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Red Sonja (1985)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman
Running Time: 1 h 29 m
TMM Score: 1 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Production Design, Practical Effects
WEAKNESSES: Literally Everything Else
Red Sonja, a fiery warrior, seeks revenge on the evil queen that murdered her entire family. Meanwhile the evil queen seeks to use a magic orb for darkness.
Red Sonja is sort of like a spiritual sequel to the 80s Conan films. Red Sonja was another character created by Robert E Howard who lived with Conan in Cimmeria during the Hyborian age. She appears in various short stories and comics that bear the Conan symbol, and though Arnold himself does not bear the name Conan in this film, I thought it best to include this film in my Conan reviews (much like I included Kull the Conqueror for similar reasons). Plus, Richard Fleischer, the man behind Conan the Destroyer, directed this film. This also stars Sandahl Bergman, who played Valeria in Conan the Barbarian (though she plays a different character). This movie is everything that a Conan sequel would be, except in name. This film came one year after the wildly successful Terminator, and my guess is that the studios wanted another chance to cash in on the newfound star they’d found in Schwarzenegger. This movie, by itself, is absolute garbage. I would never recommend anyone watch this if they were looking for a serious fantasy film. It’s full of pulpy scenarios, annoying side characters, boring fight scenes, and an emotionless lead. This film fails to even cross into the “so bad it’s good” territory, and instead it ends up being a flat, arduously paced trudge through a half dozen tensionless episodes, culminating in one of the most anticlimactic climaxes to ever hit the silver screen.
Deus Ex Schwarzenegger
Before doing this Conan series I had actually seen quite a few of the Conan movies; in fact, I had only missed Kull and Red Sonja. Red Sonja had always kind of interested me, but never enough that I’d go out of my way to find it (until now). I’m a huge fan of strong female protagonists. If you follow this site for a little while, you’ve probably noticed my multiple references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is still one of my favorite shows. That television show is a great example of how to showcase a strong female lead; Buffy is smart and funny, she’s competent in what she does, but she also kicks a lot of butt; she’s the character other characters look to for leadership. Red Sonja started out as a full-fledged girl power film, but by the middle of the first act, they’d completely destroyed any groundwork they’d laid for a feminist film. The biggest problem is that Red Sonja’s (Brigitte Nielsen, Beverly Hills Cop II) skills are unevenly displayed. In some scenes, Sonja can fight extraordinarily well, and in a lot of other scenes she’s completely useless. We have no real sense that Red Sonja is, as Robert E Howard called her, a Devil with a Sword. Sonja looks like a supermodel that’s never held a sword (she was, this was Brigitte Nielsen’s first role), and looks uncomfortable with the thought of swinging it at a person. So, if Sonja is pretty much powerless in the face of real danger where does that leave us?
ENTER SCHWARZENEGGER. This film goes from ‘meh’ to almost unwatchable within a few minutes. As Sonja traipses through various conflicts, she randomly faces beasts or warriors that are too much for her, and right when things look like they’re about to go bad, Schwarzenegger (Predator) steps in and saves her. This happens probably three or four times throughout the film, and every time I wanted to just scream, “Are you freaking kidding me?” Schwarzenegger never really sticks around for that long, though. I actually read that Schwarzenegger had signed up for this film as a cameo, and had meant to film for only one week. However, the shoot was expanded and he ended up on set for four weeks. He was bumped from cameo to co-star, much to his irritation. And soon after he terminated his long-term contract with the producers. Schwarzenegger disenfranchisement with this series was fairly obvious by this point; his acting, while never award winning, is completely phoned-in during this film. There’s also a strange anti-feminist side plot that Red Sonja wont sleep with a man unless he can best her in battle. This subplot is supposed to be played off for laughs, but it comes off as rather rapey.
This movie also came out one year after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and that is also a clear influence on this with one aspect in particular: the Short Round knockoff. Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of Ooze) is perhaps one of the most annoying characters ever (as if Short Round wasn’t annoying enough). He plays a spoiled prince lost in a cave that Red Sonja stumbles upon, and every single line from him comes off as whiney and irritating. He’s a character that even as we met him, I hoped would be in one scene, but he ended up being one of our primary characters. I have never wished for a child to get eaten by a water dragon before this film.
Another issue I had with this film was its soundtrack, or rather, the lack of soundtrack in some very important scenes. There are fight scenes which could’ve been elevated by sweeping, rousing scores that wrapped you up in those scenes. Instead, however, many of the scenes were without soundtrack. It made me feel like I was watching a rough cut of a movie, before it had been sent to cinemas. Many of these scenes just begged for some kind of music; the scenes felt flat and emotionless, even when the fighting was most intense.
An Age Undreamed of...
Though the bulk of this film is terrible, this movie at least has some good production design. In particular, there are some great costumes, cave sets, and even a great looking monster. The monster itself is clearly just a rubber animatronic, but it’s still nice to see all the practical effects that went in to making this film. There are a few really great looking locations and shots in this movie too; as far as a fantasy film, it’s not the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, but at least the monster looks better than the demon at the end of Kull the Conqueror.
Though I’ve been ragging on this movie for the past thousand words or so, I can’t say I hated every moment of my time spent with Sonja and co. There were characters that I wanted to personally shove in a pit of lava, there were scenes that were so laughable that it wasn’t funny, and the overall plot of this film was almost identical to every other story I’ve reviewed for this Conan series… but it’s still a high fantasy movie, and I just can’t seem to bring myself to fully hate fantasy films. This movie absolutely earns its one star rating, because it’s horrible conceived and executed, but I still found some entertainment here.
I can’t recommend this to anyone. This movie is a waste of time unless you’re like me, a man so thirsty for good fantasy films that he’ll sit through anything. This movie comes from a time when practical effects were still king, when studios were willing to throw millions of dollars at a schlocky sword and sorcery film. We don’t get films like this anymore, and maybe (probably) that’s a good thing. If you’re a fantasy geek, you might find some enjoyment here, but that enjoyment will be tainted by all the annoyances this movie comes with too. Watch at your own risk, and don’t blame me if you hate it.
Do you like the schlocky sword and sorcery worlds of Robert E Howard? Then check out more films like this in our An Age Undreamed Of series.
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