This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
The first Conan movie, Conan The Barbarian was a celebration of muscle and killing in the face of overwhelming odds, as Arnie first displays that strange brand of charisma that means he somehow remains a compelling guy to watch despite not saying an awful lot. Of course, being at the prime of his award winning physique means he can’t help but impose upon you. This first film, though utterly brutal at the time seems timid by today’s desensitized standards, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for the more ‘family friendly’ follow-up, Conan The Destroyer.
Let’s dive into the plot shall we? I’m going to batter this section out while watching it, so if it’s a little stream-of-consciousness please excuse me. Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) starts off quietly counting his spoils of war when he’s waylaid by a group of thugs. After a spirited fight the numbers game overwhelms him, and he’s brought in front of the dread ‘Evil’ Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas).
Conan is played like a two dollar fiddle by the ‘Evil’ Queen Taramis on the basis that she will bring his deceased squeeze Valeria back from the dead. Her fee? To escort her niece Jehnna (Olivia d’Abo) on a foretold journey of intense peril to find a key guarded by a wizard in some castle or other. Jehnna is a fair young maiden with a voice akin to nails being dragged over an blackboard of infinite length. Incidentally we now know that the ‘Evil’ bit of Evil Queen Taramis is justified because she’s going to sacrifice Jehnna on her return and orders her chief of the guard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) to kill Conan as soon as he has the key. How Evil!
They head off on their quest, stopping off to alleviate Conan’s concerns about going up against a magician by collecting one of his own. Akiro (Mako) is about to be chargrilled by cannibals, but Conan saves him with some judicious head chopping. With the films lesser certification, the battles are far less savage than it’s predecessor which is a pity, as the brutality of Conan is pretty essential to his character and without it the film feels like it’s missing something. Namely blood. The magician joins the trek, along with Conan’s annoying thief sidekick Malak (Tracey Walter). Quite why two comedy sidekicks are required is beyond me.
Trekking into a village they find the peasants happily torturing a female warrior Zula (Grace Jones) who they claim was thieving. Ordered to help her by the niece, she cuts her loose allowing her to bring the pain with her big stick o’ fun. After pummelling them for a bit the villagers get all comically timid and allow her to escape on horseback, screaming like a banshee. Oi, vey. She catches up to Conan’s party but Bombaata tries to send her away. She takes umbrage at this and the pair have a scrap before Conan pulls schoolteacher duty and pulls them apart. Conan magnanimously allows her to ride with them over the mountains to the Castle of Tarkenon.
The magician of the castle is a daft looking git, sort of like the might sorcerer Tim from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. The gang camp outside for the night, allowing the sorcerer to turn into a bad special effect and fly over to them and kidnap Jehnna. The wee magician dude is the first to awaken and notice her absence. They row over a lake to the badly composited castle. The special effects haven’t dated too well, but that’s only to be expected.
They infiltrate the castle, and as they wander around the caverns below it reminds me of The Two Towers and the old Atari Gauntlet game. Conan walks into a hall of mirrors and is attacked by the singularly least convincing hell-beast I’ve ever seen. Looks a bit like Spawn actually. They wrestle for a bit in a way that’s more comedic than convincing, replete with some of Arnie’s daftest gurning ever. He wins, obviously, and the magician dies in another bad special effect allowing the gang to be reformed and capture the key they were after, which is actually a pretty gem. On picking it up the castle starts to disintegrate, probably because it appears to be built of Styrofoam.
On the way back, the Queen’s elite guard jump them and make off with Jehnna, but they’re no match for Ah-nold and his squad. Arnie’s swordfight with the guards is pretty impressive, actually. Conan suspects Bombaata of being up to something. Yay! A wound tending scene! Classic exchange though, Jehnna – “I suppose nothing hurts you”, Conan – “Only pain”. Conan gets drunk and passes out while Zula attempts to teach Jehnna how to wield a staff. Conan comes around and gives her a crash course of swordsmanship before walking into a wall and passing out again. Comedy gold. Theoretically.
Continuing on they stumble on some kind of tomb, which is the site for the ceremony. Reading the instruction manual carved on the wall the magician finds out what’s going to happen to the world, but not in time to stop Jehnna placing the gem in the appropriate slot. This opens up the big cave o’ fire, and Jehnna grabs the horn of magical thingumajigs. They exit stage right, but are waylaid by a bunch of jokers who say they are keepers of the horn. They want to awaken the dark god, the magician give us a little speech for any of the audience that hadn’t picked up on the fact that this is a sub-optimal thing, and they start a barney.
The gang retreat back into he crypt and nip out the back way. Bombaata finally gets round to betraying them, starting a landslide that would seem to bury Conan, Malak, Zula and Akiro for good. That kind of thing isn’t nearly enough to stop Arnie, though it’s enough to get him pissed off and looking for vengeance against that lying Evil Queen Taramis. Will he be in time to save the girl and the world? Of course. It’s Conan were talking about, although due to the evil god turning out to be a rather crappy man in suit affair this final epic confrontation is more comedic than climatic.
I was expecting to be able to flay this alive for being rubbish but to be honest it doesn’t fare much worse than the original. The whole series doesn’t seem anything like as brutal as it once was, so although Conan The Destroyer is tamer in comparison to Conan The Barbarian neither are benchmarks in violence these days, with Gladiator alone easily outgoring them combined. The added comedy elements give it a less pretentious tone, but it’s at the expense of the whole epic, grandiose scale that the original had. The trade off isn’t a great one, because it’s not terribly funny when it’s trying to be, despite a few presumably unintentional chortles supplied along the way. The camel that Arnie decks in the first film gets his vengeance too.
There’s a strange variance in set quality compared to the first film, many looking every bit as lavish and convincing as it’s earlier member, others looking appallingly fake. At least the score is of consistent quality, Basil Poledouris reprising the rousing main theme for obvious reasons but giving the rest of the action a quality sonic backdrop which occasionally isn’t reflected in the actual action.
No-one’s going to be watching this in expectation of a cavalcade of character development, which is handy because there isn’t any. The danger of having so many main characters kicking around cluttering up the place becomes apparent here, as the characterisation of all of Conan’s gang lies somewhere between paper-thin and non-existent. Akiro is useful in exactly one scene, Malak in none (unless you like being annoyed), Bombaata no more than an action figure, ditto Zula but displaying more flesh. It’s almost odd that it’s the shallowest character, Conan that gets the bulk of the screen time given that his raison detre over the two films seems to be killin’ and thievin’. Some pruning of the Conan family tree might have been in order here. With nothing to play with, the only stand out acting performances come from Tracey Walter and Olivia d’Abo, for all the wrong reasons as they become more grating with each passing minute.
There’s no point being overly harsh on this film. It’s aged as badly as Conan has but it still delivers exactly what it promises, a lighter version of the first one with no nudity and less violence. The added family friendly comedy aspect pretty much falls flat, so the film feels like Diet Conan The Barbarian, not quite barbaric enough. Come to think of it, there’s little evidence of him destroying anything too. As such, it gets a mark not quite as good as that bestowed upon it’s elder sibling.