Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian

I have long held the belief that up until Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, fantasy just never got a fair shake in cinema. I’ve watched quite a few earlier fantasy movies, and while some of them certainly made an effort at quality, too often they just ended up being far too cheesy to take seriously. In my head, I’d always assumed Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian would fall right into that same category, so I never even bothered to watch it.

I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided to give it a shot earlier this week, expecting to turn it off after a bit once I knew I was right. Instead, I watched it through to the end, and I really enjoyed it. No, the effects aren’t great, and the choreography of an action sequence has made leaps and bounds since this movie came out, but the fundamental essentials of a good movie are all there, and it still stands up despite those limitations.

The biggest reason for this, of course, is Arnold. I don’t think you could possibly get someone better equipped to play the role of a barbarian. He’s like a fantasy illustration brought to life, so there’s almost no need for elaborate costumes and special effects. In many ways, he is the special effect. All he has to do is grab a sword and start swinging (or better yet, a battle axe), and you’re off and running. The fact that his English was so accented only added to the aura.

And he’s not just some muscle-head, either. Is he a great actor in it? Well, no. But there’s charisma there, and it’s clear to see why he ended up being so successful in Hollywood, and why other pure body builders haven’t really been able to follow suit. Simply lifting heavy things doesn’t prepare you to be an action star. Go figure.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch. But it’s solid through and through. And even though the effects are lacking in some areas, the costuming, set design, and general tone of the film are very strong. When Conan’s group of adventurers all put on camo war paint to invade an evil temple, they look fantastic. And as for plot, it’s a movie about how Conan became a barbarian warrior. Kind of exactly what the title implies. There’s something to be said for simplicity.

I gave it an 8/10. Yes, it’s full of early 80s cheese, and it’s definitely R-rated (though not nearly as bloody as it would be today), but I had a great time with it, and I’m sorry I missed out on it by making silly assumptions all this time.

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