Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 16, 2015

SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS: Conan the Destroyer (1984)

From the beginning, “Conan the Barbarian” was planned as an on-going series. John Milius envisioned the series as a James Bond-style franchise, with a new film every few years. The first movie promised that more stories would be told. When the first “Conan” was a hit, that dream seemed close to being realized. A sequel was immediately greenlit. “Conan the Destroyer” rolled out in 1984. However, Milius was unavailable to direct and the studio made the unfathomable decision that the sex and blood filled “Conan” should become a kid-friendly blockbuster. The result disappointed fans and Schwarzenegger himself, who swore off playing the barbarian again, bringing “Conan’s” adventures to an abrupt end.

The first disappointing thing about “Conan the Destroyer” is that it fits the iconic hero into a more typical fantasy plot line. Conan, still acting as a thief and an adventurer, is lured into a plot by the duplicitous Queen Taramis. Taramis sends Conan and his buddies on a two-part fetch quest. The barbarian is sent to find a magical stone, which can only be held by the virginal Princess Jehnna. Once the stone is retried, it will lead the way towards the mystical horn of the kingdom’s dead god Dagoth, which they plan to resurrect. Unbeknownst to Conan, Jehnna, and the others, Taramis plans to betray the heroes and sacrifice Jehnna to Dagoth. Conan discovers this betrayal only after retrieving the MacGuffins, forcing him into the villain’s lair to save the girl and kill the monster.

Nowadays, it seems impossible that a film with as many dismemberments and bare titties as “Conan the Barbarian” could ever be construed as kid’s entertainment. But this was the eighties, a different time, when similarly graphic films like “Rambo” or “RoboCop” got Saturday morning cartoon shows and toy lines. And the first film was popular with young boys. Missing the point that all the sex and violence was maybe the reason it was popular with young boys, the producers decided the sequel would make even more money if it featured less of these things. Though they were technically right, the softer content is what the film is most heavily criticized for. Though apparently bloodier action scenes were filmed, along with a love scene between Conan and Queen Tamaris, the finished film was cut down to a PG rating. Now, keep in mind, this was a PG back in 1984. The film still features way more decapitations and hacking/slashing then would ever fly in that rating today. Yet it's still considerably less then the last time.

It’s not just the lack of killin’ and fuckin’ that makes “The Destroyer” a disappointment. The tone has been dumbed down in other ways too. The sequel has a more generic fantasy plot line, with a magical MacGuffin to be retrieved, monsters to kill, and phantasmagorical fantasy playing a bigger role in general. It’s hard to imagine the first “Conan” film featuring a crystal palace, a magical pterodactyl, and not one but two monsters to be killed. Most annoyingly, Conan is given a comic relief sidekick. Malak, played by Tracey Walter, is a thief, a swindler, and a goofball. He frequently cracks lame jokes and makes belabored references to his extended family. Worst, he frequently gets the characters we care about nearly killed by screwing around during the action scenes. Princess Jehnna, played by Olivia d’Abo, is nearly as annoying. She’s a damsel in distress and her childish infatuation with Conan isn’t very compelling. The worst part is that Conan and Mako’s wizard are both turned into jokers. Conan gets drunk, stumbles around, and acts dumber then last time. Mako, meanwhile, has to be rescued from a cartoonish set of cannibals. It’s all pretty dire.

Having said that, “Conan the Destroyer” isn’t entirely without merit. Basil Poledoris contributes another fantastic score. The action is generally competent. A duel between Conan and a Rawhead Rex-resembling lizard wizard takes place in a mirrored hall and quickly gets silly. However, the barbarian’s sword otherwise remains strong. The opening fight scene against a group of horseback attackers is well shot and makes good use of a set of nets. Conan’s stabbing and slicing is dramatically shot. A sword fight with one of the queen’s armored henchman is actually quite exciting and features some Mr. Olympus-worthy posing from Arnold. Too much of the film takes place in non-distinct temples and ruins but I do like the tunnel-bound escape. The final raid on the castle is decent too, Bombaata and Conan getting a good fight to themselves. Unfortunately, the movie concludes with a lackluster fight between our hero and the reawaken monster Dagoth. Played by an uncredited Andre the Giant, the monster awkwardly fumbles around inside a heavy, constraining suit. People who mock Arnold’s acting ability should see how hard he tries to sell the ridiculous, Carlo Rambaldi-designed creature as a viable threat.

Another aspect of “Conan the Destroyer” I don’t totally dislike is the supporting cast it throws together. No, not Malak or Princess Jehnna. They all suck. I’m referring to the new adventurers Conan meets up with. Mako is back and, though the material isn’t as dignified as last time, he still gives a focused performance. Infamously, notorious horn dog Walt Chamberlain, in his only film role, was cast as the protector of Princess Jehnna’s virginity. Chamberlain is an even stiffer actor then Arnold but he has a similar physical screen presence. There’s also a certain novelty to seeing another person tower over Schwarzenegger. Grace Jones plays an Amazon, naturally, and her wild-eyed performance and enthusiastic fight scenes is one of the few high-lights of the movie. Former Ursa Sarah Douglas plays the evil queen, presumably because Meg Foster was busy that day, and does just fine. As for Arnold, his accent is clearer, his acting is more self-assured, and his comic timing is even better. He might not have had much interest in the script but, always a professional, Arnold never lets it show.

Despite making more money then the first one, “Conan the Destroyer” did not lead on to more Conan movies. A third adventure, “Conan the Conqueror,” was planned but the less-then-enthusiastic reception of this one and Arnold’s reluctance to return sunk it. (It would, years later, resurface as “Kull the Conqueror.”) An inevitable kid’s cartoon, a syndicated live-action show, a quasi-spin-off movie I’ll be discussing tomorrow, and a lackluster reboot would follow, none of them generating much interest. Now, there’s rumblings that Schwarzenegger might return for a thirty years later sequel, which has also been bandied about for some time. If “The Legend of Conan” is made, it’ll ignore “Conan the Destroyer.” Probably a good decision. Though the movie is not a total disaster, it doesn’t remotely live up to the original and is generally a mediocre affair. [5/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[X] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

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