Wandering the land as a thief, Conan The Barbarian (Schwarzenegger) is recruited by an evil Queen (Douglas) to steal a gem that will help her fulfill an ancient prophecy. Leading his sidekick (Walter), the virginal princess (D’Abo), her bodyguard (Chamberlain) and a fierce warrior woman (Jones), Conan sets out with the promise that if he succeeds, the Queen will resurrect his beloved…
Whatever your thoughts on the opinion-splitting Conan The Barbarian – brutal fantasy classic or overly-slow chore to sit through – it was a huge success that introduced the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, with director / co-writer John Milius unavailable to return, genre veteran Richard Fleisher (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Vikings) was brought in to provide the next cinematic instalment of Robert E Howard’s pulp comics to life. As such, the result is a softer, more standard, run-of-the-mill swords and sandals ‘epic’, which is simultaneously better and worse…
On the worse side, the whole thing feels cheaper and less important by comparison. While Milius’ original offered absolutely zero characterisation (Conan had one-note: revenge), it at least had ideas, layers and a personal journey. Here, the storyline is merely a blatant excuse for Arnie action (okay, so nothing really wrong with that) and adventure quest clichés (travel the land, wicked queens, rubber monsters, wizardry, secret tombs), while dialling up the humour and down the violence. Hell, even Basil Poledouris’ semi-recycled score is weaker (what happened to the powerful, drumming main theme?).
In fairness, some of the gags are amusing (a horse punch to rival last time’s camel hook, another camel disagreement), but the campier tone is unwanted and often silly (a drunk Arnie mixing up words, walking into walls). Plus, how can you give someone named Conan The Barbarian (or Destroyer, whatever) a comedy sidekick (character actor Tracey Walter)?
As for the noticeably tamer violence, you can’t really blame Fleisher for this, since he apparently shot the movie as another R-rated effort before having to cut it down for the studio’s desire to appease family audiences. Still, too many set pieces either revolve around someone on horseback attacking someone not on horseback, or feature awkward pauses which serve no purpose apart from allowing cool action poses.
On the better side, Conan The Destroyer is arguably a more entertaining movie, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. Barbarian was classier, sure, but the constant lack of dialogue and overpowering, distracting score frequently tested one’s patience. This sequel is a much easier watch, less of a chore, and if you’re in the market for a knowingly-generic fantasy, then you could do worse.
The cast is also interesting, with Arnold joined by a 7ft basketball star (Wilt Chamberlain), 15-year-old jailbait (Olivia d’Abo) and the inhumanly-feral Grace Jones. Elsewhere, the likes of Pat Roach and Andre The Giant pop up in small or uncredited, unseen roles, while Sarah Douglas is criminally underused as the villain of the piece.
As for Arnold, though far too superhuman and invincible here, he gets more dialogue and pulls off the role in a way it’s hard to imagine anyone else managing. One thing though, when the first movie ends with a cool shot of your hero as an aged King years in the future, does that not remove all the tension that anything will happen to him during any ensuing adventures?
More humour and less violence but easier to watch, Conan The Destroyer is both better and worse than the original.