Monday, January 27, 2014

Conan the Destroyer

I watched Conan the Destroyer a lot as a kid. It always seemed to just be there, either floating around on cable TV or stacked randomly amidst the family video collection, a collection largely dictated by us guys i.e., dad, older brother and myself. Watching it now is like returning to a safe haven: I can relax, not many come this way anymore, and those who do are of good company. The general consensus says that Conan the Barbarian is the better of the two Conan adaptations. I agree. But I’ve never dismissed the 1984 follow-up simply for being the inferior. The John Milius incarnation sweeps over me with its operatics, silent cinematics and deeply masculine romance. The sequel is just goofy fun, aided considerably by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is suck-proof, and remains one of my all-time favorite personas of the big screen.
Speaking of my prepubescent days, I was but 8 or 9 years of age when the old man put in my hands a Weird Tales anthology marathoning the original Conan pulps by Robert E. Howard. Naturally, my boy brain went nuclear over the lurid, bloody and scantily clad exploits of said Cimmerian as penned by his creator in a fashion yet to be equaled. I’ve long since recognized that no Conan movie, no sword & sorcery feature film of any kind, has properly translated the "high adventures" that Howard envisioned. I’m okay with that. Conan the Barbarian may not be authentic REH, but it resonates close enough with its own grimace and melancholy and savage philosophies. Conan the Destroyer lacks considerably the lyricism of its predecessor, while continuing with one or two of its unfortunate REH inaccuracies. However, in terms of story structure, the sequel actually hits closer to the home of ye old weekly pulp narratives, and also puts a little more verbal spring back into its title hero, who, in the first film, was the silent type; for the Conan of Howard’s stories was often surprisingly talkative.
Conan the Destroyer wastes no time. Twelve minutes in and the plot is already being laid out in full: Conan and his thief sidekick Malak (Tracy Walter) are bargain-struck by Queen Taramis of Shadazar (Sarah Douglas) with a quest to retrieve the jeweled horn of Dagoth, the dreaming god. The horn is locked away in an ancient temple, to which the key, itself a jewel, is kept under guard by a powerful wizard who resides alone in an ice castle. One quest, two separate destinations: first, the ice castle and then the ancient temple. But only the Queen’s virgin niece Princess Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo) may touch the jewel-key (and live) and use it to unlock the resting place of the jeweled horn. Therefore she and her personal protector Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), the Queen’s captain, must travel with Conan. Their party grows to five when Conan recruits his wizard friend Akiro (Mako, from the first film) and picks up a stray warrior woman Zula (Grace Jones). As to be expected, Taramis’ deal with Conan, to revive from the dead his lost love Valeria, proves a lie as Bombaata is secretly assigned to kill him after their quest is complete, and the princess is ultimately destined to be sacrificed in-sync with the resurrection of the evil god Dagoth.
Got all that? No? Doesn't matter.
Right out of the gate, the single worst aspect of this movie is the character Malak. Where Conan had great repertoire with the knavish but deadly Subotai, Malak is just a dumb-shit comic relief sidekick, saddled with bad lines and worse deliveries at attempted humor that never even rise high enough to fall flat. Of course I have great love for the seemingly everywhere Tracy Walter, particularly for his contributions to Repo Man. But here he’s woefully miscast with a raspy voice spouting lousy material that is nothing but an annoyance. Otherwise, the remaining cast offers up a treasure trove of heyday actors, eye candy, and delightful absurdity, both intentional and unintentional. The dudes of Conan the Destroyer anchor in amidst a sea of relating films and entertainment.
You’ve got the legendary Pat Roach playing the ice castle wizard. Where do I even begin with Roach? Everything from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon to countless popcorn movies of the 1980s including Never Say Never Again, Superman III, Clash of the Titans, Red Sonja, Willow and, greatest of all, the shirtless Nazi brawler from Raiders of the Lost Ark...and...the big Thugee dude in Temple of Doom. You’ve got Danish bodybuilder/stuntman/Schwarzenegger regular, Sven-Ole Thorsen, making his rounds as a nameless and face obscured soldier of the Queen’s guard who duels to the death with Conan. One can only imagine the nights after a day’s shoot with Arnold and Sven hanging out, smoking cigars, playing cards and just laughing heartedly as they drink from life. The fun doesn’t stop there. Though un-credited, pro-wrestler phenomenon Andre the Giant bore the FX costume of Dagoth in horrid monster form. Arnold, Andre, Sven and Roach all in one movie. I mean, c'mon!
But wait, setting up one of the greatest inside jokes in cinema history is the casting of 7 ft 1 Harlem Globetrotter extraordinaire, Wilt '20, 000' Chamberlain (Google it), as the protector of Princes Jehnna’s virginity. Wilt isn’t much for personality in the role of Bombaata, but I can’t help but love the way he delivers the line, "Thieves should be hanged!" And when it comes time to throw down against a half-sized Arnold, Chamberlain earns his paycheck. On the flip side of the gender are two (debatably three) hot-ass women garbed in ‘80s fantasy wear. First, she was Kryptonion villain Ursa in Superman II, but as Queen Taramis, mega-sexy Sara Douglas slinks around in a thigh-high push-up corset, strangely evoking your best friend’s MILF or, better yet, some spicy scandalous wife of a rich jerk-off husband who lures helpless pool boys into her web. And then there’s Oliva d’Abo. I must tread lightly here. Beyond Ripley’s belief, d’Abo was only...*gasp*...14 years old during the time of filming.
Look, I’m a moderately good person. I pay my taxes, I recycle, I abide all laws. I’m a mature grown man. I’m not a skeeze. But I’m not going to bullshit you either: wrapped in tight fitting furs and a revealing V-split top, a well-developed d’Abo brings about me urges that, I swear, are purely biological and beyond my control. Sue me. I am but a product of evolution and I take no shame in my instincts to preserve the human race. In defense of the film, Jehnna leers curiously towards the prospect of sex (with Conan) but is kept wholly innocent at the same time. Even when the two share a kiss in the end, it is a kiss one-sided; Arnold remains steadfast, lips sealed, as if merely tolerating the whimsies of young girl. As for Grace Jones -- the androgynous she-creature of extreme ‘80s chic -- I’ll leave it to you to determine where she falls in the spectrum of sexual attraction. I’m still confused on the matter. In the role of Zula she fits right in as a gangly near naked berserker with a face that attacks all its own, who spears and screams and is just damn scary all around.
Conan the Destroyer is not all that dramatic but it does deliver as much content in all things sword & sorcery as one could hope from a film of its limited budget, scope and special effects capabilities. You want an evil sorcerer who transforms into a phantom dragon? You got it. A one-on-one battle in a room of magic mirrors? No problem. Cannibals, a wizard duel, an obligatory collapsing fortress, a gratuitous shot of Arnold’s rippling muscles as he lifts something heavy, a giant monster that crushes skulls and shoots lighting? Bon appétit. Granted, none of it is woven into a larger, thematically driven story but, instead, plays like a random checklist of fantasy oriented scenarios. Even Conan himself seems markedly downsized from arced wanderer to generic action hero. In Conan the Barbarian he was a burned soul, an impassioned lover, hell-bent on revenge and yearning for a deeper sense of purpose. In Conan the Destroyer he’s just a guy doing some stuff. But no Conan embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger can ever be truly dispirited.
Once again Arnold gets to chuck it up in a scene of drunken behavior ("Lot on your nife!...uh...not on your life!") and a great moment of character comes during a standoff between our heroes and a horde of armed keepers of the ancient temple; as Akiro and the opposing priest argue over the dangers of Dagoth, Conan, shit-canning diplomacy, interrupts with, "Enough talk!" and hurls his dagger into the gut of some sorry motherfucker. Oh, how often have I resolved banal workplace disputes with such Gordian Knot eloquence (three time employee of the month, bitches!). I take certain pleasures in the film’s many scenes of pure silliness: Conan air-spun by his heels à la WrestleMania, Conan crawling over a pile of giant foam rocks, and nothing says cheesy ‘80s entertainment like watching faceless horseback goons try and capture Conan with nets. Movies + guys with swords + nets = a whole lot of stupid. Despite its PG rating, the film still manages a decent amount of blood splatter, decapitation and gooey monster gore. Only nudity gets the shaft, which, considering the aforementioned female leads, is a serious bummer.
Director Richard Fleischer was an old pro, a veteran of the studio days, known more for meeting deadlines and production demands with carpentry-like reliability than he was for waxing overt filmic artistry. Stretching some 45 years in the business, Fleischer’s work mostly emphasized technical skill over style, exemplified by such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Barabbas, Fantastic Voyage and Tora! Tora! Tora! In my opinion his masterpiece is The Vikings with Kirk Douglas, which I hold in higher esteem than Spartacus. For Conan the Destroyer the no-non-sense shot design guarantees readable action and that all actors and extras are properly in frame at all times. Otherwise, it’s just point the camera and roll. In any case, the film is not devoid of visual style.

