In which I continue watching films as a pretext for making awful puns in the title. And yes, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers for the new Conan film.
I have been heard to say that before Peter Jackson made Fellowship (1) there wasn’t a fantasy film out there that you could cite as a good film without then going on to say “but…”. This is just a personal opinion, and don’t get me wrong, I dearly love a lot of those films, but… I mean, I like Krull, which for heaven’s sake boasts Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson and Alun Armstrong (2) and has, in the Slayers, some of the best film bad guys around (3), but it really suffers from coming out just after everyone and their dog decided that SF was the way to go. I like the original Conan, which for me does realize a very Howard-esque (4) world, but it has its moments of extreme high-camp corniness. I also really like Hawke the Slayer, but it is ludicrously awful.
So, I did enjoy the new Conan, but…
Possibly the real “but” here is either that I’m getting old, or that Peter Jackson has spoiled me, but anyway.
Yes, I did enjoy it. Jason Mormoa made a good Conan, and the character wasn’t too nicened-up, if that’s even an allowable hyphenation, which is always a danger these days. There were some stunning visuals, and if there were cliches, then it’s hard to complain given that Howard and his fellow writers of the 30’s basically invented a lot of them, up to and including the beloved cowardly thief stereotype. The simple plot is still almost too complex for the requirements of the sub-genre, and a lot of the visuals, especially the wide shots of the ruins, cities and the like, are very arresting. Notable moments include:
– “I am such a pimping villain that I shall travel the world in a ship carried by elephants, and have a sword with not one but two blades!” I mean yes, for the latter, we see what that was about, but when you first see it, it’s a weird flashback to the metalworking lunacy that went into The Sword and the Sorcerer.
– someone ahead of me in the cinema getting up and moving to a seat at the back during the opening scenes, presumably due to over-exposure to the awesomeness that is Ron Perlman (5)
– The Blarney Stone Award for world’s most rapidly spoken piece of exposition by a doomed priest.
– “Curse you! No matter how many of my own men I feed to this giant octopus, you just won’t die!”
– The old “it’s not for defence, it’s just for identifying the villains” school of armoursmithing – which is presumably why Conan rides around in nothing but a loincloth and a snazzy sleeve. I’m trying to think of the last film I saw where armour actually assists the wearer in any way. May be Excalibur, and that’s only if you’re not actually facing the titular magic chainsaw.
And the fights.
This is not actually a Conan critique, and Conan does not do this any more than similar films, but Conan is the current skeet for shooting, and so I will give my old man grumble about it. I did a few years training in the real and ancient art of stage fighting. It’s a beautiful, complex and difficult business but it is an awesome thing to be seen when it’s performed and filmed to show it off. The Hector/Achilles fight in Troy is awesome. The lightsabre fights in most of the Star Wars films are likewise very good (the ones that don’t lean too heavily on FX and leaping around). There is a mountain of martial arts films out there where choreography, with or without wires, is basically the meat of the film. Western films, however, seem to be devolving their fight scenes into two distinct directions – novelty fights where the unusual conditions dictate an enormous set piece (fighting inside the rolling wheel in whatever Pirates film that actually happened in is a good example), so that the actual swordfighting or whatever gets completely lost in the frequently mind-boggling premise, and quick-cut fights, as seen in Conan, where the camera flicks from move to move, so that the actual flow of the fight is lost, and sometimes even the visual logic seems to leap about from moment to moment without continuity – some of the cuts in Conan were so quick I couldn’t keep up with them. The Conan -v- multiple enemies fights are almost reduced to a series of kill shots, so that the heroes spend more time over dispatching the bad guys than actually fighting them sword to sword.
This is a shame, especially in an actual honest-to-goodness sword and sorcery film. I really, really wanted to kick back and see some serious, smoothly choreographed swordfighting, and though the film delivered on a number of other levels, that was the thing I came out of the cinema still wanting.
Anyway, personal rant over. I will go back to my dentures and my heart pills and stop telling you kids to get off my lawn.
(1) Or, as they filmed them all together, Fellowshiptowerking. Which looks like some weird German compound noun.
(2) for the same reason so much of the Star Wars cast is British – it was a good financial time to make films in the UK and even award-winning stage actors need to eat.
(3) So you’re this big armoured guy, and you’ve got a spear, only one end shoots off like a blaster bolt and then you use it as a sword, and you’ve got – you’ve what? – some kind of escape squid that breaks out of your head and escapes by burrowing away? And you… no wait, what is the deal with the squid, exactly?
(4) Robert E., not The Duck.
(5) I’m quite serious, I love Ron Perlman, and even though he’s done some films that, taken on their merits, were kinda shaky, he’s been damn good in all of them.