- - Thursday, August 18, 2011

In the original “Conan the Barbarian,” John Milius’ 1982 take on Robert Howard’s golden age pulp hero, Conan — played by a fresh-on-the-screen Arnold Schwarzenegger — knew what was best in life. “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

It wasn’t much, but at least it was a goal.

This year’s “Conan” remake, by contrast, isn’t much bothered with divining life’s higher purpose. Asked by a female companion (Rachel Nichols) whether he wonders if he perhaps serves some larger plan mapped out by the gods, the new Conan responds with what amounts to a revised personal mission statement: “I know not. I care not. I live. I love. I slay. And I am content.” It’s also an apt summary of the movie’s priorities: It’s ignorant, apathetic and perfectly pleased to traffic in mindless violence.

True, director Marcus Nispel’s loud, crude remake does offer an obligatory splash of living and loving. But the emphasis is mostly on the slaying.

As for contentment, well, that’s in the abs of the beholder — in this case, actor Jason Momoa, a Hawaiian-born former “Baywatch Hawaii” star with shampoo-commercial hair and biceps the width of bridge pillars. He poses well, and his already volcano-deep grunts and growls come across as even more molten thanks to digital enhancement.

Even so, he makes Mr. Schwarzenegger’s leaden line delivery seem like Shakespeare. Where the future California governor imbued Conan with an endearing meatheaded menace, Mr. Momoa merely exudes surfer-dude nonchalance.

As Conan’s cartoonish nemesis Khalar Zym, Stephen Lang at least seems to care, feasting on the opportunity to explain his nonsensical plans with lines such as “My wife will make me a god. And we will cast all rivals into oceans of blood.”

Needless to say, nuanced dialogue isn’t the movie’s strong suit; Conan certainly didn’t come from what you would call a highly verbal family.

The movie opens with his birth — he is cut from his mother’s womb amid a massive battle. While the war rages, Conan’s father (a bearded, sad-eyed Ron Perlman) cradles the boy, shares a tender moment with his dying mother and then raises his son to the sky, at which point he says — and this a direct quote — “Eeeerraarrgh!”

This, we’re told, makes Conan “born of battle” — a natural warrior. Yet it’s hard to take him seriously as a fighter when he can’t seem to avoid smirking, or shake the pretty-boy good looks that made him such a fine fit for the shimmering beaches of “Baywatch.” How brutal can someone really be when he constantly looks like he’s about to dash off screen to save a swimmer?

In this case, it’s the movie that needs rescuing. Conan may not be convincingly fierce, but Mr. Nispel fills in any brutality gaps with enough frenetic arterial spray to soak a Texas golf course. Mr. Nispel previously helmed remakes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” and, as in those films, he mistakes gory shock for wit, passing off creative sadism as casual amusement.

The original Conan may not have settled the question of what is best in life — but this year’s remake sure isn’t it.

★ ½

TITLE: “Conan the Barbarian”

CREDITS: Directed by Marcus Nispel; screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood

RATING: R for nudity, sexual situations, torture, battle gore

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes


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