Judge Neil Dorsett wishes great sword-related harm upon this Brigitte Nielsen flick.
"All in life is not swordplay, Sonja."
This may not be the first movie to make you beg for the drawing and quartering of a child onscreen to continue to completion—but by god it'll be among the movies that make you do that.
The step-Supergirl of the DeLaurentiis Conan franchise makes another unnecessary debut in this reasonably well-mastered edition from Warner Bros. Red Sonja is technically based upon the character created by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, but as she appeared in only one story by him, it is more proper to credit the life breathed into the character during its time of license to Marvel Comics with the popularity that led to this forgettable and mostly forgotten movie. In 1985, neither Dino DeLaurentiis nor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who hadn't yet quite outgrown his Hercules in New York cinema roots) were quite ready to part with Conan as a cash-cow, but Universal pictures certainly was, after the disappointing Conan the Destroyer, and they passed on the idea of backing another teaming of Dino and Arnold with director Richard Fleischer(20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) for a Conan 3. But Universal had that Conan license, not DeLaurentiis. So, still wanting to follow up on Destroyer, which had made money after all even though it was stupid and everyone was irritated by it, the team re-envisioned the idea around another Howard character associated with Roy Thomas, who'd penned the Destroyer script and did much to define the character at Marvel. The result is a movie drenched in just the kind of movie garlic that John Milius had deftly sidestepped and minimized in the original Conan.
We open badly, with an encapsulization of material we haven't seen before. Sonja's origin is given entirely in flashback as she converses with some sort of tree spirit in what looks to be a decimation of fully realized scenes. A really amazing piece of absurdity! "Last time on Red Sonja," the girl's parents were murdered by a masked Queen, the girl herself raped and left to die by the Queen's henchmen. Perhaps this is meant to imply some serial nature to what was actually, as mentioned, a one-off character for Howard. Anyway, the oddly haired Sonja—that very young girl, can you believe it?—is blessed, or something like that, by the tree spirit, who may or may not make her invulnerable to men's violence. If Sonja is invulnerable, her training under the Asian masters seems like a waste of time. Sonja receives her blade, quite unlike Conan, who had to find his in the grave of some Atlantean king while being chased by wolves, as a graduation present. Excitement! Soon she crosses paths with Lord Kalidor (Schwarzenegger), and the two mutually regard each other as nuisances. Kalidor is the formal keeper of the gemstone stolen by the Queen at the film's beginning and wishes only to recover it; his shared goal with Sonja is just a testament to the widespreadness of Queen Gedren's mischief. He naturally feels that Sonja should spend some time with him at the devil's business, but she has developed a weird psychological tic in response to her whole beating/rape/forest spirit ordeal, and refuses to lie with any man who cannot first best her in armed combat. The tough, barbarian, and feminist way to play this is to have Sonja literally never yield; so indomitable that she must be killed in order to be conquered. The movie's way to play it is to have her play coy with Kalidor until the last reel when they start making out. In the meantime, several episodic adventures are had, the two are joined by an extremely tiresome young prince (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and his bodyguard attendant, Falkon (Paul L. Smith). Much weary episodic adventuring, a giant underwater metal dragon, a sickish and contrived death for sicklyish Ronald Lacey (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and a foreplayish fight between Sonja and Kalidor later, the Queen is finally confronted and defeated. Oh, and there's a bridge made out of a dragon's skeleton. Looks kind of neat…for the first two minutes. Huzzah.
This picture is firmly of the Italian sword-and-sorcery wave of the '80s; when judged against the likes of Gor and Golan-Globus entries, it would look pretty good or at least less incompetent. But that's all a question of aim; Red Sonja firmly plants its feet in comparison to Conan the Barbarian, and that's what sinks it: its attempt to be an American-Italian coproduction like its predecessor, with only half of that combination able to actually deliver. Were the movie more aggressive in its badness, i.e. were it less concerned with getting over in the States, it would probably be much more enjoyable. But these factors, combined with Richard Fleischer's decidedly old-school direction of the set piece scenes, just tip it over and over the line into a big bore. Better, perhaps, a comparison to Xena, Warrior Princess (whose lineage can be traced to Dino as well, via Army of Darkness), who has the advantage over Sonja in that she knows it's all a joke.
