Arnold Schwarzenegger - Kalidor
Brigitte Nielsen - Red Sonja
Ernie Reyes Jr. - Prince Tam
Paul Smith - Falkon
Sandahl Bergman - Queen Gedren
Ronald Lacey - Ikol
Genre - Action/Fantasy/Comic Book/Adventure
Running Time - 89 Minutes
Back in the early 1980s, late producer Dino de Laurentiis helped bring Robert E. Howard's creation, CONAN THE BARBARIAN [co-written by Oliver Stone and John Milius], to life in 1982 which helped propel bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger into a Hollywood star. The Conan character was very popular in successful since 1932, as it started as a series of short fantasy tales that eventually led into a hugely successful Marvels comic franchise in the 1970s. The character's symbolism for masculinity, as well as the interesting adventures and characters he would encounter led to the creation of a cult hero.
The film adaptation did well enough to warrant a sequel in 1984 for CONAN THE DESTROYER, which was more light-hearted and humorous than its more violent and serious predecessor. Unfortunately the film was only half as successful than the original both critically and financially, yet de Laurentiis realized that there was still a fanbase for the character. Wanting to create a trilogy, CONAN THE CONQUEROR was set for a 1987 release date to complete the Conan story. Unfortunately, things didn't work out as planned. Swarzenegger's contract with de Laurentiis had been fulfilled due to him starring in RAW DEAL and the film I'm reviewing today, RED SONJA. Also, 1987 was a busy year for Schwarzenegger as he was filming PREDATOR and THE RUNNING MAN. The film eventually went into development hell until the script was changed into 1997's KULL THE CONQUEROR starring Kevin Sorbo. But I'll discuss the CONAN and KULL films some other time.
Right now, let's deal with the CONAN THE BARBARIAN spin-off, 1985's RED SONJA. Red Sonja of Rogatino, also created by Robert E. Howard, was probably the most popular supporting character in the Conan stories. She was created in 1934, but wouldn't get a massive fanbase until she appeared within the Conan comic books by Marvel Comics. With her flowing red hair, beauty, and excellent swordsmanship, Red Sonja was a great symbol for feminism as she was a woman who could kick a man's ass and keep her own within a man's world. Hell, she gained her own line of comic books because of this. It's obvious that de Laurentiis would want to capitalize on a character like this. So a RED SONJA film was set right after CONAN THE DESTROYER, although there were big issues.
For one, Universal Pictures owned the license for CONAN THE BARBARIAN. After the disappointing return of DESTROYER, the studio wanted nothing to do with the franchise but kept the rights for money it could make from home video sales and TV showings. Conan the Barbarian was a significant character in the planned RED SONJA film, so that had to be changed. So the character of Kalidor is pretty much Conan under a different name. Also, de Laurentiis wanted CONAN THE BARBARIAN star Sandahl Bergman to play the title character. Fearing that she would be typecasted, she preferred the villain role of Queen Gedren. De Laurentiis searched over a year for an actress to play Red Sonja until he spotted 21-year-old Danish model, Brigitte Neilsen. With her 6'1" frame and a successful screen test, she was hired just eight weeks before the film's production. It also didn't help that de Laurentiis wanted a more kid-friendly version of the character, adding in supporting comic relief characters for a younger audience.
With all these obstacles against them, it's really no surprise that RED SONJA turns out to be a true disappointment at the end of it all. When I was younger, I really dug this film. However, the last time I watched RED SONJA before watching it again for this review was in 1989. Now in 2011, the way I perceive films has greatly changed and I can see the film for how terrible it really is. Even though it does have it moments, consider RED SONJA a misfire on most accounts.
Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) is told by some spirit how she's the sole survivor after the destruction of her village and the murder of her family by Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman). Apparently Gedren wanted to be scissor sisters with Sonja, but the redhead wasn't having it. The spirit blesses Sonja with sword fighting abilities, which she takes advantage of by enlisting in a male-dominated fighting school, becoming the top pupil. However, there's one lesson Sonja refuses to learn: trust or rely on a man.
Sonja eventually meets Conan--- I mean, Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who tells Sonja that Gedren's goons have murdered her sister. Wanting vengeance, Sonja heads off to find Gedren to kill her, with Kalidor following close behind. Eventually the two meet a young prince named Tam (Ernie Reyes Jr.) and his bodyguard Falkon (Paul Smith), who are also victims of Queen Gedren and want to rebuild their kingdom with Sonja's help. Eventually, the group learns that Gedren has obtained a Talisman, that will grant her very strong powers. Apparently, only women can touch the Talisman without dying. Will the group save the day? Will Red Sonja become as much of a legend as Kali---I mean, Conan? Is Flavor Flav going to make an appearance?
RED SONJA is one of those films that really should have been better than what was presented to its audience considering the source material that could have been used. I understand certain names couldn't be used due to studio interference, but it's no excuse to churn out a film that's so silly and ridiculous when everyone is playing it up so seriously. And that's partly why RED SONJA fails - it tries to be as epic as CONAN OF BARBARIAN when it's no where close. If it wants to be a funny, fine - play it up for laughs with its badness. But don't present a semi-serious action film when it's anything but. It'll just alienate the audience, and apparently even the actors who starred in the film.
