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Friday, August 15, 2014

Bad Movie Month rides with Conan the Destroyer

Continuing our quest for Sorry Sequels this season on Bad Movie Month, we mount up with old school Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Destroyer.

This 1984 follow-up to the unexpected hit Conan the Barbarian had a much different tone in dealing with the pulp fiction source material. Under director John Milius, the sword and sorcery story telling had a bit of an operatic approach to it(plus, having James Earl Jones as the bad guy helped out a lot).

With new director Richard Fleischer at the helm, the movie took on a comedic vibe that lead to a rather campy treatment of the characters and plot points. Many people feel that the lowering level of violence in CTD(which was PG, unlike the first film that earned a strong R rating) is to blame for the lackluster energy on screen but to my eye, it's the hokey jokey elements of the script that is the root cause of that evil:

The story line here has Conan and a comic relief sidekick being recruited by an evil queen named Taramis (Sarah Douglas) to escort her niece Jehnna(Olivia D'abo) towards her destiny, a search for a magic gem that opens a magic lock to a magic bejeweled horn to awaken an ancient god. Not too much magic involved, is there?

The big hidden twist(or not as hidden as our wicked queen would like it to be) is that Jehnna is meant to be a human sacrifice in order to keep the "dreaming god" from being uncontrollably cranky when he wakes up.

 That plan doesn't work out well, although the part when Jehnna's virginity is supposed to be kept safe from Conan by captain of the guards Bombatta(Wilt Chamberlain-place your own ironic joke here) does.  Despite Jehnna's keen interest in romancing Conan, he regards her considerable charms with as much interest as he does the camel that gets punched in the head early on(a call back to the first film and a pointless one at that).

Much credit for that lack of lust goes to Conan's belief that his dead lover Valeria(from the original movie) will be restored to him by Evil Queenie. Too bad Arnie wasn't as devoted to his living life partners as his supposedly uncivilized character was to his deceased girlfriend but as Akiro would say, that's another story.

 Back to our bad girl ruler who,of course, has no intention of paying off her hired hand here and instructs Bombatta to "put a sword in Conan's heart" as soon as the first jewel heist is completed. Corruption, false promises and dubious game plan, Taramis sounds a lot like your average politician to me!

One smart thing that Conan does do in this otherwise goofy film is call upon his old wizard pal Akiro(Mako, reprising his role from CTB and adding some opening credit narration as well) to join in, with all the magic going on, plus pick up a new recruit named Zula(Grace Jones, making her film debut here).

This ragtag bunch stumbles across some trouble during their quest, which basically relies on Jehnna being lead by her mystical birthmark to wherever they're going, not the best way to plan a journey there. They run into a number of bad guys, including a wizard who guards the magic gem key in a glass palace in the middle of a lake and turns into a badly animated cartoon bird to kidnap the princess.

This whole thing sounds rather cartoonish to begin with and not in a good way there, which explains the cheesy special effects and make-up. The mirror monster that Conan has to battle alone would make the judges on Face Off wince in utter horror at just how bad looking it is. This creature is described as a "man ape" but resembles a lizard mask made with Play-do that's melted in a microwave to me:

The only saving grace of this movie is Grace Jones, as a warrior woman who throws in with Conan's crew after he gives her an assist with an angry mob. 

Her body language and facial expressions(particularly during the fight scenes) more than make up for the lack of dialogue given to the character and out of the entire cast, she's the most memorable.

 Grace Jones went onto other film parts after this such as hench woman May Day in the Bond film A View to a Kill and the title role in Vamp and like her debut in CTD, focused more on her powerful presence than allowed Jones to act out a fully developed character.

Granted, she may not be a Shakespearean actress but Grace Jones does and did deserve better written scripts.  Conan the Destroyer is mainly worth seeing for Zula, who I think should have gotten her own movie. Zula was one of the few fighting females on screen at the time that wasn't relegated to being a love interest and she's still an iconic figure to many of the Conan fans. Not to mention a welcome relief from the damsel-in-distress antics of Jehnna there:

 I know this is intended to be B-movie fare but the script really could have used some nuance, especially in characterization. Some of the basic formula plotting was most likely due to a rewrite but nonetheless, a little extra creativity certainly would've spiced things up.

For example,Bombatta-is he really that on board with the big "kill the girl for the god" plan, particularly a girl that he's probably known since "the day of her birth?"(they say "day of birth" quite often in this sucker)? Does he have some other motivation maybe, like an illicit love affair with the queen or something like that? I'm not asking for a big miniseries here, just a little more that "Yes, my queen."

Also, how is it that towards the end of the movie, Conan instantly figures out that he was set up all along for a fall and that the queen never meant to bring back Valeria? Did he take a magic smart potion or something when we weren't looking?  Seems like a lazy bit of writing to me, which is par for the course in a story that pretty much plays connect the dots. Conan fights at point A, Jehnna screams for help at Point B and a stupid joke is made at Point C before we get to the big fighty-Mcfight sequence.

Arnie made one more sword swinging movie after this one tanked(Red Sonja, with the same director) and then hung up his barbarian gear for good. Just as well, since such strong man sagas have a short shelf life as it is. Tune in next time on Bad Movie Month when we get our wolf on with Howling II and as for Conan, he may have a big sword but not much else in his arsenal to last one round in any true game of thrones:


Thaddeus said...

This is a very funny, very insightful review! You're dead right that the tone of this film was completely misjudged, and that the effects were astoundingly subpar for a sequel to a major hit.

But whether its plot, script, or fx, this whole thing is a train wreck. Your criticisms are all very constructive, but I'm a bit harsher... Hell, even the cool Conan score couldn't serve to put a polish on this turkey.

It's a small wonder that the series stopped there - and I'm glad you pointed out Red Sonja, as that film could've ruined Arnie's career. I'm ashamed to say I saw this in a theater...

lady t said...

Thanks, Thaddeus and I saw both Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja in theaters, so, no shame in our game:)