Red Sonja

Hack, slash, act poorly, lather, rinse, repeat. Disposable pseudo-Conan follow-up.

Released in 1985, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 30 Jul 2003 by Scott Morris
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At least Red Sonja doesn't waste any time with subtleties, immediately having some mysterious bad special effect dole out the plot while granting Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) the strength to become a great swordswoman and take revenge on the evil Queen Gedren. She shows up in a flashback, killing Sonja's loved ones and having her soldiers rape her after Sonja spurns her amorous advances. Kinky.

Blah, blah, legend is born, blah, blah. We rejoin her at a training dojo where she's pretty much learned everything she can, and the master declares that he's never seen her equal. Meanwhile, Queen Gedren and her band of goons are off attacking a temple, slaughtering the priests and making off with a talisman left behind by God in a fit of carelessness. With this she has the power to level cities or destroy worlds. This is clearly sub-optimal.

Only one temple guard manages a desperate escape, although she picks up a arrow shaped gift from one of Gedren's archers through her back as she does so. She's helped away by a mysterious beefcake stranger, who turns out to be a legendary warrior named Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger). As if Sonja didn't have enough excuses for vengeance, the guard turns out to be her sister. Kalidor brings news of her impending death to Sonja, and the two return for a theoretically emotional deathbed speech as Sonja is implored to destroy the talisman. Arnie overhears and feels he should help, but Sonja bears a hatred of men, displayed in Nielsen's own charmingly inept fashion and tells Kalidor to take a hike.

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Sonja wanders off in the general direction of the somewhat overblown Birkabeyn, Land Of Eternal Night where Queen Gedren holds sway. Fantasy stories like this always seem to be big on lands where the sun never shines and similar geophysical anomalies and it grows rather grating seeing the same impossibilities being thrown out time and time again. Why is it dark? It could at least make some effort to give a reason, even if it was something as trite as a gypsy's curse.

She hears of an attack by Gedren on the city of Habloc, arriving to find it in ruins. The only people left are it's young ruler Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr, an almost impossibly irritating little brat regardless of whether the script is calling for it or not) and his faithful manservant Falkon (Paul L. Smith), who you may remember as the gloriously titled The Beast Rabban from Dune. They exchange some largely pointless banter serving only to establish their reappearance later and send Sonja off to Brytag's toll road, a sort of swords and sorcery turnpike from what I gather. She arrives, and the toll would seem to take a somewhat physical form. Sonja isn't impressed by this and guts the mighty warrior like a fish. His army is about to start tearing her several new holes by Kalidor reappears to save her, in what becomes a recurring theme.

Sonja, ungrateful wench as ever gallops off, leaving Arnie doing what he does best - fighting insurmountable odds and killing them. After a brief detour to save Tarn from some wandering vagabonds, Sonja, Tarn and Talon head off in Gedren's direction, blundering into a trap and being saved by Kalidor. Again. This time Sonja appears to learn from her past mistakes and graciously allows Kalidor to tag along so he can make sure the talisman is destroyed. It's not selling the film too short to say they infiltrate the castle, chop up lots of guards, have an uninspired showdown with Gedren, win, destroy the talisman, blow up the castle and are home in time for cornflakes. It's hardly the most intricately plotted movie and the gang's plans never seem more complicated than 'let's kill everyone', which is nice.

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Red Sonja feels very much like a cut-rate version of the Conan films, with bits of plot nicked from them and stitched together to create something less than the sum of it's parts. One side-effect of the lesser budget for this is that there are far less special effects shots, meaning it has to rely more on the swordplay aspect. The fights here to be frank aren't any less competently staged than Conan or any of it's ilk at the time, so it's not a substantially worse film now than it was back in 1985. It's just a pity that it wasn't particularly great film in 1985.

Much as we love the guy, and underrated as his acting ability is (our current theory is that people just can't get past his accent) it's rare that you can say that Arnie is the best actor in any film, but it's pretty much the case here. Paul L. Smith is the only other actor capable of delivering his lines in a competent fashion, and he does so but his character is somewhat uninspiring and generally there for comic relief. Incidentally, he's far better and substantially less irritating than Conan's sidekicks.

I very much hope there is a special circle of Hell reserved for Ernie Reyes Jr. for subjecting me to this grating and utterly infuriatingly irritating performance, and for the sake of my blood pressure I'll say little else about him. Nielsen is famously awful and here is no exception, as emotive and skilled as a 2x4 plank. I'll cut her some slack as she wields the sword in a relatively convincing fashion and that's the main thrust of the film, after all. The main downside to her performance is that despite having all the reason in the world to sympathise with this character you don't, because she's so damn wooden and unconvincing. When she finally gets her long fought for revenge on Gedren it's utterly unmoving because you aren't really that bothered about the character one way or the other.

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Conan The Destroyer director Richard Fleischer returns for this hack 'n' slash instalment, and he's captured the action scenes fairly well. The pacing is nippy, bombing along as wisely eschewing character development that would only have exposed Nielsen more. Arnie's the only other character to get any decent back story and as a result he's the most interesting character in the film, starting of as the mysterious bemuscled stranger before his past and identity is revealed toward the end, which make it a crying shame that he isn't in the movie for longer than he is. Red Sonja only really comes to life when he's on screen, although it seems harsh to belittle it on this basis. The title is a pretty good indication of who you're supposed to be watching.

Fleischer should perhaps have resisted the temptation to use any special effects as those that are there are somewhat underwhelming. Witness the least convincing giant spider the universe has ever seen and the terrifying power of the talisman, which causes a goon to glow green and vanish a la old Star Trek disruptor beams. If they can't show the things real power as it destroys an entire city, perhaps they shouldn't have bothered with this pathetic display. I try not to hold special effects to account when watching older films but even at the time this would have been substandard and it's not pretty to watch now. Thankfully they're sparse, the fighting taking more of a precedence which was one of the things that hurt Conan The Destroyer.

It's difficult to recommend this. It's not awful and it's only slightly less enjoyable than the two Conan films, certainlyDestroyer at least, but it's less 'cutting edge' and more 'blunt instrument' these days. For the Arnie completist only, I'd say.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Richard Fleischer
Cast list:
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Kalidor)
Brigitte Nielsen (Red Sonja)
Sandahl Bergman (Queen Gedren)
Paul L. Smith (Falkon)
Ernie Reyes Jr. (Prince Tarn)