Our review of Conan the Destroyer (Blu-ray), published August 8th, 2011, is also available.
Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world. Hither came Conan to tread the jeweled thrones of earth under his sandaled feet. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!
In this sequel to Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard's proud Cimmerian sets forth on a heroic quest to recover a magical treasure and restore the life of his beloved Valeria. Along the way he gets bogged down in lame humor, poor plotting, and bad special effects.
Facts of the Case
Since we last saw Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall, The Terminator, The Running Man) he has made quite an impression as a thief. Indeed, his skill and success has attracted the attention of Queen Taramis of Shadizar. She sends a squad of her finest troops to capture Conan and his cowardly sidekick Malak (Tracey Walter, Erin Brockovich, Drowning Mona, Man on the Moon) so that she can present them with a proposal. Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas, Solar Babies, Beastmaster 2,Meatballs 4) needs an expert thief to steal a gem that will unlock an ancient, magical treasure. This treasure, a jewel-encrusted horn, will allow Dagoth, "the dreaming god," to awaken. In return for Conan's services, the Queen will use her powers to bring his beloved Valeria back to life. The princess Jehnna (Olivia D'Abo—"The Wonder Years," Live Nude Girls, Wayne's World 2) will accompany Conan; she is the chosen one, the only person who can find the treasure and the only one who can touch it. Jehnna will be escorted by Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), the captain of the queen's guard. His duty will be to make sure that Jehnna completes the journey with the treasure and her virginity intact. This last is important, for as it turns out the queen intends to sacrifice Jehnna to Dagoth as soon as he is reawakened. If she does not, the ancient prophecies foretell doom and destruction over all the earth. Bombaata's other charge is to kill Conan as soon as the treasure has been secured, as the queen really doesn't care to allow such a skilled thief to continue to practice his profession.
The party sets out on their quest. Their first goal is to steal the gem that will unlock the treasure, which is guarded by Toth-Amon (Pat Roach, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Willow), an ancient and powerful sorcerer. Along the way they stop to pick up Akiro (Mako, The Sand Pebbles, Tucker: A Man and his Dream, Robocop 3) the wizard. Conan doesn't much care for wizards or magic, but if he has to fight one he wants one he can trust on his side. They also meet Zula (Grace Jones, Deadly Vengeance, A View to a Kill, Boomerang), a wild woman warrior who swears her loyalty to Conan. Finally the party reaches the shore of a great lake. In the center of the lake is a great crystal castle, which Jehnna's sense tells her is the location of the sorcerer and the gem. They make camp for the night. While they sleep, Jehnna is stolen away by Toth-Amon who visits the camp in the form of a dragon made of mist. In the morning Conan and the others discover she is gone, and head to the crystal castle to rescue her. In doing so Conan is forced to fight Toth-Amon in a hall of mirrors. He succeeds, they rescue Jehnna, and obtain the magical gem.
After an attack by the queen's soldiers and a night of drunkenness, the party sets out to find the jeweled horn. They find it, pausing to fight a wizard and a group of warriors whose allegiance and plot significance is hazy. Bombaata does his best along the way to dispose of Conan and the others, and sets out to return to Queen Taramis with Jehnna and the jeweled horn. Conan returns to the palace as well, hot on Bombaata's heels. This sets up the final confrontation between Conan and a demonic creature unleashed by the Queen's lust for power.
Conan the Destroyer comes to us from Universal in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is non-anamorphic, but looks very good nevertheless. I could detect no dirt or scratches on the print itself. The transfer is very good, with excellent clarity and no trace of edge enhanced haloing or other digital flaws. Color levels overall are on the mark, although occasional scenes may be a little too red or a little too black; it is hard to tell if this is a fault of the DVD or the source material. As far as I could tell, colors did not bloom or bleed at all. Flesh tones are mostly accurate, but do run to the pink side a bit in some instances.
The original mono audio track is presented in Dolby 2.0. For a mono track it sounds great. Dialogue and sound effects are well balanced, and the great musical score by Basil Poledouris comes through loud and clear.
