I love a fun sword-and-sorcery movie, don’t you? Unfortunately you’re in a bit of trouble if you decide to go with Red Sonja, because as promising as it looks, it ends up being too dull to mock and too goofy to take seriously.
The movie opens with our heroine Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen seems to have learned her lines phonetically), sprawled in the dirt outside the burning ruins of her family’s home. Then, in one of the more hamfisted backstories ever, a shimmery, glowy figure appears and informs Sonja of how she (Sonja) was propositioned by the local evil queen. When Sonja rebuffed the proposition the evil queen killed Sonja’s family, burned her house, and had Sonja raped by a bunch of soldiers. The kicker? Everything the Magical Exposition Fairy is telling Sonja happened to Sonja just, oh, ten minutes earlier!
Sonja seems as puzzled by this bit of awful scripting as we are, but she recovers nicely and goes off to warrior training school. Meanwhile, the evil queen who propositioned Sonja (Sandahl Bergman in an abysmal performance) busts up a temple so she can get this big green glowy ball thingy called the Talisman. Apparently it will give her all kinds of power or something, if it doesn’t destroy the world first. (There’s always a trade-off, isn’t there?) While she’s at it the evil queen has most of the temple’s priestesses massacred. One, though mortally wounded, escapes, and wouldn’t you know it, she happens to be Sonja’s sister.
Sonja’s sister conveniently runs into Arnold Schwarzenegger – I forget his character’s name, so we’ll just call him “Not Conan”. He finds Sonja and brings her to her dying sister, and when Sonja heads off to destroy the Talisman (and kick a little evil queen booty) Not Conan wants to tag along. Sonja’s having none of it because she doesn’t like men, but Not Conan follows along anyway and proceeds to show up whenever Sonja gets in over her head, which happens with alarming frequency.
Along the way Sonja meets Short Round. Well, I forget his name but he’s some bratty prince whose kingdom was destroyed by the Talisman thingy. Prince Short Round and his Fat Flunky join Sonja and Not Conan, and after fighting a mechanical critter, together they infiltrate the evil queen’s way-too-Freudian castle and there’s a big fight in a room with about 10,000 candles. I feel compelled to add that none of this is as interesting as I’m making it sound.
The main problem with Red Sonja is that it never finds the right tone. It doesn’t have the serious, near-mythic quality that John Milius was able to bring to Conan the Barbarian, yet it isn’t silly enough to be campy. Except for Schwarzenegger, who seems to be enjoying himself, most everyone else in the cast seems to be going through the motions. This is particularly true for Nielsen, who looks stunning but never seems at home in the role. Acting honors probably have to go to that guy who yells, “I will read the future in your entrails, red woman!” with such gusto. Now THAT’S the performance you need for a movie like this.
The story is nothing special and the effects are decent, but what really makes Red Sonja interesting is the way it constantly undermines the heroic qualities of its titular character. Every time Sonja gets into a dangerous situation she needs Not Conan to bail her out. It’s not clear whether the moviemakers thought audiences wouldn’t buy a heroine who gets the job done by herself, or if they couldn’t think of a role for Schwarzenegger except as a deus ex machina.
Still, things get entertainingly wacky when the heroes arrive at the evil queen’s palace, which has some really weird Freudian designs to it, as well as a wizard mixing bubbly potions in Erlenmeyer flasks, the aforementioned room with 10,000 candles, and Ennio Morricone’s score kicking it all up a notch. Red Sonja isn’t the nadir of 1980s sword-and-sorcery epics, but it’s far from the peak.
The disc sports no extras beyond a trailer.