Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Age of High Adventure

In a fairly dramatic turn of events, Universal has taken the Conan franchise from a property eagerly rebooted (which fizzled in last year's tragic remake of Conan the Barbarian) to courting the original Conan himself in an attempt to resurrect a direction the franchise was set to take before a certain fateful election in California.

Yep, Arnold Schwarzenegger is apparently back in the loincloth.

Latino Review reports that the Governator himself is signing on to reprise the role that launched his career into orbit in an aiming-for-2014 project called The Legend of Conan. The story pitch takes place during the later years of Conan's life, ostensibly while he's wearing "the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow." For anyone familiar with the franchise's turbulent history after the rightfully-maligned Conan the Destroyer (the 1984 follow-up to Milius' original), this sounds almost exactly like the pitch for King Conan: Crown of Iron.

For those who aren't quite as obsessively anal in how they follow Hollywood developments, King Conan was a project that was actively courting Schwarzenegger about a decade ago. The idea was to focus on an older Conan, the chronicle of a monarch who's reaching the end of his warrior days. What made this film pitch a hot item after the franchise had lain dormant so long was the proposed inclusion of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (who was just breaking into film at the time) as Conan's son. Which sounded like a good idea then and sounds even better now.

On balance, I have to say this is a good, smart move. The remake last year did nothing for the franchise, Arnold is sure to get at least a few butts in seats, and the idea of a "twilight years" Conan movie does have a great deal of appeal. That said, I'm not as excited as I though I would be.

Now to clarify, I love the original Conan film - I think it's a great dark fantasy adventure with some solid performances and brutal action, no to mention one of the all-time great scores by Basil Poledouris (who was himself one of the all-time greats in his field). However. . . it's not a great portrayal of Conan. Sure the brutality is there, and Schwarzenegger has a hell of a screen presence, but John Milius and Oliver Stone's story wasn't so much an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's original stories (or even the fantastic first run of the Marvel comic from the 70's), but of the Frank Frazetta paintings that adorned the paperback covers of Howard's book. Conan of the stories is not a lumbering meat-tank. He's big and strong, but he's described as agile, quick (I believe "panther-like" even), clever, and surprisingly well-spoken. It created a great skewering of expectations when the "dumb brutal savage" would enter civilization and then show himself to be a great tactician, winning with his wits as often as with his sword.

This is the sort of "closer to the books" concept that I was hoping we'd get with the remake, and while the new film was pretty bad, Momoa himself was a damn fine Conan who hewed far closer to the character on the page. I'd have loved to see him get a second chance with a competent director and screenwriter.

But beyond that, much as it gives me nostalgia tingles to think of Arnold wielding the sword again, that's about all this nets from where I'm standing - fan-boy cred. The problem is the other thing about the original film is that it basically works because it's such an audacious product of its time. Yes, it "holds up" but even then on the merit of things you just can't recreate in modern Hollywood. You don't get much more "80's" than that movie, drenched in practical stunts and effects, make-up, blood packs, and a "go for broke" mixture of the deadly serious alongside the utter ridiculous. To say nothing of the fact that Milius himself did a bang-up job creating the film's tone and mythic feel. And he sure as hell won't be back.

Basically, unless the stars align in a profound way this project is going to be completely different from the 1982 Conan the Barbarian in just about every meaningful way except for having Schwarzenegger involved. I'm still game to see how it turns out, but after the way Hollywood has handled the property thus far, this comes off as an attempt to recreate the magic of that film without any concept of everything that made it so great in the first place.

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