Extra content consists of a theatrical trailer, production notes, and cast/crew filmographies. The trailer is much the worse for wear, and gives a mix of spoilers and outright disinformation. It is presented in letterbox, in a non-standard aspect ratio, probably pretty close to 1.66:1. Universal has done their usual thorough job on the production notes and biographical information. The production notes are probably too long and cover a lot of minutiae. The cast and crew information is very thorough and informative. For example, I found it interesting that director Richard Fleischer is the son of Max Fleischer, the animator who created such characters as Popeye and Betty Boop.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I watched Conan the Destroyer, I tried to figure out just where it all went off the rails. The plot, while in need of some fine-tuning, is not all that bad and could have made for a lot better movie than this. Jack Cardiff's cinematography manages to capture some impressive visuals when Fleischer lets him. Still, some ominous signs were present from the beginning. The annoying Malak character was a huge red flag, but did not seem like enough to sink the movie. Later on, as the rest of the cast was introduced and the plot was set up, there still seemed to be a lot of hope. The addition of Wilt Chamberlain to the mix was an interesting bit of casting, and he seemed about perfect for the part of Bombaata; all he had to be was an intimidating physical opponent for Conan. The painfully beautiful Olivia D'Abo seemed a welcome presence at first, but it soon became clear that she was off making a different movie altogether, perhaps a teen romance directed by one of John Hughes' lesser imitators. Things took a serious turn for the worse with the arrival of Grace Jones. While physically suited to the part, she goes beyond "over the top" and seems to exist in a parallel universe all her own. A large portion of the movie's failings can be attributed to this unwieldy and mismatched ensemble cast.
There is also far too much camp humor, and this is perhaps the movie's central downfall. Conan the Barbarian was not without humorous moments, but they were used sparingly. The inclusion of Malak as a comic relief sidekick constantly draws attention away from the plot and action around him. Conan himself is written quite differently in this second outing as well, becoming more of the comical muscle-bound buffoon than the noble, savage warrior that he was in the first film. Two scenes in particular play Conan for cheap, unfunny laughs that are completely untrue to the character. The first occurs when Conan first encounters Zula and is apparently unable to count any higher than three. The second comes later in the movie, the drunken scene after the defeat of the wizard Toth-Amon.
Ultmately the blame for failure must lie with director Fleischer. His direction is competent but feels static and conventional. Overall the movie somehow feels flat and lifeless, even in the midst of action scenes that should be exciting. Fleischer simply fails to capture the energy and sense of wonder that John Milius was able to harness in the first film.
The special effects in Conan the Destroyer also leave a lot to be desired. It becomes hard to take Conan's struggle seriously when he has to fight a guy in a really cheap-looking rubber mask. Also, the fight scenes seem contrived and badly choreographed, with lots of pauses so that Conan can swing his sword around like a drum majorette's baton or freeze into cool action poses. Another problem is that by 1984 the legend of Schwarzenegger was spreading throughout Hollywood. Conan is allowed to perform superhuman feats of strength that just don't look convincing; this was a common failing of Schwarzenegger's movies of this period.
Even the Basil Poledouris score seems like a bit of a disappointment. It draws heavily from his incomparable Conan the Barbarian score, but it seems that a lot of the harsh edges have been smoothed out for a smoother, more melodic, and ultimately tamer sound. Come to think of it, that pretty well describes the larger problem with Conan the Destroyer as a whole when compared with its predecessor; some concepts just don't lend themselves to "kinder, gentler" interpretations.
While it doesn't hold a candle to the original, and it bears almost no resemblance to Robert E. Howard's vision, Conan the Destroyer is still better than most of what passes for sword-and-sorcery fantasy. On a certain mindless level, I enjoyed it. While it lacks the epic scope and strong human connection of the first film, I will probably watch it again and may even add it to my collection.
This court finds Conan the Destroyer to be modestly entertaining but unworthy to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor. Universal is acquitted on all charges, although an anamorphic transfer would clearly have been preferable.
We stand adjourned.
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