Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Marcus Nispel directs Jason Momoa, Rose McGowan and Stephen Lang in this reboot of the action fantasy franchise where the undefeatable warrior goes up against a slaughtering king and his mad witch daughter.

Marcus Nispel was a name I knew well before he even got to direct a movie. Although all traces of his original controversy have seemingly disappeared from the immediately searchable Internet, he was infamous at the turn of the millennium for being the music video director who got fired from Arnie’s End of Days. He sent out a ridiculous, lengthy, dictatorial memo on the first day of production that made him the laughing stock of Hollywood. Instead of the desired result of Nispel being treated with absolute power on set (and getting his vegetarian platter on time), journeyman Peter Yates was instead hurried over as new director of what was originally feted as Marcus’ big budget debut. Beyond trivia, the gossipy storm in a teacup that slightly held back his career, has always stuck with me. End of Days ended up being a forgettable workman-like production, watchable thanks to Arnie but toothless given its potential.

Of all the post True Lies projects Schwarzenegger took on… End of Days on paper had the potential to be the stand-out. The Terminator Versus The Devil himself… horror imagery nuked with the megastar’s explosive brand of carnage. And I’ve always held the nagging belief that if Nispel had directed it then something special would have happened. A bigger hit… possibly? A different creative direction for Arnold? Definitely! Who knows how far reaching the fallout could have been if Nispel had made a classic out of End of Days. No Governator… perhaps. A reinvigorated Arnie who is still even now a box office force to be reckoned with… it is not unimaginable. Violent, hard R-rated, FX driven actioner still a viable box office genre to this very day? It is quite the “What if?” This Arnie fumble and Verhoeven’s Crusades not being greenlit in quick succession are one of genre cinemas unrecognised turning points. And all down to a hubristic memo.

Nispel eventually bounced back. He made his name on slick, visually distinctive horror remakes. The scale and originality wasn’t there but they made money and didn’t kill off any branded properties for the fan bases. Though still a remake, and of an Arnie franchise to boot, Conan felt like a bigger stab. Epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, violent action against stylised monsters (like those in Nispel’s slasher reboots), a lived-in yet airbrushed world that felt like a sun faded comic book come to life. The critics hated it, the audiences shrugged. And I’ll concede this Conan has its problems. Momoa looks the part but feels lost in the shuffle. The action becomes a bit deadening in the final stretch.

Yet there’s something about the brutal, ambitious production design that I really liked. It is big, nasty, stimulating. There’s always something eye catching to look at in this world… the location work lending it an authenticity and sweep. Narratively it moves and acts like a mega budget tentpole release… it was made for $90 million, it looks like the money was spent well. Lang and especially McGowan make for memorable, hissable villains. This is Rose’s last big film and based on her work in Scream, Planet Terror and this, the Tinseltown meat grinder really did fuck her over. She should have been a bigger star, she would have been the definitive Red Sonja. And while it all does lack Arnie, everything around it is better than his pair of dated sword and sorcery cash-ins. You might have nostalgia for them, or miss their camp cultish appeal, but this Conan is the better, classier production… even the CGI is well utilised. Give it a shot, it is a stronger film than it has any right to be… and the driving force behind this: Marcus Nispel.

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