his big screen debut in CONAN THE DESTROYER. He does fine in the role of Bombaata, the Captain of the Guard in Shadizar. Even if he never spoke any lines (he doesn't have many as it is), his height alone is enough to sell his character. His battle with Conan at the end is sufficiently brutal. Some of this fight may have been cut. There's a couple of shots where you see bloody wounds on his back that we don't see him receive. A love scene between Conan and Taramis was omitted -- she appearing as Valeria, it appears from still photos.

Basil Poledouris returns to score the sequel with a lesser, but not unlikable soundtrack. The first movie was very operatic, gloomy, and a stimulating score to match. For DESTROYER, the tone is, as stated above, totally different. The music matches this tonal change. Poledouris's cues are spirited and rousing, complementing the more upbeat adventure motif. You'll recognize some recycled tunes from the first CONAN, and even some of the newer ones get repetitive, but overall, it's music to embark on treacherous journey's by.

The production design isn't quite as elaborate as before, despite the budget being just slightly less than the first movie. The inner sanctum of Shadizar is spectacular with its marble structures and pillars. Thoth-Amon's ice castle is a nice change of scenery. Jack Cardiff's photography captures some stunning vistas on the Mexico shoot. DUNE (1984) was shot there, so the CONAN sequel shot there too, and at Churubusco Studios since the crew was already in place.

Famous Italian makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi (ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, DUNE, RAMBO 3, HIGH TENSION) worked on the picture. The gore isn't as extensive as the '82 film, but for a 'PG' production, the sight of splattering blood from sword trauma happens a few times, and a head is sent skyward in slow motion. Dagoth squashes one guys noggin like a melon (offscreen), and there's some bloody wounds on Thoth-Amon (played by former wrestler, Pat Roach) in his monster form.

CONAN THE DESTROYER did very well at the box office -- more so in worldwide gross than domestic. It was a moderate success in America. Its total  here lies somewhere between $26-32 million (on an estimated $18 million budget), and a global gross over $100 million. A third film was inevitable, but it didn't happen due to contractual entanglements; and the failure of the vastly inferior RED SONJA (1985) effectively severed the Sword and Sorcery head in the USA, relegating the genre to video store status for many years.

At the time of the films release, Arnold said he saw himself playing Conan well into his twilight years. It appears he may well get his chance if LEGEND OF CONAN becomes a reality. Seeing both these earlier Schwarzenegger movies now, they're diametrically opposed to one another. Both bring different things to the table. Two different styles from two very different, yet highly respected directors. One is a visual feast with ideological underpinnings; while the other is a simplistic adventure story held together by a string of action packed set pieces. Get some friends, their cousin's sister's brothers, and kick back for a humorously barbaric good time.

This review is representative of the Universal Blu-ray.


James M. Tate said...

the real problem with the original, with this movie, and with the remake is none of them use the stories of Robert E. Howard enough, or at all. he wrote pulpy adventurous tales that, if sprinkled throughout a 2 hour storyline, would work for countless Conan films.

Franco Macabro said...

I rewatch this one all the time, I don't know what it is about it, but I love it for entirely different reasons. I guess it's less serious, and more fun in some ways, while still retaining the characters and world that I love. I'd go see another well made Conan film in a heart beat.

I didn't think much of that monster in the ending though...I think it could have been done better...Rambaldi can be overrated at times in my opinion. Not all his creations where awesome. But some were, he was very uneven with his work as opposed to guys like Baker, Winstons and Bottin, who always amazed with their stuff.

When I saw this in theaters...I had to see DC CAB (1983) (starring none other than Mr. T) first because it was a double feature type of deal ha hahahhaha....aahh the wonders of going to the cinema in The Bronx during the 80's...

Samuel Wilson said...

Hated it. Funny that everyone agrees it's less serious while it manages to take one of the first film's best comedy characters -- Mako's muttering wizard -- and ruin him by taking him more seriously. Meanwhile, Malak is awful; I wished him dead from the beginning. The team this time made me think of a generic party of adventurers in a D&D game, Malak being the obligtory thief and having no other reason to be in the movie. Overall it felt more like one of Roy Thomas's comics, since he helped come up with the story, than a Howard tale or the Milius film -- and not a comic from when Barry Smith was drawing, either. But it was interesting to read a defense of the thing and I don't begrudge you your good memories. Nice work.

venoms5 said...

@ James: I agree, but I suppose if I were a die hard fan of Howard, and read many of his works, I might feel the same as some do about the two films. I find the two 80s films more in line with my familiarity with the character from the comics and comic magazines.

@ Fran: I agree with all you say. Speaking of CONAN, I have an issue of Savage Sword of CTB that printed a series of storyboards from Neal Adams, and it was his version of how CTB '82 would begin.

@ Sam: You're fine, Sam. I appreciate your honesty. I thought the movie was hilarious. I didn't mind the Malak character. I remember everybody in the theater laughed at all the right spots; although I didn't think, outside of the finale, that Mako's wizard was taken seriously. For me, his bumbling wizard was a less snarky version of Malak. Now that remake, I didn't like that one at all. I'm sure nostalgia plays a factor in my enjoyment of it just as much now as then.

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