Thursday, April 17, 2008

Conan the Destroyer: Can I get some gravy for this turkey?

Last night I sat down and, without a gun to my head, watched Conan the Destroyer. This was an extraordinarily foolish decision. For all the negativity leveled at Conan the Barbarian--unfair criticism, in my opinion, for what I consider to be a terrific swords and sorcery film (albeit not Robert E. Howard's Conan)--there's not enough outrage directed at this obnoxious turkey. I saw Conan the Destroyer as a kid and remember it as being pretty cool at the time. But upon further and (somewhat) more mature review I found Conan the Destroyer so bad as to defy description. I rate it only slightly better than the D&D movie and in fact, in many ways it resembles a bad session of my favorite role-playing game.

I don't mind mindless action flicks as long as they're fun. Conan the Destroyer is not. To make matters worse, there isn't even any gratuitous sex and violence--Conan the Destroyer significantly drops the level of bloodshed I came to expect from CTB, and also eliminates any nudity in order to garner a coveted PG rating.

Remember the names of Richard Fleischer (director), Stanley Mann (screenplay), and sadly, comic book giant Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway (story). If you see their names associated with another movie, run screaming in the other direction.

Conan the Destroyer actually gets off to an okay start. The opening credits sequence keeps the great "Anvil of Crom" score from the CTB soundtrack. We see riders galloping across the Hyborian plains in slow-motion, cracking whips and wielding wicked maces and hammers, which is cool. Over this scene comes the familiar voice of Mako, who delivers his famous CTB intro speech. Strangely, Mako seems only half-interested, uttering the famous modified Howard lines "Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas," with a decided lack of enthusiasm. After seeing the mess to come, however, I can't blame him.

The first bad sign that we're in for an awful movie is they've given Conan a comic relief sidekick, a weasely thief named Malek. He's easily one of the most annoying characters ever put to film. Subotai the archer from CTB was pretty cool, a man who said little but had style. In Conan the Destroyer we get Malek, a whiny dude who spends half the movie swallowing gems and shying from danger while Conan fights. We also have Jenna, a whiny blonde princess; Zhula, an angry staff-wielding warrior-woman played by Grace Jones, who is definitely no Sandahl Bergman; and Bombatta, a warrior played by towering ex-NBA star Wilt Chamberlain, about as wooden as actor as they come.

As the movie starts Conan and Malek fight some guards who have pursued the pair from the city of Shadizar (the fact that Conan could let a bunch of mounted guards in clanking armor surprise and surround him in a canyon must have had Howard rolling over in his grave). The fighting takes on comic air as Conan has time to joke around with Malek and punch out a horse. Dumb, dumb. Unlike the epic fight at the end of CTB, which was genuinely desperate and dangerous and required Conan to set traps and use guile to win, this fight--like all the others in the film--is silly and utterly bereft of suspense. Never has death by broadsword seemed so banal. Conan kills 20 men with ease, as they conveniently come at him one at a time.

But the fight turns to out to be a set up by a female wizard named Taramis (presumably she sends in her guards to their deaths to see if Conan is up to the challenge. He is). She strikes a deal with the Cimmerian: In exchange for his help, she promises to bring Valeria back from the dead. Conan must retrieve a key called the heart of Arimel, which, as told in the scrolls of Skelos, will allow access to the jeweled horn of the god Dagoth. The key is located in a castle guarded by the wizard Thoth-Amon. Taramis sends along Bombatta to protect Jenna, but tells the hulking warrior to kill Conan as soon as the quest is completed. That double-crossing bitch!

If this sounds like a bad D&D adventure, you'd be right. We have our party of random character classes (fighters, thieves, a wizard), misfits thrown together as if players picked them out of a hat. We also have our linear quest to recover an ancient artifact (why Taramis doesn't just send her army of warriors off to get it is unknown, but then again you don't start poking at the plot of movies like Conan the Destroyer unless you want to see it burst like a balloon).

So Conan rides to Shadizar where everyone knows him and shouts his name. Merchants cover up their jewels as he approaches. Is he a thief, or a celebrity? A Cimmerian Robin Hood is never how I imagined Conan. Later we find out that, in fact, everyone knows him.