The narrative of RED SONJA has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. The fact that the story begins with a spirit telling Sonja what happened to her just FIVE MINUTES before to remind her is just ridiculous! We get a flashback scene showing us what happened between Sonja and Queen Gedren, but it's done with a voiceover giving us expository info that isn't necessary! Why not start the film with the actual attack on the village? On Sonja's family? Obviously parts of it were filmed - why not show us the whole thing? It would not only establish the main plotline of the film, but it would also put sympathy on Sonja and make the audience welcome her journey for vengeance on Gedren. When you start out a movie half-assing your main narrative, why bother telling us this story?
I also have to laugh at the reason why Gedren does this to Sonja - because Gedren wanted Sonja as a lover and Sonja rejected her. If this plot point was deeper, or even established more during the film [which it's not], then I would be okay with this. But this plot point only establishes that Gedren is a lesbian and Sonja isn't. It could be seen as offensive for the homosexual being vilified because she didn't get to eat the cherry muffin she so desperately wanted. Sure, Gedren also wants power from the Talisman, but her hatred for Sonja stems from the fact that she can't make the redhead her lover. Stay classy, screenwriters!
The other offensive plot point has to do with Sonja wanting nothing to do with men. Now like I mentioned earlier, Sonja was seen as a feminist figure back in the 1970s. She didn't want or need the help of men to fight her battles, knowing she could easily handle the tasks herself. The film adaptation of Sonja attempts the same thing, but then we have other characters telling her that she needs a man's help and that she should learn to trust them because they could be beneficial in her journey. She scoffs at that advice, even though she trained with MEN, was mentored by a MAN, and needs the help of MEN to stop Queen Gedren. In fact, Sonja would be dead after the first half hour if it's not for Kalidor, who appears every time Sonja is in trouble. She never really stops his interference. In fact, she welcomes it because she's attracted to him. So what's the point of this angle then? If this happened towards the end of the film, I would buy it. But Sonja is never really capable of winning unless there's a male figure interfering on her behalf. That doesn't empower women. It makes women look dependent on the opposite sex, making them look weaker. In fact, I feel that Sonja is more Kalidor's sidekick rather than the opposite. Without him, she'd get nothing done or learn any info pertaining to her mission. That's why I feel the show, Xena: Warrior Princess, was a better representation of what RED SONJA stood for. Did Xena get help from men time-to-time? Sure. But you always knew she could handle things herself and always had the power in the situation, even if there were men involved. You don't get that here at all.
It doesn't help that the villain of the film, Queen Gedren, is so underused to the point where her "threatening presence" is neither a threat to Red Sonja or even present for much of the film. In fact, the Queen is pretty much absent for three-quarters of the film, because the screenwriters felt it was more important for Sonja to flirt with Kalidor while entertaining an annoying prince and his bodyguard. The adage is old but it's always true: a hero is just as strong as his or her villain. Queen Gedren could be a stronger villain if she were used more, which would make Red Sonja's story more effective. But Gedren is barely in the film to do much damage to the group, and when she does appear, she needs a wizard to do most of her dirty work. Plus she's not even remotely interesting as a character. All I knew about her is that she's an evil lesbian ruler who likes to showcase her Talisman inside a room filled with candles. Man, she really rivals The Joker in terms of evilness. Candles - oh my God! Whatever will Red Sonja do to stop her? Believe me, most people won't give a shit.
What makes Gedren's absence worse is that her screen time is taken up by an annoying little Prince that deserves a kick in the ass. I guess he's supposed to be the comic relief and a character for kids to relate to, but he's hardly funny and just ends up looking like a brat. The kid can fight better than Red Sonja, which is the only funny thing about his character, and he does mature a bit as his arc progresses, but it's just a struggle sitting down and watching it unfold.
Kalidor and Falkon manage to be the only characters worth investing in. Kalidor is obviously the character of Conan the Barbarian, but with a different name due to copyrights. But you can't hate on a character like him, especially since he does come across as humorous and a total bad ass when he wants to be. And Falkon is the one with any sense in the film and he's the stronger character in RED SONJA just for dealing with that annoying Prince Tam on a constant basis. Plus he has funny moments as well that work for the most part. I would rather see a film about these two than with anyone else.
Also it's obvious that the Talisman grants people powers beyond any imagination. Yet, it's treated as an afterthought for much of the film. Even with the help of this Talisman, Queen Gedren never has a true chance against Red Sonja. In fact, there final battle against each other is pretty pathetic considering that this "green glowing disco ball" is supposed to give a woman such massive amounts of strength and power. I guess it's supposed to be a symbol for a nuclear weapon or something [this was made during the Cold War after all], but I don't think that angle was pushed enough to make it effective. Again, if there was more focus on Gedren and her plans for the Talisman instead of creating annoying side characters, maybe RED SONJA would be a stronger film story-wise.
