Like its star attraction, the bulging mass that is Arnold Schwarzenegger, 'Conan the Barbarian' has a one-track mind for fantasy-adventure pandemonium, and it follows through with tons of heart and determination. Though not a faithful adaptation of the Robert E. Howard stories, the John Milius ('Red Dawn') movie carries a great deal of the enthusiasm and mettle found in those sword-and-sorcery tales. With a terrifically enchanting production value and a simple, lighthearted storyline, this passionate little yarn is a delightful behemoth full of magic, mystery, and scantily-clad, beautiful women. It delivers the perfect blend of cheesy escapism, boorish brawn, and plenty of sword action.
Schwarzenegger makes his breakthrough performance as the titular character in search of barbarous vengeance. The Austrian champion bodybuilder was by this point a renowned celebrity as a world-class body-definer, winning several competitions, before challenging himself in an acting career, which was off to a very slow start. But it wasn't until his role of the already-iconic Cimmerian slayer that his career suddenly catapulted his unique name to superstardom. And he's the perfect fit for bringing the heroic fantasy to the big screen. Practically bursting at the seams with muscles and with his raspy brusque accent, Schwarzenegger's portrayal breathes life and dimension into a character that could only previously be imagined by millions of readers.
Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, Conan's quest to avenge the genocide of his people and the murder of his parents commences as a young slave. This is one aspect of the script — the second written by Oliver Stone demonstrating his talents as a writer — which works extraordinarily well in an otherwise straightforward plot. The narrative takes its time to develop and establish a sympathetic character, who for a big part of the story lives in survival mode. Then it shows he is no naturally-born superhero. Conan must learn the art of wielding a sword, and he has a hunger for learning as well as fighting. The man is also flawed, pursuing emerald riches as a thief and content in a lifestyle of gluttony.
Through the course of his journey, Conan meets fellow thieves Sabotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They are a good addition to the story, not only as trustworthy companions but also as an amusing distraction from the fact that Conan is mostly a lone figure. Too much Schwarzenegger in any given movie doesn't necessarily mean a good thing. Remember 'End of Days' and 'Eraser'? Anyhow, filmmakers also bring in the always-charismatic Mako who pulls a double shift as the odd wizard Akiro and the film's narrator. The actor inserts a good comedic element without completely looking the fool. Max von Sydow, too, makes an appearance as King Osric, whose plea to rescue his daughter from a religious cult points Conan in the direction to vengeance and eventual heroism.
The leader to this fanatical sect also happens to be the object of Conan's sweltering retaliation and is played by none other than Darth Vader . . . doh! I meant the remarkably talented James Earl Jones. I was thrown off by his character's final lines where repeats the words father and son several times. No matter, Jones is utterly impeccable as Thulsa Doom, giving the film a certain quality of respectability. And Milius does great in making Jones' villain a powerful foil to an angrily determined Schwarzenegger. With a grand musical score by Basil Poledouris which nicely combines traditional symphony with a medieval-operatic quality and a militarized bent, 'Conan the Barbarian' remains an awesome fantasy-adventure epic and one of Schwarzenegger's most memorable action roles.
Hey, I think I just learned how to spell Schwarzenegger without having to look it up each time. Cool!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers 'Conan the Barbarian' to the Blu-ray gods on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside the usual blue keepcase. The cover art is not very attractive, but it's tolerable. This edition of John Milius' action epic is the original 129-minute theatrical version, so fans hoping to have the same 130-minute cut seen on the collector's DVD may want to hold on to that set. When placed in the player, the disc starts with a series of internet-based previews. Afterwards, it goes to the standard menu selection with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
Touting a fresh remaster on the back of the box, 'Conan the Barbarian' does appear rejuvenated and dapper in this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the picture displays far better clarity and resolution than its standard-def counterparts. Contrast doesn't provide much pop, but it's well-balanced and crisp nonetheless. Black levels, on the other hand, are hit-or-miss though generally strong. Nighttime sequences are noticeably the poorest with average shadow delineation and a good deal of fuzziness. The color palette is accurately saturated with vivid primaries and nicely-rendered secondary hues. The transfer comes with a thin veil of grain, providing the movie with an attractive cinematic appearance.
Several scenes show distinct lines in Conan's outfit and armor, and close-ups expose terrific life-like textures in the faces of actors. Foliage and the unusual Pagan architecture are sharply defined. Sadly, there are also many sequences where details don't hold up quite as well, issues commonly associated to the age of the print used. The image has been digitally cleaned up without too much damage and shows some slight ringing around the edges during scenes with high contrast.
Overall, the video is as sharp as could be hoped for, and it's definitely the best presentation ever for this classic sword-and-sorcery epic.
In the audio department, things only get better with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that perfectly satisfies expectations. The original monaural design is given new life as it occupies a splendid sense of space and provides the soundstage with a full-bodied presence.
There may not be much in terms of rear activity and effects that whiz from speaker to speaker, but listeners can enjoy imaging that's highly engaging and feels broad for the majority of the movie's runtime. Though not very dynamic or extensive, the mid-range is crystal-clear with flawless differentiation between the frequencies. Fans can enjoy every clashing and clanging of the swords with terrific clarity. The low-end is understandably limited, but it offers just enough oomph and weight to the battle scenes to make the spectacle enjoyable. Dialogue and character interactions are pitch-perfect and excellently intonated, so we can make out every hilarious grunt and bellow during Schwarzenegger's fight scenes.
Best of all, the wickedly awesome music from Basil Poledouris is the real winner in the entire mix. The thunderous, symphonic score fills the entire front soundstage and lends itself wonderfully to back speakers with very subtle bleeds. Each instrument is superbly separated and cleanly delivered, and when mixed with the choir segments, the excitement just builds and immerses the listener. The high-rez track may not compare with contemporary action-packed flicks, but this lossless audio presentation of 'Conan' is simply awe-inspiring and must be listened to at full blast.
Universal ports over the same set of supplements as seen on the The Complete Quest DVD release.
'Conan the Barbarian' is not a film that will likely please everyone equally, but for fans of fantasy-adventure epics, this 1984 actioner from John Milius is a classic of the genre, one with a devoted following. The sword-and-sorcery flick stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in his breakout performance as the titular character, along with the great James Earl Jones as his nemesis Thulsa Doom. Universal offers this Blu-ray edition with great picture and an excellent audio presentation that perfectly captures the original score's drama and excitement. Supplements are the same collection from the DVD, but the package offers a couple of new surprises, making this a worthwhile purchase for Arnie fans everywhere.