Originally intended to be directed by Brett Ratner, 2011's Conan The Barbarian wound up being helmed by Marcus Nispel, the same man who brought us remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday The 13th. When the film begins after some narration from Morgan Freeman, a Cimmerian warrior named Corin (Ron Perlman) helps his wife give birth to their baby boy right there on the battlefield. Before the woman dies, she names the baby Conan and from there we learn how this child grew into a young man (Leo Howard) and quickly proved himself a mighty swordsman. When Conan's village is attacked by hordes lead by a man named Khalar Zym (Stephan Lang), Conan's father is killed and the young man is left to fend for himself.
A few years later and Conan is now a grown man (Jason Momoa). When Khalar Zym and his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) turn up again they're now more obsessed than ever with sorcery so that they can resurrect Zym's wife/Marique's mother. In order do this, however, they'll need to track down a pureblood descendent of Asheron, which they find in the form of a beautiful female monk named Tamara (Rachel Nichols). Seeking vengeance for his father, Conan is pulled into the fray and winds up risking life and limb in a race to save Tamara from a fate worse than death.
This new take on Conan The Barbarian starts off very strongly with that great sequence where Conan is, as his story goes, born into battle. Ron Perlman makes for a great Corin and it's nice to see the movie start off this way, just jumping headfirst into the gritty world that makes the Conan stories as interesting as they are. From here, things stay strong throughout Conan's younger days, and Leo Howard proves himself a far better 'child actor' than you'd probably expect. If you've read the recent Dark Horse Comics series that details Conan's origins you'll see that the filmmakers obviously pulled from this as influence and rightly so, as it's very much in keeping with the spirit of the characters. Once Conan reaches adulthood, however, the movie, things get less consistent. Jason Momoa looks the part to play Conan, he's a big, strong, handsome guy with a wild look in his eyes and you have no problem believing he'd gladly chop the heads off of his enemies with a stroke of his father's sword, but the storyline takes a much lighter tone after the fantastically dark trip through Conan's youth. Yes, the film does stay fairly consistent in its violence and bloodshed and there's the obligatory sex scene here that, as soft as it is, offers up some of the nudity you'd expect from a movie like this but the atmosphere is much lighter, even all the way through to the finale where Conan predictably squares down with Khalar Zym and Marique.
As far as the other performances are concerned, Rachel Nichols is decent enough as Tamara though her character isn't given a whole lot to do outside of looking good and giving Conan some attitude here and there. Rose McGowan is completely weird as Marique and might be the perfect choice to play that part. She hams it up a bit but has a suitably otherworldly vibe to her that works in the context of who she is portraying. Stephan Lang is solid as the main bad guy, bringing just enough pompous attitude to his part to make it work, and his back and forth with McGowan is handled rather well. Morgan Freeman sure was an odd choice to narrate the opening sequence, however, as he doesn't sound like a barbarian at all.
But what about the look of the film? It's heavily CGI'd throughout, and you'll notice this and if you are susceptible to such things it will take you out of the movie at times. Sequences that should have felt very alive instead feel like something out of a video game though you have to give the design team credit for at least getting the look right. The costumes are good, the backgrounds are great when they're natural and obviously fake when they're not, but the film fails to really bring to light Conan's cunningness and instead seems content to portray him as little more than a sword wielding behemoth that has a way with the ladies. These aspects are part of his story, but let's not forget that down the road Conan would become king. He was as smart as he was deadly and the movie omits this and in its place offers up cliché after cliché and nothing in the way of real character development.
Conan The Barbarian barges onto Blu-ray in its original 2.40.1 widescreen aspect ratio in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer that, given the context of the movie, looks very good. Natural? No, not at all, there's nothing looking about any of those but colors are reproduced beautifully and skin tones look good. Detail is consistently sharp and while the film is often times bathed in desert hues and given a sandy, dusky look, it translates well to high definition. Black levels are nearly perfect, there are no problems with compression artifacts nor are there any issues with edge enhancement. You might some banding in a few shots but otherwise, this is a solid authoring job of what was obviously some pristine looking source material. Close up shots are the most impressive, as you can see every pore and bead of sweat on the faces of the different characters but medium and long distance shots let us soak in all of the detail that the sets, some real and some CGI, will allow for. Bloods run vividly red here without looking too pumped up while everything else looks just like it would appear those who made it want it to look - not exactly realistic it at all and sometimes processed more than some might have hoped it would be, but nicely replicated on Blu-ray. A 3-D version is also included for those with compatible hardware.
The English language DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix on this Blu-ray disc is, to be blunt, pretty much perfect. Swords clash with harrowing clarity, cheesy dialogue is uttered with distinction and resonance and the score is as epic and sweeping as you can imagine. There's near constant rear channel activity throughout the movie, from the sword play scenes to the battle with the giant squid monster thing to the quieter moments like the love scene or the scenes of strange dialogue between our two bizarre antagonists. Bass response is very strong here, providing a super solid low end to anchor everything but never to the point where any of the performers get buried. It's pretty damn difficult to find fault with this mix, the movie sounds amazing from start to finish. No alternate language options are provided but there are subtitles provided in English, English SDH and Spanish.
The first of two commentaries puts director Marcus Nispel in front of the microphone for a discussion best summed up as distant. Nispel offers up facts about the film, ranging from what was involved in pre-production to how he hoped to honor Robert E. Howard's source material with the film to why various actors were cast but he doesn't show any enthusiasm here at all and comes across as morose. There are also a lot of long gaps of silence throughout this track which for a lot of listeners will kill the track right out of the starting gate. The second commentary is a bit more fun as it puts Rose McGowan and Jason Momoa in the same room together and provides them the opportunity to discuss their experiences working together on the film. These two are a great pair together and are obviously having a lot of fun a they look back on the stunts, the dialogue, the plot, various scenes that they share together and various scenes that they don't, and what it was like working with Nispel. You definitely get the impression that these two had a blast on this film, and it's a shame that the same enthusiasm doesn't come through in Nispel's solo track.
From there we move on to the featurettes, starting with the eighteen minute The Conan Legacy, which is essentially a crash course in Conan's history and a look at the influence and importance of Howard's original source stories on the character as portrayed in this particular adaptation of his adventures. Nispel has a lot to say here and you definitely get the impression he's a fan of Howard's writing while various cast and crew members chime in here and there to talk about how they tried to get certain details right and how they tried to capture the spirit of the stories on which this movie was based. Robert E. Howard: The Man Who Would Be Conan is an eleven minute mini-biography on the man who created the most iconic barbarian in all of modern fiction, and its inclusion here is invaluable - and also far too short. For those not familiar with Howard's life and times it should at least generate some interest, but it just barely skims the surface. The ten minute Battle Royal: Engineering The Action gives us some insight into how the key action scenes in the film were choreographed and shot, which goes hand in hand with the six minute Staging The Fights, which gives us a look at the rehearsals that took place in order to get the fight scenes to be as exciting and intense as they were.
Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature, trailers for other Lionsgate properties, animated menus and scene selection. This release also comes bundled with a digital copy and is housed inside a nice looking slipcase cover. All of the extras on this release are in high definition.
Conan The Barbarian isn't a masterpiece by any stretch but it's a moderately entertaining if fairly vapid action fantasy film with some nice set design work, some impressive scenes of swordplay and mayhem, and a moderately interesting, if entirely predictable, storyline. Lionsgate's Blu-ray looks great and sounds even better and has a decent array of supplements along to compliment it. Not a must own release, but one that fans should check out if only to decide for themselves what they think of Nispel's film. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.