Sunday, March 15, 2015

Movie Review - Conan the Destroyer

Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Grace Jones, Mako, Olivia d'Abo, Sara Douglas, Tracey Walter, Wilt Chamberlain

This film has been vilified by plenty of critics and reviewers, as well as thoroughly skewered in this blog by a friend of mine. I won't deny that it has plenty of flaws in plotting and casting. But i still have a certain fondness for Conan the Destroyer.

As I said, I don't deny that it has flaws. The biggest flaws in my opinion are the casting. I don't know why they didn't ask Gerry Lopez to come back as Subotai, but replacing him with the comedy-relief thief Malak played by Tracey Walter wasn't a good idea. It's no wonder that Queen Jehnna offers him the job of court fool at the end of the movie. But Conan doesn't need a fool. He needs a boon companion who's good at sneaking around and disabling traps, and maybe at throwing knives or using a bow. I don't know why Conan doesn't leave him with the horses when he asks to be left behind. Except for showing his companions where to get into Shadizar through the back way, he does nothing else of use.

Wilt Chamberlain isn't too great as Bombaata, either, nor is Olivia d'Abo as Jehnna. But they are more than made up for by the presence of Grace Jones and the return of Mako as Akiro.

Grace Jones makes this movie for me. I based one of my first tabletop RPG characters on Zula. One of my favorite moments in the film occurs in Zula's first scene. As Conan approaches her while she is tethered and being harassed by angry villagers, she turns to look at him with an expression of such resentment, clearly expecting him to be another of her tormentors. When Conan slices through the rope around her ankle and sets her free, her expression turns to one of such glee. Later in the film she stabs an enemy to death with her spear and expresses that same fierce glee. It's delightful.

Mako if delightful too, as the wizard. It's a bit sad that he first appears as dinner for a tribe of cannibals, which seems a rather ignominious introduction for him. But he's redeemed by having the great scene in which he does wizard battle with another wizard.  He's also the one who figures out what Sara Douglas's Queen Taramis is really up to, and how to defeat Dagoth. He also gets a great little scene at the end when the newly-crowned Queen Jehnna asks him to become her new vizier and he looks back to Conan for approval.

Speaking of Sara Douglas, she's pretty good too, as Taramis. And she gets some fabulous costumes. Which leads me to the next thing I like about this film: the aesthetic design. Both Conan films, and even Red Sonja (which I may write about in a separate review) do well in demonstrating that the world in which their characters live is an ancient one, full of vast ruins, mysterious magic, and age-old cults. It is a bit underpopulated - Shadizar doesn't have enough citizens to really feel like a big city - but at least it doesn't feel like a world that was just invented for the movie.

Although the movie doesn't make much sense in places, particularly the wizard Toth-Amon capturing Jehnna (why?) and turning into an ape-man to fight Conan in person (again, why?), I always find it fun to watch and evocative of its Hyborean setting. It makes me want to play in a RPG with that type of setting, so I can recreate Zula as my character.

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