Conan the Destroyer (1984) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA rated PG for violence, brief nudity, sensuality, and scary images (would definitely be PG-13 today)
Running time: 103 min.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia d'Abo, Wilt Chamberlain, Grace Jones, Tracey Walter, Mako, Sarah Douglas, Pat Roach, Jeff Corey
Director: Richard Fleischer
Screenplay: Stanley Mann
Having claimed to once bedded over 20,000 women, how can one not find humor that former NBA great Wilt Chamberlain, in his only major film role, would play a man charged with protecting the virginity of a princess?
Arnold Schwarzenegger's (The Terminator, Commando) second (and final) appearance as the Robert E. Howard-created Cimmerian hero, this fantasy adventure sees a less adult Conan in a PG-rated epic (just prior to the PG-13 implementation, which this very violent film would have most certainly received) that ups the humor quotient while toning down the T&A and much of the gory violence from John Milius's Conan the Barbarian. In contrast to the first entry, this one comes off as too coated with cheese to not find a disappointment overall, but as a standalone piece, it hasn't aged as poorly as other sword-and-sorcery flicks from the 1980s. Veteran director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, Tora Tora Tora) goes for a lighter tone and more juvenile delivery, wanting to branch the franchise out to kids who read the comic books, love WWF wrestling matches, enjoyed the tomb-raiding adventures of Indiana Jones, and the similar premise of such television fare as "The Masters of the Universe."
Here, a power-hungry queen named Taramis of Shadizar (Douglas, Superman II) commissions Conan, who is promised the resurrection of his dead lover Valeria, to assist with the protection of her niece, a young virgin princess named Jehnna (d'Abo, Wayne's World 2), traveling along with her personal bodyguard Bombaata (Chamberlain), to venture into the mystical castle to retrieve a fabled horn that promises to bring the dormant 'dreamer god' Dagoth to the mortal realm. The twist is that, at the end of the quest, Jehnna is to be sacrificed, and in all likelihood Conan and his cohorts as well. These new friends include the great wizard Akiro (Mako, The Big Brawl, who appeared in the first film), the agile warrior Zula (Jones, A View to a Kill), and Conan's comical sidekick, Malak the thief (Walter, Goin' South).
Hokey, but not without a certain enjoyment, the film does nearly come undone in two key scenes, both for the same reasons -- battles against villains portrayed in poorly designed and very obvious rubber suits (one involving a 'man-ape' in a room of mirrors and the other marring the climax featuring Andre the Giant (The Princess Bride) in the costume). These scenes are also dark and somewhat gruesome, eroding the goofy, nearly family friendly tone of the rest of the film. The acting is also a liability, which is typical of early Schwarzenegger vehicles, but it is especially evident whenever Chamberlain is on screen, cast solely for his physical stature (he stands at a towering 7'1") rather than his ability to emote (which he doesn't appear to even try to do). Grace Jones does give the character of Zula a unique and authentic feral look, and a good physical prowess, even if the role is only one note in the end. Ovilia d'Abo, in her debut film performance, is fetching as the young princess with an eye for Conan, one of the only men she's ever laid eyes on in her virginal lifetime. The real black hole in the acting department comes from the casting of Tracey Walter as Malak, who is an utter failure at both the comic relief as a well as looking out of place in the athletic requirements of the role (Walter had been a late replacement for the ailing David L. Lander).
The first film had a terrific script from a young Oliver Stone to work with. This one has Stanley Mann (Firestarter, Circle of Iron) retooling an original story by 'Conan' comic book authors Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway (It should be noted that Thomas and Conway were not pleased with the final script, eventually releasing their original story in comic book form, with some character name changes, in 1990 in the Marvel Comics graphic novel, 'Conan: The Horn of Azoth'). In some ways, the jokey, cheesy tone feels like a predecessor to adventure movies of the 2000s, especially The Mummy and its sequels.
As a sequel, Conan the Destroyer is a failure for many (especially for fans of the original Howard works), not delivering on the tone or the promise of its predecessor except to dumb everything down in the hope of broadening the fan base. However, as a standalone adventure (i.e., don't watch the two films back to back if you want to enjoy the sequel), it has enough moments of enjoyment for fans of quest adventures featuring faraway lands, exotic locales, and the requisite wizards, warriors and princesses. The photography (shot mostly in Mexico) by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Under Capricorn, Cat's Eye) , set and art design, and the Basil Poledouris (Tintorera, Protocol) score are genuine highlights. Keep the expectations low, and this low-brain power epic just might be the kind of intentionally shallow, escapist guilty pleasure you're looking for.
-- Follows Conan the Barbarian
©2011 Vince Leo