A cinematic reboot for the patron saint of 98-pound weaklings, Conan the Barbarian is both truer to the vision of its character's creator, Robert E. Howard, and more satisfyingly pulpy than John Milius' 1982 movie incarnation. Director Marcus Nispel, along with no fewer than three screenwriters, eschews the lugubrious mythmaking of that version in favor of Howard's less fussy nihilism — "I live, I love, I slay . . . I am content," Conan confides to a captive. (That line got approving laughs from the male audience members at the film's press screening; the ladies found his barked command, "Woman, come here now!" more giggle-worthy.)
After setting up its story with a flashback sequence, Conan proceeds with an inventively shocking cold open in which the fetal Conan is cut from his dying mother's womb on a battlefield. This sets the tone for what follows, because while Nispel never lets his movie become dull, it truly comes alive only when people are hacking other people to bits. The narrative picks up when the preteen lad (Leo Howard) sees his father (Ron Perlman) and entire village slaughtered by the army of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a googly-eyed loon in search of a supernatural mask said to bestow godhood. Years later, the grown-up-and-out Conan (Jason Momoa) seeks revenge, eventually teaming up with a proto-Greek nun (prissy Rachel Nichols) who figures into Zym's scheme.
Conan suffers from third-act doldrums — perhaps inevitable when B-movie material lands an A+ budget — and CGI cartoonishness, but its 3-D effects are surprisingly subtle. Nispel and cinematographer Thomas Kloss also succeed at capturing the visual panache of Frank Frazetta's celebrated adaptations of Howard's stories (Momoa gets the glare right, too), and the lush Bulgarian locations practically bend to their will. The results at their best nicely evoke those Ray Harryhausen-animated sword-and-sorcery adventures of the 1960s, only a lot bloodier. Squeamish types may balk, but the gory cruelty on display here is faithful to the source material and deeply thrilling.
Is that enough? Expecting anything besides gratifying spectator sadism from a Hollywood action blockbuster is absurd, of course. But given that it's less than a month away from the 10th anniversary — if that's the proper word — of our culture's last collective encounter with barbarity (aside from what we dish out ourselves), a pulp exploration of the blowback from unchecked retribution might've been refreshing. Conan flirts with this sensibility in its anti-imperialistic undercurrent and Zym's backstory (turns out he's motivated by payback for a lost loved one, too), but fatally hedges. The movie stumbles on its predictably Manichaean square-off and the chimerical presence of Pure Evil, as well as a strikingly self-serving jingoism: Conan's native tribe, the Cimmerians, are a peaceful lot in a settled community — farmers, really — who only take up arms when assailed by murderous foreign hordes. Where have we heard that story before?
Still, give Conan the Barbarian credit for not presenting these hordes as swarthy, ethnic caricatures à la The Lord of the Rings (for the most part, anyway). Even better, its key philosophical question — "Are we all just doomed to chaos and ruin?" — is left admirably open-ended.