*As always, this review will not compare the original with the remake.
Whatever the flaws Conan the Barbarian has, one thing I can't fault it for is for being rather idiot. The film knows what it is, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a celebration of gore, of killing, and of vengeance.
With a little bit of sex in it.
Our titular hero is a Cimmerian, a warlike tribe vaguely Germanic or Celtic, literally born on the battlefield. As Conan grows up, he proves himself a master warrior, under the tutelage of his father Corin (Ron Perlman). However, it isn't long before his village is pillaged and burned by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). This Cimmerian village has the last piece of an ancient mask that will allow the wearer to summon the spirits of the dead and rule the world...or something like that. Young Conan survives.
Now Conan (Jason Momoa) has grown up in a big way. With his loyal partner Artus (Nonso Anozie) Conan wanders the world, fighting and drinking and whoring (but never tortures or kills for pleasure). He then learns that Khalar Zym is near, and now he will have his revenge. For that, Conan goes to a monastery where Zym, aided by his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), is looking for a pureblood which can activate the mask to bring the spirit of his late wife. The pureblood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), manages to escape but Conan is captured. Not knowing why Tamara is so important, only that Khalar and Marique seek her, Conan holds her prisoner.
Eventually Conan and Tamara are overtaken by Khalar and Marique, Tamara is brought for an elaborate ceremony, and Conan (now in love with Tamara who feels the same--their love scene confirming that), with the aid of thief Ela-Sham (Said Taghmaoui) breaks into Khalar's compound for a final confrontation.
Again, the entire Conan mythology isn't for everyone. In many respects, Conan the Barbarian is not to be taken seriously, and if one can watch the film without thinking long and hard about anything in it, one will enjoy it as harmless, goofy fun. Granted, this doesn't sound like a recommendation or compliment, and I use the word 'harmless' loosely given all the blood and gore in Conan the Barbarian.
However, I would argue that Conan the Barbarian (both the film and the series based on Robert E. Howard's stories) knows what it is: a celebration of brawn, brute force, and excessive masculinity. You have witches, sorcerers, a monosyllabic hero, a beautiful heroine, so I would say that those who are tempted to see Conan the Barbarian as junk may be right, but since the film knows it isn't deep, one shouldn't look at it too deeply.
This isn't to say that Marcus Nispel's film is good. You have characters popping in and out with nary a rhyme or reason. Take the character of the thief Ela-Sham. Conan frees him from a prison with no interest in him as a person, but when Conan leaves him, Ela-Sham shouts out to him something about if he should need him to find him in his city. Foreshadowing, anyone?
Same goes for Artus, who is suppose to be Conan's loyal side-man (I can't quite call him a sidekick). For long stretches of Conan the Barbarian he disappears from the screen, only to appear whenever Conan needs him. It's far too convenient to have these characters serve no other purpose than to give aid to our hero, thus having no real reason to exist in and of themselves.
Similarly, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and John Hood's screenplay never sets up the romance between Conan and Tamara. Truth be told, the entire love story can't be believed because it A.) appears to come out of almost nowhere, and B.) appears to be there because it was deemed necessary to have a sex scene. I also didn't care for the long introduction where we get all the backstory of the mask and its power. Wouldn't it have worked better if we just had violence for violence's sake (this is the world of Conan the Barbarian after all)?
I digress to say that Conan the Barbarian appears to be the same story as the 2010 Clash of the Titans or Immortals. While Conan was released before Immortals, I saw it after I saw Immortals, so while watching Conan I kept thinking the similarities between the two (right down to the beautiful virgin with awesome mystical powers and the muscular hero making love) were too strong for me to think it an original or clever take on Howard's work.
Be that as it may, I suspect that Jason Momoa did the best he could with a character whose motto can be summed up thus, "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content". Conan isn't deep, with only the goal of avenging his father's death (with a little bit of sex with Tamara) as motivation for any of his actions. Similarly, his friendship with Artus doesn't get a lot of attention, and the battle between Conan and a band of Sand-Men created by Marique's witchcraft looks almost comical.
Let's move on to some of the other characters. Perlman does the best of trying for some sort of seriousness to what is an elaborate premise, while Lang just revels in being big. The women don't fare well in it: if Nichols isn't being flat (although she really doesn't have much to work with) McGowan is simply over-the-top (again, although I think this is the correct take on the character). As a side note, I kept thinking that Tyler Bates' score at the fight between Conan and the Sand-Men sounded too much like something from The Bionic Woman, but on the whole it was serviceable.
And that, my friends, is what one can get from Conan the Barbarian: a serviceable, forgettable adventure story that serves as mindless entertainment. It's not deep, it's not brilliant, but if one accepts the limitations of the film one sees that Conan the Barbarian set a pretty low bar and met it. For that, one can't say the film is great, but that like the titular hero, we are content.