Renowned cinematographer and frequent Fleischer collaborator Jack Cardiff took the gritty earthen-toned realm of the previous Conan movie and imbued it with lush colors and a gauzy luminous glow akin to his then neighboring project Rambo: First Blood Part II. Swords, jewels and varying costumes sparkle with prism colored lens flares, and during a campfire sit-down between Princess Jehnna and a drunken Conan, a close up of the former is rendered with vintage soft focus photography and a pallet of warm red and purple hues, harkening the classic Hollywood make-believes with soundstagey artificiality; sadly, an aesthetic no longer hip in today’s world of desaturations, moody monochromes and lifeless digital grading.

Also differentiating from the first film and its Spanish locales, Conan the Destroyer makes surprisingly good use of Mexico’s rugged mountains and sand dunes, highlighting shapely geologies such as the oval boulder cluster seen in the film’s opening sequence and a massive two story rock tower centered between Arnold and Sven’s pine forested duel. Master stuntman/coordinator Vic Armstrong gives the film a good dose of fist bashing, head butting and beefy swordfights that, under Fleischer’s frank direction, comes off pleasantly phony, like watching pro-wrestlers knock each other around with metal chairs and trashcan lids. Perhaps the only other flat-out criticism I can make against the film concerns the largely recycled score by Basil Poledouris. It’s not that the score fails on its own, but compared to the achievements of the first film -- arguably one of the greatest fantasy scores of all time -- the music here feels markedly less inspired and is undercut by a lousy, TV show-scaled orchestration.

Well, that about does it for Conan the Destroyer. It is what it is. If you dig the more Italianized second rate gems of Dino De Laurentiis as much as I do then his middle installment of the Arnold-fantasy trilogy will, at the very least, keep you nominally entertained. On some levels, and for bizarre reasons I can’t explain, I actually prefer the grayish skies and sparse content of Red Sonja (also directed mechanically by Richard Fleischer). Maybe it has something to do with my fetish for Brigitte Nielsen’s peak Amazonian bod’ mixed with indescribably bad line readings. Whatever. That can be saved for a different review. I’ve said my peace.

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