Next, our band rescues the wizard Akiro (Mako) from cannibals, which are little more than grunting neanderthals that look like they wandered off a Flintstones set. Says Conan: "I need you." Akiro--"I'm yours." This laughable exchange is another D&Dism--people who drop everything without reservation to join a quest in which they have no stake (From The Gamers: "You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?")

Our band next adds Zhula, played by Grace Jones, whose range as an actress runs from glowering anger to screaming rage. Tied to a post by the leg, Zhula is being attacked by an angry mob whose village she and some other raiders sacked. One man is actually saying (direct quote): "Hit her, get her/The others are dead/now it's her turn! /After we have our fun with her/Don't kill her too soon." Not that it needs repeating but this is beyond dumb. Conan rides in, cuts her free from the stake, and she proceeds to kick ass, smashing guys' balls and faces with a quarterstaff. 30 armed men are no match. She happens to know Conan too, and after fighting Bombatta in a half-assed wrestling match, swears to "give her life for him."

Next the party travels to the castle of Thoth-Amon, a great wizard who resembles a one-eyed wino fished off the streets of Washington, D.C., and about as menacing. He also knows Conan. We have some God-awful special effects as Thoth-Amon transforms into a smoke-bird and captures Jenna.

Thoth-Amon's castle is an awful set-piece that looks like it was built from cheaply painted styrofoam. As Conan and crew row across the lake surrounding his castle (a cheap blue screen effect), he watches and says: "Too late my friends, but come, come anyway." (Come anyway? Who wrote this dialogue?) Inside Jenna lies captive on a bed that but looks like a Sealy posturepedic.

Conan then has to battle a red-cloaked creature in a hall of mirrors, a blatant ripoff of Bruce Lee's final duel in Enter the Dragon (it's noteworthy that this scene draws inspiration from a real Howard story, Rogues in the House, which saw Conan fighting a red-cloaked ape named Thak. But that story is far, far superior). Here the creature is an actor in a stiff rubber mask that does not move, save for a tongue the man thrusts through its mouth-hole. Instead of biting or mauling Conan, the monster decides to wrestle him. The creature actually spins Conan around by his ankles before tossing him to the floor. We're talking bad 1970's/1980's pro wrestling here. More to the point of this absurdity: This was Thoth-Amon's plan? To lure the party in and wrestle them to death?

Conan's sword proves useless against the monster until he accidentally smashes a mirror. Wow, how clever--the only way to stop this beast is by smashing any of the 10,000 mirrors in a tightly-confined chamber. Conan charges around smashing mirrors, then hurls his sword through a mirror and into Thoth-Amon. Jenna takes the Heart of Arimel and--in another shocker--the castle begins to fall apart (can this tired Hollywood cliche please stop?) As the big styrofoam blocks fall you can actually see them bounce on the ground. After a narrow escape our heroes paddle away in front of another very obvious blue screen. "All an illusion," says Akiro. Huh, Akiro? That castle seemed pretty substantial to me (if only this movie was too).

The queen then sends her men to capture Jenna and kill Conan. This allows Schwartzenegger to literally flex his muscles in a fight like he's a bodybuilder posing in front of a mirror. In the melee Bombatta takes a swing at Conan: "Why?" says Conan. Bombatta replies, "I thought you were going to hurt the girl." To which Conan looks distrustful. Distrustful? The dude just tried to decapitate you with a spiked mace! Howard's Conan would have gutted Bombatta then and there, but what does the Fleischer/Mann Conan do? Gets stinking drunk with his would-be killer watching him. Sigh.

Next, Jenna tries to make a play for Conan, and (most unforgivably of all) attempts to become a tough women-warrior like Conan's old flame Valeria. We get a 10 minute sequence of Jenna talking to Zhula about how to seduce men. Not only is this an utter waste of film and a pointless time-filler, but why is it even necessary in a film aimed at a PG-audience? And why do I even care?

