Red Sonja could be worse, so I can't complain too much about it. Basically, it's a sword and sorcery potboiler, just as I expected. It has some unexpectedly good points and some unnecessarily bad ones. If one likes this sort of thing, the bad points won't entirely ruin it. Oddly, though, some the good points won't make too much difference to fans of this sort of film.
Red Sonja (having very little relation to the character in one of Robert Howard's Conan stories) is a woman warrior who seeks to avenge the death of her family. An evil queen slaughtered them all when Sonja refused to be her lover. After the massacre, Sonja meets up with something suspiciously reminiscent of Glinda the Good. Whatever this special effect is supposed to be, it somehow gives her strength to become a powerful swordswoman. While she's off training, her sister, who must have missed out on the massacre, is helping neutralize a powerful green globe which, unless kept in darkness, will shortly destroy the world. The evil queen bursts in at the appropriate moment, slaughters all the priestesses, and steals the globe for her predictably nefarious purposes. Sonja's sister escapes, fatally wounded, to the arms of someone who isn't Conan but is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who takes her to Sonja, who swears to recover the globe, and we're off to the races. Silly plot complications, in the form of a child prince and his loyal protector and a romantic subplot between Sonja and Arnie (hindered by Sonja's hatred for men and her oath to only give herself to a man who can beat her in a fair fight) serve only to pad the film to a sellable length, 83 minutes, in this case.
Bad points first. Most important is Brigitte Neilsen, who plays Red Sonja. She is beautiful and well trained in the martial arts. Unfortunately, she makes Tanya Roberts look like Katherine Hepburn. Boy, is she bad! Most unfortunately, laughable as her line readings are, she isn't the worst performer in the film. That honor goes to Ernie Reyes, Jr., who plays the young prince. By the end of the film, I was almost praying that his character would be killed so that I wouldn't have to listen to him mangling any more lines or watch another of his excruciating expressions. His only apparent qualification for the part is a proficiency in martial arts, but even in his fight scenes his grating personality comes through like fingernails scraped on a blackboard. The greatest disappointment of Red Sonja, though, has to be the performance of Sandahl Bergman. Ms. Bergman was so good in Conan the Barbarian that it is saddening to see her give such a bad performance as the wicked queen. I find it hard to convince myself that she is the same actress.
Getting back to Master Reyes, who receives my coveted Clint Howard Award for worst new child actor of 1985, even without seeing the rest of the year's films, his inclusion points out another flaw in Red Sonja. I have no doubt that all connected with the film found him just as annoying as I did, but I suspect they had no choice. Why? Because screenwriters Clive Exton and George McDonald Fraser wrote a vital part for a kid who could do martial arts, and I doubt if any other boy actor was capable of handling this requirement. This is a fundamental error in the script, one of many. Budding screenwriters take note: never write a part that is too hard to cast, or you may see your picture ruined by the likes of Ernie Reyes, Jr., or, for that matter, by Brigitte Neilsen. Other flaws with the script are lack of inventiveness, poor to mediocre dialog, muddled logic, and some outright continuity gaps. As an example of the latter, Sonja is told by the prince's henchman that she can get to the wicked queen's domain by a long safe route or a short dangerous one. Naturally, she takes the latter, survives it (whoops, a spoiler), and moves on, only to find ahead of her ... the prince, who was taking the long route. I am particularly disappointed in Fraser, who writes a fine adventure novel (I recommend his Flashman series) and wrote the screenplay for The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers some years back. I expected a lighter touch and a bit more imagination from him.
Richard Fleischer's direction is neither a plus nor a minus. He does a competent hack job. I would have hoped that the son of one of the Fleischer Brothers, crazed animators of the 1930s, would have had a bit more imagination. The vacuity of the project seems to have sapped out of him whatever ideas he might have had, as it did on Conan the Destroyer. On the other hand, Fleischer is a very old hand on sword epics, going back to The Vikings in 1958 (one of the beloved films of my mispent youth), and the experience shows when it comes time to draw the weapons and start hacking about. Moreover, Fleischer deserves a break on the basis of age, being nearly 70. Few directors have the stamina left to do even a polite, low key drawingroom comedy at that age, much less a big special effects/action film. Ennio Morricone's score is another neutral item, but a disappointment, as it proves that Morricone, too, is a mere mortal and cannot be counted on to always come up with a great score.
On the plus side, Arnold Schwarzenegger is really developing a flair for this sort of thing. He starts off a bit shakely, but eventually gets on track, giving a convincing enough performance as the brawny hero. He's given less opportunities for humor, a talent he began to show in The Terminator and Conan the Destroyer, which is a pity. Paul Scott is fairly good as the young prince's bearlike servitor. Ronald Lacey is superb as the evil queen's henchman, giving a nicely calculated performance with just enough camp and just enough menace. It's a pity the picture doesn't use him more effectively.
The swordfights are quite well staged. They result in precisely the maximum amount of blood, severed limbs, and disgusting sounds of weapons entering flesh to avoid an R rating. The effects are fair to good, with some shaky matte work, some good, etc. The production design is excellent, really strange and creepy. Most fans of this sort of film will barely notice, but Danilo Donati (Fellini's favorite designer) has really done a splendid job in created a very foreign environment. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, another Fellini alumnus, contributes good photography.
Sometimes I like to speculate about unlikely directors and projects. The presence of Donati and Rotunno makes me wonder what Red Sonja would have been like if, somehow, producer Dino de Laurentiis had persuaded Fellini, his old colleague, to direct it. Now that's a movie I'd like to see. Or how about if George Lucas talked Ingmar Bergman out of retirement to make the next Star Wars movie? I consider it a minor tragedy that it is too late to see a Luis Bunuel James Bond movie, or a Sergei Eisenstein Friday the 13th sequel. And what, I wonder, would Orson Welles do with Third Blood? Alas, producers aren't gamblers and most auteurs don't have the sense of humor required to get involved with this kind of project, but it's fun to speculate. Fassbinder could have done some very strange things with Indiana Jones, I'm sure.
But, getting back to the subject at hand, taken as a whole, Red Sonja is a slightly better than average adventure picture, marred largely by dreadful performances in key roles. Fans of the genre will probably like it, non-fans will be unsurprised to hear that they might as well skip it.
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