Friday, December 21, 2012


Richard Fleischer, 1985
Starring: Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman

Red Sonja rebukes the advances of Queen Gedren and cuts the queen’s face. As a result, Gedren has Sonja's entire family killed and orders her guards to rape Sonja. After her ordeal, she is visited by a spirit who grants her incredible strength so that she can get vengeance against Gedren. She trains to become a master swordswoman and hates most men. Her sister, Varna, a priestess, is trying to destroy the Talisman, a magic orb that wields terrible power. 

All the priestesses are killed and Varna is mortally wounded when Queen Gedren and her men seize the Talisman. Her sister contacts Lord Kalidor and explains the situation to him; he immediately tracks down Red Sonja, who vows to kill the Queen and destroy the Talisman, though she refuses Kalidor’s help. Sonja journeys to the queen’s castle and meets the young, spoiled Prince Tarn and his only remaining guardian, Falkon. Gedren destroyed Tarn's kingdom and he also wants revenge. They set off together, with Kalidor following behind, determined to protect Sonja and help her fulfill her promise. 

This isn't a popular opinion, but I actually enjoyed Red Sonja. It may be dumb, but it’s entertaining and is sort of a loose third Conan film. Red Sonja was created by Roy Thomas for Marvel’s Conan series in 1973, based on Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture.” Red Sonja is set in the Hyborian age and has several returning Conan actors, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Lord Kalidor and Sandahl Bergman as Queen Gedren. I think the film would have been a lot better if Brigitte Nielsen and Bergman had switched roles, but then it probably also would be a lot better with a competent screenwriter. It has a nice peplum feel to it and was actually shot in Italy and scored by Ennio Morricone, though it feels like he’s going through the motions a bit -- not that I blame him. The silly, fast paced nature of the plot makes it a lot more lighthearted than Conan the Barbarian and the lack of constant comic relief makes it a little less groan-worthy than Conan the Destroyer

The sad fact is that we’re lacking both Conan and Valeria. None of the characters are given any real story arc or characterization. Yes, Sonja learns to like Kalidor by the end of the film and they exchange what is surely the most boring kiss in cinema history. This is Danish model Brigitte Nielsen’s first film role and though she looks the part, it’s a bit rough to have the two main characters speaking heavily accented English. Nielsen, in particular, seems to be delivering some of her lines phonetically and has almost no change in facial expression throughout the course of the film. I can’t really say anything good about the acting, but that is one of the film's charms if you like trashy movies. 

Sonja’s character is probably going to offend a lot of people. Her family’s murder and her subsequent rape are rushed past in under a minute. She is supposed to be the greatest warrior in the world, but Kalidor has to save her most of the time. Kalidor is a pretty stand up guy, but when he expresses interest in her romantically, she explains that she’s made a vow only to give herself to a man who has bested her in a fair fight. Which means she will only have sex with someone who has defeated her. And this is the woman who was raped in the beginning of the film. There has also been some criticism that the film is anti-homosexual, because Sonja rejects Gedren’s advances. I took it more as Gedren is evil and corrupt and Sonja wants revenge because Gedren had her tortured and her family killed. If it had been King Gedren instead of a queen, the situation would be the same. 

There are actually a lot of things working against Red Sonja. The effects are very cheap. It would have been nice to see a few more monsters, but there is only a mechanical sea serpent that thrashes Arnold around in the water for what feels like 10 minutes. There really isn’t too much adventure and it's sadly a pretty straightforward quest that will bore a lot of people. I’m a little mystified as to why the screenwriters thought to include Prince Tarn in the plot (Ernie Reyes Jr. from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but I guess they didn’t want to recycle any of the characters from the Conan films. 

I’m not sure if I can recommend Red Sonja. Arnold himself claimed it is the worst film he’s ever been in and punishes his children by making them watch it when they’re bad. For some reason I liked it. If you want to decide for yourself, there's a serviceable DVD from Warner. There are barely an extras, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. A sequel was allegedly under consideration, first by Robert Rodriguez, meant as a vehicle for his then-girlfriend Rose McGowan, but he dropped the project and I’m not sure what the plan is for it now. It really doesn't need to be remade. 

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