On a more positive note, the set designs for RED SONJA are actually quite nice to look at. Danilo Donati did a great job creating a fantasy world with giant statues, unique designs for castles and temples, and the cool giant skeleton that acts like a bridge. While that water snake looked really fake, at least it was made well and fit the vibe of the film. I also thought the set in the final battle was really well-done as well, as it looked spacious and somewhere where a Queen would want to reside. I also thought the costumes for the characters worked well individually as well. If only this focus on creating a beautiful setting [I believe this was shot in Italy] was used for the screenplay. Now I know where the budget went to.
The music by Ennio Morricone is also wonderful as well. I really like the fanfare and the use of horns to give RED SONJA a more medieval atmosphere rather than a barbaric one. I think Basil Poleouris' score for CONAN THE BARBARIAN is better, but Morricone gives the film a sense of epicness that it obviously can't fulfill.
The direction by Richard Fleischer isn't all that special really. I think Fleischer is a bit old school at times and doesn't really give the film a visual style that it definitely deserves, instead just doing mostly a point-and-shoot work that doesn't exactly enhance the action. The cinematography is nice though, and the action sequences are competent [especially the scene where Sonja and Kalidor have a sword fight that's really an allusion to their sexual desires for each other]. The editing was a bit off though, especially during the final scene where the heroes have to escape a crumbling castle. There's obviously destruction happening around them [with shots of the castle imploding], but when we see our heroes running away, there's barely a falling rock to be seen. It's obvious the two scenes were shot separately when it shouldn't be made all that obvious. There are also moments where the epic music is used during times where nothing really epic is going on, while certain fight scenes are done without a musical score. At least the film is paced well. But it's not the best work Fleischer has done in his career but RED SONJA is still a watchable film. I thought his work on CONAN THE DESTROYER, as flawed as that film is in its own right, was stronger.
The acting, which could have saved RED SONJA, just makes the film worse. Let me just get this out of the way: When Arnold Schwarzenegger is your best actor in a movie, you know there's a big problem. But he's one of the highlights as Kalidor, giving the character a bit of humor [which would become one of Schwarzenegger's trademarks that would catapult his career] while still maintaining a balance as a true bad ass. Maybe it's because he's done this type of role before, but he's totally convincing as the character. Funny enough, Schwarzenegger wanted no part of this film, but was loyal to Dino de Laurentiis. Maybe that's why I like his performance here: he doesn't give a shit. Brigitte Nielsen, on the other hand, is just laughingly bad as Red Sonja. She was definitely a stunning woman back in the day and had the presence to pull off this character, but Nielsen isn't an actress and should have been kept away from saying any dialogue. It sounds like she's reading from cue cards and her pronunciations make her do these really weird faces that make me laugh more than anything. If this film was a comedy, it would have worked. But as a serious action film, it misses the target. She's completely unbelievable as this character due to trying too hard and it makes her look like a joke. She's decent with a sword though and does have some nice chemistry with Schwarzenegger.
Sandahl Bergman, who played Schwarzenegger's love interest in CONAN THE BARBARIAN, is a bit better as Queen Gedren. Unfortunately, she doesn't get much to do. She does chew nice some scenery from time to time, but I wish she had taken the Red Sonja role. Maybe Nielsen would have been better as the villain, I dunno. Ernie Reyes, Jr. annoyed me as Prince Tam. He overacted quite a bit, but then again, his character didn't help much either. The kid can kick ass though and would get somewhat better as an actor as he grew older. Paul Smith does fine as Falkon. He's given more lines here than he usually gets in other films and recites them well. Interesting cast on paper but just a mess on film.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE WONDERING IF THE RED CARPET MATCHES THE RED DRAPES
- Gedren wanted Sonja for herself, yet Sonja was disgusted by her feelings. Someone needs to stop being a drag, because baby the Queen was born this way!
- Sonja must have the strongest sword arm to defeat the forces of evil. Well she did have a lot of practice with Sylvester Stallone's COBRA for a while there...
- A knife killed someone as it plunged through her metal chest plate. That's what happens when you're cheap and make your armor out of a chain letter rather than chain mail.
- Only women can touch the Talisman without getting hurt. It's a lot like my penis, except I wash mine so it doesn't glow green...
- The Grand Master felt that Red Sonja had nothing else to learn. Well besides acting, aging gracefully, not starring in bad reality shows with Flavor Flav...
- Kalidor is masterful with a sword. After all the love children he's had with his maids, it's pretty much a proven fact!
- The characters had to cross a bridge made of bones. Nice to see Lara Flynn Boyle in a memorable cameo.
- Prince Tam wanted a big pearl from a statue's mouth. He was probably planning to give Sonja a necklace after he learned the SECRET OF THE OOZE when he got older.
- Red Sonja beheaded the wizard helping Queen Gedren in their fight. Maybe if he had an elf, a warrior, and a valkyrie on his side, he could have survived death a while longer.
THE FINAL HOWL
I regret watching RED SONJA again. I didn't mind it all that much as a kid, but now, I can see how flawed it is. Terrible acting for the most part, uneven direction, and even a dumb story bring what should have been a good film down. At least the set pieces and locations are nice to look at and the film is unintentionally funny for how bad it all comes together. RED SONJA is unintentionally a guilty pleasure, which barely saves it from the WTF? Vault. I'm still disappointed though because it should have tried to be something more. Let's see what they do with the planned remake.