Tom Jolliffe offers his two cents on the potential of Netflix bringing Conan back to screens…
For years fans of Conan The Barbarian have waited with baited breath for the potential of a new film. Most predominantly among those, there has been a particular clamour for Arnold Schwarzenegger to return to the role which broke him out, and to tell the story so enticingly teased at the very end of his first film. That iconic image, of Conan, a little older, sat on a thrown, evidently as King. The King Conan outline has been floated since even before the Jason Mamoa remake in 2011, and we’d even heard murmurs at some point that Paul Verhoeven was being lined up to direct the Austrian Oak in telling that kind of tale. We’ve heard suggestions and tantalising rumours across the years about what a third Arnold-fronted Conan might entail, but among those suggestions was Unforgiven meets Conan The Barbarian. I’d still go for that.
Given Arnold’s box office appeal has taken a significant pounding in recent times, and even his go to cash grab (the Terminator franchise) doesn’t grab cash any more, it seems almost foolish that he’s not transitioned to streaming (even in film or TV) sooner. Arnold has finally pulled that way (a “global spy adventure series” is in the works), but with Conan also making the transition to the small screen courtesy of Netflix, I would certainly love to see the two combine to give fans what they’ve wanted a while now. In realist terms I suspect Arnold won’t be a part of this new series. I’m guessing it’ll reboot and retell as it goes back to the beginnings, and will look for a young actor to play the titular barbarian. However, just for now, lets imagine this is still Arnold-centric.
So what to do? Well a tale of Conan’s fall, or a regression from being sat on a throne to becoming wild and nomadic again. A mighty warrior beaten down by time, but with a last drive for battle still remaining within. That would be where the Unforgiven part comes in. You could add in a pinch of Gladiator with dashes of betrayal, and a lust for revenge too. Revenge and retribution is ultimately what drove the original film. Look, I’ve said it before, I think the original film is a beautiful film and a work of art that wasn’t quite fully appreciated for being so. It certainly has all the genre hallmarks and some rough acting, but it was also told mostly visually, blunt in its depiction of brutality and violence, and somewhat poetic. All this as well as being shot with stunning cinematography and one of the all time great musical scores to tie in with it. This blend of brutality, artistry and vision is something we’d all want to see brought to a series, which means it needs the right headliner to oversee (whether they direct every episode, or lay the foundations that need to be closely followed). You need someone who can do action, but also introspection and give a poetry to the violence. Someone like Gareth Evans would be great, but he’s now perched on a level above needing to have a potential big breakout. You need someone a little more under radar but great. The guy you really need directed two Universal Soldier films…
It’s quite rare in genre film these days to find very distinct and auteur visions. It’s rare enough on the big screen with the backing of innumerable millions, but incredibly rare in the straight to video genre market. However this is where John Hyams got his start. He re-invigorated a franchise that people didn’t particularly desire to be resurrected and he made them distinctly singular of vision. The third film, Regeneration was a great opening pitch, clawing away all the goofiness of a franchise born out of an 80’s tonal hangover, and early 90’s high concept cheese. It grounded the action and gave it its own distinct reality in a way that felt authentic for that world. It was grim but exciting, and most of the structural issues of the film stemmed from having to build it around two star actors (Van Damme and Lundgren) who would only be able to be on set a limited time (the former appears 20 minutes in, the latter has a brief, though barnstorming cameo). So to an extent you’re left without a protagonist who consistently drives the story forward.
Day of Reckoning then did a complete flip and turned the franchise into a lucid nightmare, crossed with a detective story. It was David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Gaspar Noe and Nicolas Winding Refn melded into a Marlowe-esque detective story. Indeed, it also had its pinches of John Milius within too, and its bluntness in violence and a very introspective approach to the central character (played by Scott Adkins) was something with definite shades of Conan, among an array of influences (most of which wouldn’t feel directly associated with the very original Unisol movie). Since those films, Hyams made a transition to TV, delivering Z Nation and Black Summer, both of which secured a cult following. Day of Reckoning to some extent made him. It gathered a lot of great reviews from top publications in the US. It struck an intense chord with as many people as it reviled (with very little middle ground), but people took note. The film financially, was evidently somewhat underwhelming, which might explain why there hasn’t been a push to make a 5th, and indeed why Hyams’ follow up film offerings have been decidedly lower in budget (All Square and the recent Alone, both very minimalist and greeted with largely excellent reviews). His treatment of Universal Soldier however is what evidently must have grabbed the attention of Nic Winding Refn, who has worked with Hyams on a now long gestating reboot of Maniac Cop (initially as a film, now as a TV show).
Refn as an example, is also someone who has an incredibly distinct auteur vision, whether that vision repels you or not. He’s likewise made a transition to a medium that is increasingly becoming a creator’s medium, and creating shows with very unique styles. Increasingly, TV is becoming more interesting than much of what cinema is delivering, if only because a lot of it is starting to feel less production line, than some of the movies. This will be where Conan can find a particular voice with the right people overseeing the creative vision of the show. It needs to feel visionary in its own way, as opposed to being ‘another GoT.’ So much of TV is now treated cinematically, in almost the historic way cinema was. If you want to have grit, vision, and push a boundary or two, TV/streaming seems more giving as a medium than perhaps the film market, where there’s a chasm between Indie (where there’s still too little money available to distinct voices) up to the huge studio productions which can feel churned out, or pieced together with functionality over flair and individualism.
Whether the entirety of the series could be devoted to an elderly Arnold Schwarzenegger is debatable, and other engaging characters would need to be skilfully employed (in a more comedic example, Bruce Campbell and his cohorts in Ash vs The Evil Dead). You could even potentially Godfather Part II proceedings, telling a parallel story with a younger actor, alongside the present time with a post-regal Conan. I’d also say this would benefit short form series over being overly long. I see it as a 4-6 episode job rather than 24 episodes. A long epic quest, but one that doesn’t need to be padded with filler, or too many asides as you can tend to find on longer form series. On a musical note too, I would hope someone can come in to suitably capture a grandiose and old fashioned feeling that will evoke Basil Poledouris, without trying to mimic it. It will need its own spin, but something a bit old school might be nice. I also hope there will be a firm leaning toward grounded visuals, and a predilection for practical work over excessive CGI. This new incarnation of Conan could certainly instil a little more of the fantasy elements from Robert E. Howard’s source material, but I would hope this can be done with predominantly practical work over CG.
What are you thoughts on Netflix acquiring Conan? What would you like to see? Who could run the show creatively? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.