Next, the party enters an old tomb to retrieve the horn of Dagoth. We get 5 minutes of screen time of Conan and crew walking around in another blantly obvious time filler. Conan lights a torch (where's the 10-foot pole?) as Malek seemingly for the 100th time offers to "go back and stand guard." (Get the comedy? He's scared). Then we have Conan and Bombaata lifting a gate, with a lengthy shot of Arnold's back muscles ("bend bars-lift gates check. I can almost hear the d20 clattering). Then there's another fight as the keepers of the horn come out and fight. Even the leader, presumably living an isolated, monastic existence in a cave, has heard of Conan!

Finally, 3/4 through this awful film, Conan figures out that he has been duped and the Queen's promise is a lie. How did this clod ever become "king of the thieves?"

Now it's back to Shadizar. Jenna is being prepared for sacrifice as recycled music from CTB stolen from the orgy scene plays. Sadly, there's no orgy to be found in Destroyer. Conan and his gang foil the ceremony when Zhula throwns her quarterstaff from about a mile away, clear through the priest, which natually puts a damper on things. Dagoth changes from a handsome god into a creature--more specifically, an angry bipedal walrus (it's vaguely Cthulhu-esque). Dagoth kills the queen but Conan tears out the creature's horn and it dies in a pool of green liquid.

The end of the film is a blatant Star Wars ripoff--in a medal ceremony ripped from A New Hope, Jenna makes Zhula her captain of the guards, Malek her fool (which he accepts without hesitaton), Akiro her advisor. All first look to Conan, who gravely nods his acceptance (this is so BAD). Jenna asks Conan to rule Shadizar by her side, but he declines: "I will have my own kingdom, my own queen." They kiss, there's a crash of solemn music, and Conan turns and stalks away in silence as tears run down Jenna's face. This is tawdry paperback romance novel-bad.

Of note is that the film ends with a shot of an aging Conan on his own throne: "At last he found his own kingdom, and wore his crown upon a troubled brow." If someday the long-rumored King Conan gets made, I hope this piece of trash is mercifully written out of the storyline as if it never occurred. Unfortunately, this still won't be enough to wipe my memory clean of the mess that is Conan the Destroyer.


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Max said...

Well, given that I just dozed through Troma's typically inept but uncharacteristically dull Time Barbarians, this will almost certainly be an improvement!

trollsmyth said...

CtheD is painful compared to CtheB, but it's a fun, brainless little sword-and-sandal flick. If you forget it's supposed to have anything to do with Howard's Conan, and break out the beer and pretzels, it's easy to have fun with/make fun of. ;)

But I also agree about CtheB. It's a horribly underrated film. Have you seen the extended cut? Definitely worth your time.

Brian Murphy said...

I have seen the Conan extended cut, and it is fantastic. The ending actually has some significant changes. I especially like the Schwartzenegger/Milius voice-over commentary. It's fun, at times insightful, and absolutely hilarious at times as to hear them talk about the great props, hot women, etc. The director's cut I own came packaged with CTD, which is the only reason why I own the film.

Although I'm not a Howard "purist" (which is why I can appreicate CTB), CTD was just so diametrically opposed to the old Howard stories that it rubbed me the wrong way. CTB was Milius' own thoughtful intepretation, and I think it worked; CTD was mindless, and pandered to a PG-audience. If it was mindless and R-rated I probably would have found it more palatable :).

Jack Badelaire said...

I will agree with this assessment. CtB isn't Purist, but it is fun, violent, filled with nudity and bloodshed. CtD is a milquetoast pile of garbage. I think it's trying to ride the "cheese" factor that you get in Dragonslayer, Hawk the Slayer, Krull, and Beastmaster. These movies are "fun" in their own way (and I actually like Dragonslayer and Beastmaster a lot), but trying to mimic their PG-ness in a CONAN story is foolish.

I watched it back in junior high, maybe once more in high school. In the last decade or so I've tried several times to get through CtD, and never got more than half an hour or so into it before turning it off in disgust. If it had been some other character or setting, I might have excused it, but...

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Badelaire, thanks for stopping by. I am also a big Dragonslayer fan and one of these days I will get around to writing a full review. Beastmaster I recall liking as a kid, although I fear I would not enjoy it as much these days. I probably haven't watched it in 20 years.

I still wonder whether the long-rumored King Conan will ever get made, or the Red Nails animated flick that has its own website but never seems to go anywhere...