Sonja leads a peaceful life with her family until Queen Gedren and her army arrive in their village, slaughtering Sonja’s family and subjecting her to an arduous rape. Sonja is given extraordinary powers in a vision and joins a male-dominated fighting academy to hone her sword fighting skills, becoming the top pupil in the process. During this time, Queen Gedren’s ambition grows and she steals a powerful talisman. Sonja’s only surviving sister is one of the priestesses guarding the talisman and barely manages to escape the slaughter, seeking out Sonja and warning her of the enormous power of the talisman. Sonja swears revenge and sets off to find and kill Gedren, picking up some unlikely companions along the way.
I’m not a massive fan of the short-lived sword-and-sorcery genre from the 80s, spurred on by the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s superior Conan the Barbarian. By the mid 80s this flash-in-the-pan fad had almost all but faded away and left with it a legacy of such dire Conan wannabes as The Warrior and the Sorceress, Deathstalker and Barbarian Queen. Even the official sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was a far cry from the original. With their bizarre array of creatures and desert sets, the films often turned out more like deleted scenes from the Tattooine portions of Return of the Jedi.
When Dino De Laurentiis was unable to get a second sequel to Conan the Barbarian off the ground, he simply nabbed Schwarzenegger, changed the name of the character he was going to portray and film his own sword-and-sorcery flick based around Red Sonja, a character also penned by Robert E. Howard and who shared the same universe as Conan. The result is a film which, though Schwarzenegger himself described as the “worst film he ever starred in,” is definitely a film not without some merit and charm. I guess Schwarzenegger has purposely blocked out the memories of Jingle All the Way and Batman & Robin when he made his claim (though I’m unsure of the date it was attributed to him anyway).
It’s interesting to note that I’ve still yet to really discuss the title character, played by Brigitte Nielsen. Even though the film is about her character, the promotional work was all about Schwarzenegger and he gets top billing. Talk about trying to capture the Conan market. Casting wise, she certainly looks the part of a huge Amazonian-like warrior but she can’t act to save her life and her lines and delivery come off extremely wooden and monotone. Unfortunately the whole notion of her being a strong feminine symbol of power (and the film contains plenty of feminist thinking) is watered down by the fact she can’t do anything worthwhile without the help of a man: the Conan-in-all-but-name character of Kalidor. She is hardly able to best anyone in a sword fight and needs constant rescue. Its little coincidence that despite his relatively little screen time, Schwarzenegger dominates the film and completely overshadows his co-star.
Red Sonja hardly opens promisingly with a feeble flashback tale of what happened to Sonja which skirts over too much story within a matter of minutes. It’s not like they needed to shorten the running time or anything but we’re brought up to speed on what is going on rather too conveniently for my liking. From there it literally turns into a sporadic sequence of events where Sonja goes from place-to-place and bumps into a few people, usually the same characters it has to be said. To say that the film is rather short in length, not a great deal happens. There’s a lot of talking both of behalf of Sonja and her party and of Queen Gedren who spends most of the film sat on her throne moaning to her minions.
As Queen Gedren, Sandahl Bergman is atrocious and no doubt only cast to continue the links to the Conan franchise. It’s an embarrassing performance which is matched by that of the annoying comic relief duo of Ernie Reyes Jr (the little brat prince whose kingdom has just been destroyed) and his fat servant Falkon played by Paul L Smith. At least it throws up the film’s most hilarious scene in which the little prince is tied up and pulled between two horses. It’s wrong on so many levels. Only Ronald Lacey, one of the Nazis who famously got melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark, shows any self-awareness of just what he’s starring in with his throwaway role as Gedren’s right-hand man. But even he is too buried underneath a ridiculous over-sized hat to come off as anything more than slimy comic foil.
As you can probably tell by now, Red Sonja’s problems come from the gross mis-casting and the poor script which doesn’t really know what it is doing. But as far as the look of the film goes, Red Sonja is as impressive as any sword-and-sorcery film. The production design is top notch and really livens up the proceedings with an impressive array of temples, palaces and underground chambers. There are also some awesome matte shots, particularly of the skeletal bridge, although one would expect a fantasy film to convey such marvel and otherworldly trappings! The mechanical monster scene looks a little dated now and I’m guessing no one thought that making it a water-based beast was an ill-thought, rusty idea. But at least it keeps the mythical vibe flowing well. And for all of its problems, the film is rarely dull. Despite the plodding and meandering structure, the film is rarely too far away from some sword fighting or decent set piece.
Red Sonja is big budget trash, corny and hokey at times, appallingly acted out and focuses way too much on Schwarzenegger’s supporting character but at least it’s entertaining and there is hardly a dull moment. It’s got a timeless 80s vibe to it and is hard not to like for what it really is: escapist entertainment.