The film does hold a mildly pleasant surprise: a lengthy and sympathetic speaking role in English for Paul L. Smith, who is almost always evil, most famously in Midnight Express, usually relegated verbally to pretty simplistic brute stuff like in Dune and Popeye, and downright unintelligible in Sam Raimi's neglected gem, Crimewave (a gem, I tell you! We need that movie on DVD! All of us, each and every one! Say…what's the straitjacket for, chief?). Smith turns in a surprisingly gentle performance more in the vein of children's theater than an Italian barbarian movie. Falkon is not a terrible character in fantasy terms; while his function is primarily that of comedy relief, he is perfectly comfortable in combat, ceasing to be actively comedic and becoming merely absurd as the clownish fat man fearlessly deals his opponents a mighty smite with an elephant bone. In truth, although the kid is annoying as hell, he's just operating in that same children's theater vein himself, and doesn't understand much about what makes the screen a different beast. The both of them are over the top on movie terms, but Smith has the advantage of a gentler role and is just hammy enough for you to see where it's coming from, whereas the kid just comes off as annoying not only as a character but as a performer. He's still working—he was in last year's The Rundown, hopefully in which he did not swing a sword around while continuously saying "Yah! Yah! Yah!" Anyway, the point is that the two of them actually give the most accomplished performances in the movie, with totally opposite results; Smith comes off deserving of some mild aplomb, where you wind up wanting to run the kid over with a truck. Credit his desire to portray an annoying character, I guess.
On the other end of the spectrum are the leads. While Schwarzenegger was beginning to develop some chops by this point, Nielsen and Sandahl Bergman, portraying the pivotal forces of opposition (well, really the forces of opposition are Kalidor and the Queen, and Sonja's just a vengeance-crazy slaughterfiend, but never mind that), seem like they're actively trying to out-awful each other. If it's a contest, Bergman definitely wins. Her casting in Conan was an edge-of-your-teeth gamble that barely paid off in the first place and this time the dancer is completely out of her league with entire pages' worth of villainous speeches in fantasy high-talk. Forget it! Her performance fails even as camp—an aspect of the spaghetti fantasy movie whose intentionality may be overestimated—just because it's so dull. Dressed in a shiny lamé tunic and pants with a distinctly Marvel Comics-ish face mask, Bergman flatly intones her lines and seems to just be waiting out the movie. Even her stage combat at the end is flat and lame. It doesn't help that the Queen invokes the old cinematic trick of teleporting around the room by turning the camera on and off while she walks around. And Nielsen? Oy. While she narrowly outclasses Bergman, it's hard to see how anyone thought she could make the leap from modeling to acting. While the square-shouldered physique of Nielsen did limit her career to those shoulderpadded '80s, she never had a prayer of holding it together as an actor. The physical scenes she handles all right—or at least, from our perspective as an audience, as well as Grace Jones did in Conan the Destroyer. But this woman was not ready to speak English on-camera when this movie was made, nor was she capable of projecting any presence whatsoever. I also question the idea of casting as a lead any human who seems to have difficulty closing his or her mouth. Brigitte's Teutonic teeth hang out in virtually every scene in this movie, and while they're not entirely unattractive, the secondary idea that Sonja's unable to breathe through her nostrils sort of isn't. And regardless of how attractive it is, this inability renders Nielsen quite unable to give the sort of grim-faced expression that one would think natural for Red Sonja. She does do these guitar grimaces while fighting, but it just looks ridiculous. It's actually sad that these two women were cast for this movie; their terrible acting, along with many qualities of the script, serve to totally undermine the "strong female" aspects of the Sonja character and leave us with nothing. And what the hell is with that haircut?
Warner presents Red Sonja in a decent anamorphic transfer at 2.35:1. There's nothing special about the transfer, but there's nothing to really see in the movie anyway; the visuals are for the most part fairly flat, with the studio settings ranging from pathetic to competent and the outdoor scenes mostly shot in that '80s cheapo way that doesn't really let you see much of the countryside. There's a bit here and there, of course; the titles play over a long sequence of Kalidor riding furiously and this shot wouldn't have been bad ten years earlier. Ennio Morricone's music is far from its best here,and even when it's doing fairly well for itself, it's nothing in the league of Basil Poledouris's mighty Conan score. Morricone works more with fanfares and high horns, giving Sonja more of a classic knights-in-armor vibe than invoking the barbarian. The score is adequately represented in the disc's English monaural audio track. Subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, and French, with French audio also available. I tried out the French track and it did take a bit of the sting out of the acting from the leads. The only extra included is a lame theatrical trailer primarily touting Schwarzenegger's presence in the movie—it does go out of its way to point out that he's not Conan, though.
In all, Red Sonja is pretty much a waste of time for all involved, including the audience. An oddity performance from a longtime character actor is no reason to actually recommend it. Anyone looking to see Schwarzenegger make a fool of himself will be satisfied, but likely more satisfied with his copious offerings in that department from later in his career. Brigitte Nielsen fans? If there are any, they'll pick it up regardless, so I'll just close by saying it's an okay disc if you have any affection for this movie. Anyone else, run away very fast.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.