Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ask Me a Question: Conan the Destroyer

I hadn't been to the New Beverly since the Van Damme Double then Triple Dip in May.  Shortly after, the longstanding repertory cinema house went through some management changes and a much needed face lift.  Since reopening, owner and now more hands on manager Quentin Tarantino has been programming some very unique double features from kung-fu classics to grindhouse flicks and tributes to actors like Steve McQueen and directors like this month's Richard Fleischer.  Now all shows are touted in 35 or 16 mm with nary a digital print in sight.  I figured on checking out the Fleischer directed Charles Bronson vehicle Mr. Majestyk at the end of the month but action #MovieBro and author David J. Moore wanted to check out Conan the Destroyer.  I wouldn't have gone to see that but hey, why not?

Walking up to the box office I was only too pleased to see Mr. Michael Torgan back behind the window after taking a much deserved break in the action from running the joint while the New Bev figured out their next phase.  The place looked great, spiffy and shined up with printed calendars everywhere for the taking, over sized framed posters on the walls, even a Japanese Destroyer one sheet in the lobby.  A cash only institution for as long as I've been coming, they now take credit cards!  The concession stand now sells hot dogs and White Castle burgers, can't beat that.  Anyways, if it weren't for Michael generously agreeing to screen Double Impact and Bloodsport, Dammaged Goods Presents would still be an unrealized pipe dream and I wouldn't have met so many great movie lovers along with all the luminaries and professionals who attended the Van Damme, Dolph, Carl Weathers and Die Hard nights.  The top half of the double bill was Fleischer's slave turned bare knuckle boxer turned partial Django Unchained inspiration Mandingo from 1975.  I've never seen the flick and honestly have no real desire to so we hit up Elite Cuisine next door for some dinner and catching up.  This is an establishment that serves you chips and salsa while offering Jewish comfort food, Italian dishes, American sammiches and Chinese food?!  That's Los Angeles baby, just go with it.

I was really interested to see what kind of folks turned out for Conan the Destroyer on a Wednesday night.  The Man Clu was holding it down in the front row as usual, one of the staff members was rocking a Conan tee shirt and there were maybe three women in the audience.  Also in the crowd was co-writer and prolific comic book scribe Gerry Conway! A talented jerk like Steven E. de Souza, Conway sold his first work as a teenager then went to both Marvel and DC Comics.  At only 19, Conway worked on The Amazing Spider-Man where he scripted the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline and many others over a several year run.  While at the House of Ideas, Conway co-created The Punisher and wrote for The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and more.  Moving to DC Comics, Conway co-created Firestorm and worked on Superman, Justice League of America and Detective Comics among others.  If that weren't enough, in the 80's Conway jumped into film, television and animation with credits on G.I. Joe, Transformers, Batman: The Animated Series, Diagnosis Murder and Law & Order.

Conway quickly introduced Conan the Destroyer, recalling how Conan the Barbarian producer Edward R. Pressman sold his share of the rights to mogul Dino De Laurentiis. Conway and comics writing partner Roy Thomas worked on the script for about a year pumping out 10 drafts.  During that time, it seemed like only the writers and Arnold were attached to the project.  Word came down that Richard Fleischer was hired to direct, an excellent choice in Conway's eyes as he loved the director's Norsemen saga, The Vikings, starring KIRK DOUGLAS, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh.  The writers met with Fleischer, thought he was a very nice man and immediately after were told they were fired!  Thus ending Conway's involvement with tonight's feature on which he receives a Story By credit and attended the premiere in 1984.

Conan the Destroyer is not a good movie.  It's a fun movie, it's crazy and intentionally and unintentionally hilarious.  Starting with credits over the a dusty landscape and Mako's wonderful narration of an age "between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas", days of high adventure set to Basil Poledouris' iconic score.  We find Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) praying for his lost love Valeria while thief homeboy Malak (Tracey Walter) counts stolen booty before they're attacked by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas). Taramis wishes to recruit the barbarian thief on a mission to retrieve a treasured horn that will bring back dreaming god Dagoth.  For his service, Taramis promises to resurrect Valeria.  At the palace of Shadizar, Taramis and Captain of the Guard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) explain their plot to use Conan to retrieve the horn, that only virgin niece Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo) can collect, then kill the barbarian and sacrifice the niece in order to appease Dagoth.

Feeling that a sword can't match up to sorcery, Conan stops off to pick up Wizard of the Mounds Akiro (Mako) before the motley crew runs into Zula (Grace Jones), a fierce warrior stranded in a village after an unsuccessful raid.  To get the horn, they have to find a jewel which is housed in an ice and crystal castle on a lake where wizard Toth-Amon (Pat Roach) resides.  From there it's off to a temple where Jehnna places the jewel and walks through fire to collect the horn.  Bombaata seemingly seals Conan and his crew in a tunnel and escapes with Jehnna and the horn.  Back at the palace, things don't go too smoothly as Jehnna's botched sacrifice turns Dagoth into a horrific monster that a rescuing Conan must hack the shit out of with a battle ax and his trusty broadsword.  The film looked great on the big screen, the print was in terrific shape as was Arnold, holy geez was he yoked in this!  I believe director John Milius told Arnold to tone down his workouts for the first Conan as a specimen built from hard living and physical labor wouldn't look like a polished bodybuilder while in the sequel Arnold is equal parts huge and shredded with his signature huge chest, big arms and a slim tapered waist.  Being shirtless for many a scene I wondered if he was severely dehydrated and underfed for the duration of filming.

Shot in Mexico, Destroyer takes advantage of the dusty desert as well as lush forest locations.  The sets were quite impressive as you had a huge marbled palace, a castle made from crystals and ice, a chamber full of mirrors, an underground temple, etc.  Being an early 80's flick there was a nice blend of miniatures, animation, forced perspective, matte paintings and a little obvious rear screen projection.  While the script by Stanley Mann is a pretty straightforward adventure/mission flick, Fleischer's directing is a little clunky here and could have used some extra editing.  Not surprising as this was towards the tail end of his long career.  Fight scenes are nice with bloody squib slashes, severed heads and impalement's galore but for all the sword, spear, mace and knife fighting, they could have used a little more choreography instead of just clanging weapons a couple times before being run through. Being a fantasy film you get magic, sorcery, wizards, crazy costumes and monsters.  During the mirror chamber, Arnold throws down with Toth-Amon in his reptilian/man-ape form and gets body slammed and windmilled around the room in a goofy fight scene.  The monstrous Dagoth was played by an uncredited Andre the Giant in a full, aquatic monster inspired suit, who slaps Arnold around before getting his horn ripped out and stabbed dead.

Of course with such an eclectic assortment of actors including a bodybuilder, a singer and an NBA star, performances and expressions are laughable and priceless at times.  Arnold playing drunk is great as is his punching of a horse and hammer fisting a camel early on.  Mako is terrific as the ragged wizard who can move things with his mind and start a fire out of nothing.  Tracey Walter plays the comedic sidekick/thief just fine in a role that would probably be designated to Rob Schneider if this was made in the 90's.  Future Bond girl and Dolph Lundgren girlfriend Grace Jones is strong and terrifying while Olivia D'Abo is cute as can be as the naive virgin always showing skin in aerated gowns.  Wilt Chamberlain is tall as shit and gives Bombaata some nice gravitas.  While Conan the Destroyer is by far no masterpiece, it still stands as a solid if unspectacular entry in the sword and sorcery, action-fantasy genre if only because there aren't enough comparable titles and is perfect for lazy day viewing.

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