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Summer of Schwarzenegger - "Conan the Destroyer" (1984)

Last time, I left off my Conan The Barbarian post with a remark about how the first one is the only good one, and left a sly hint that the sequel is the cinematic equivalent to Conan's relationship with camels. But like that last post, in which I realized that the original actually isn't that great, my feeling about this movie has changed. Because, believe it or not, I actually like it way better than the original. No, it's not a better movie. It's still a cheesy slice of cheesy cheese. But the good kind.

The original Conan flick is a story about a white man doing badass things and everybody else following. This means that other races get portrayed shittily outside of the sidekick, the only interesting female character gets killed (spoiler alert from 1982, folks) to further Conan's developer, and the whole film smacks of Reagan-era conservative individualism that only applies to white dudes. Needless to say, it doesn't really bode too well in 2014, in which we're finally starting to see feminism not get slung around like a dirty word and people of color getting roles aside from "comic relief" and "person who dies." I mean, yeah, it's still a fine movie, and entertaining to watch, but it's almost like hearing an old buddy tell a misogynistic or racist joke. You kind of like the guy, you used to be best buddies, but you can't shake the feeling that he's stuck in the past.

Which makes Conan the Destroyer a huge, ironic twist for the franchise. With the Third Reich's sexual fantasy Valeria six feet under (burned on an alter, actually, but you get the idea,) Conan has traveled the land alone in haunted agony, pained by the loss of his true love and... nah, just kidding, he's fine. He's travelling around the land with some dude named Malak, or as I like to call him, the Comic Relief Thief. Somehow, they get roped into escorting a young princess to get a magical horn that's supposed to... uh, do magic stuff. But the queen commanding them to do that actually wants to kill the girl as a ritual sacrifice, even though she's her daughter, which is pretty bad parenting in my opinion, although I've heard raising a child can be pretty taxing so I can't really comment on that. Anyway. They go on a quest for that horn with Wilt Chamberlain in a fuzzy costume, and are accompanied by Conan's old sorcerer buddy from the first movie. Oh, and Grace Jones in a leather vest and not much else.

Obviously, this was a very serious production.
Let's get the bad out of the way. This movie is fucking dumb. I say this without a hint of irony or wit or anything resembling either of those two things. It's grade-A stupidity from start to finish, with a plot that is bog-standard fantasy, complete with captured princesses, evil wizards, giant monsters, mysterious caves, towering palaces... you name a high fantasy trope, and you bet your sweet ass it's in Conan the Destroyer. It plays out like a particularly cliche role-playing game made in the SNES era or written as a low-rent expansion to Dungeons and Dragons. Sadly, the budget of this movie does it no favors. The eloquent set design and brilliant cinematography of the first film is gone, and what we get here are rooms of mirrors, awkward camera angles, and subterranean layers that are obviously constructed of wood and foam. No doubt about it, parts of this movie are incredibly ugly and shot poorly to boot. When you think of cheesy fantasy movies, complete with hokey effects and a hammy story, Destroyer is one of those.

But dumb does not a bad movie make. If it did, we wouldn't still be talking about Evil Dead II nearly thirty years after its inception. No, Conan the Destroyer isn't anywhere nearly that good, but it's actually nowhere nearly as bad as some people made it out to be. In fact, I'd be liable to say that I side with Roger Ebert in his assessment that the follow-up is more fun than the original. While the initial film had copious amounts of gritty violence and musclebound angst, this sequel's emphasis on what it says right in the opening monologue: "high adventure." Conan has a racially diverse crew of comrades, making it easier for anybody to pick up the movie and find a character to identify with. The tone is more similar to Robert E. Howard's original stories than the stark, grim atmosphere John Milius decided to give the first one. And more importantly, the core yarn is simply more fun and twisty than that "point-A-to-point-B" structure, with more than one or two villains and about something far different than yet another man against man revenge story, with everybody caught in between falling to the wayside.

Wait, you ask yourself, are you saying that Conan the Destroyer is a better film than Barbarian? No, not quite. I'm simply pointing out that, if I were to measure the amount of fun I had with both films, I'd say the second one kept my interest more, and gave me more to laugh at, sometimes intentionally and others not so much. Ergo, I found it more enjoyable. Yes, the production values are crap, the music isn't as good, and the story is hammy enough to satisfy a Christmas feast. But at least it has a nice cast, some comic relief, and Arnold beating the fuck out of dudes in rubber suits. What more can you ask for, really?

Cozilla vs Manboobgara
Conan the Destroyer isn't what I would ever defend as "good cinema." For all intents and purposes, the original is probably the better film. But all I know is that this one was more memorable, more fun, and I'm more liable to watch it again later on down the line. Plus, it has my favorite line in the entire franchise ("I will have my own kingdom, my own queen,") Wilt Chamberlain tries to act and fails, and Arnold totally kisses a fourteen year-old, which is a shoe-in for a collection of uncomfortable laughter at your next social gathering. And that last bit sums up this whole film, I think. If I wanted to show a Conan to a bitter, cynical film teacher, I'd show them the first one. But if I wanted to have a blast with a group of buddies, we'd pop this in and laugh our asses off.

I think that's all needs to be said about this. Cheesy, dumb, and fun. Next up, Arnold's most iconic role!


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