Just in time for BLACK WIDOW, here’s another famous redheaded heroine from Marvel Comics…
Director: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Brigitte Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ernie Reyes Jr.
A woman uses her goddess-given powers to seek vengeance upon those who wronged her. And also the audience and their time and money.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man who starred in JUNIOR, JINGLE ALL THE WAY, and BATMAN AND ROBIN, had this to say about RED SONJA:
“It’s the worst film I ever made. When my kids get out of line, they’re sent to their rooms and forced to watch RED SONJA ten times.”
Those are strong words for someone with HERCULES IN NEW YORK in their filmography.
I have to assume Flava Flav woke up to this more than once.
Inspired by the work of Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, Marvel Comics introduced the character Red Sonja in 1973 in an ongoing Conan storyline. Now before you get too excited that Arnold’s inclusion in this film adaptation, and the fact that it shares the same director as CONAN THE DESTROYER, means he’s back as everyone’s favorite Cimmerian…I have some bad news. The filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to use Conan, so instead Schwarzenegger plays Lord Kalidor, a generic mercenary on a mission who feels like a less interesting and entirely unmemorable knockoff of the other guy.
Even worse, they totally screwed over the Austrian action star for no good reason. Arnold originally agreed to do a simple cameo in RED SONJA as a favor to his CONAN producer Dino De Laurentiis. Not only did they instead force him in to shooting weeks of additional content on location, but when Schwarzenegger saw the final released film, he discovered they’d used stand-ins and clever editing to make his small part in to a co-starring role. (He literally gets top billing on the poster and in the opening credits over actual star Brigitte Nielsen.) That violation of trust caused him to break his contract with De Laurentiis and probably explains why he considers this his least favorite film.
KKK GHOST definitely did not star Patrick Swayze.
RED SONJA follows the character’s original comic arc pretty faithfully. When the evil Queen Gedron attacks her home, Sonya defends herself and slashes the invading tyrant’s face, leaving her scarred. Not overreacting at all, the queen orders Sonja’s family murdered and has her soldiers rape the young woman and leave her for dead. A goddess then takes pity on the title character and imbues her with powers* to turn her in to a fierce warrior so she may exact her revenge. The only catch? She cannot sleep with a man unless he is able to defeat her in combat.
As is par for the course with this genre, the heroine meets up with a number of random quirky characters, each of whom have their own grievance with the antagonist and end up joining Sonja on her quest. Said quest is to stop Queen Gedron (played by Sandahl Bergman, not the only CONAN THE BARBARIAN star turning in a godawful performance) from using a magical orb called The Talisman, that is somehow both capable of building worlds and also destroying them.
* It’s worth noting that “given powers by a deity” makes Sonja’s skill set sound cooler than it actually is. The goddess must’ve been skimpy with her gifts that day, as the title character is pretty much just a good fighter, who still required years of training and still has to be rescued multiple times by other characters.
You’re never too young for a good dick joke.
Honestly, if you were to look at all the elements on paper, RED SONJA has everything you think you’d want from one of these sword-and-sorcery movies—sweeping scope, big production, outlandish costumes, even a score by Ennio Morricone. Unfortunately, all those works as ideas more than the actual execution, leaving nothing that comes together in a satisfying way. I could easily see this being one of those movies people loved when they were younger, only to watch it as an adult and discover it doesn’t quite hold up.
The biggest issue is the lead actress. It’s hard to blame Brigitte Nielsen entirely, since she came to the film with limited acting experience as a 21 year old model that producer Dino de Laurentiis cast after seeing her on the cover of a magazine. Nielsen tries her best (I assume), but she is just out of her depth on every level: delivering lines convincingly, handling weapons and stunt work properly, and just instilling any kind of charm or charisma in to a character that has an entire movie named after her.
The script also doesn’t do anyone any favors, full of paint-by-number characters and plot points, with dialogue so cringeworthy every spoken sentence could be in the Best Lines video below. The film’s feminist message was pretty progressive for the time, with Sonja able to hold her own against every male character, but it still feels like a guy’s unrealistic POV of what a badass woman should be. Sonja is constantly weary around men and does not like to be touched—you know, due to her being raped at the start of the film—but every guy, including her mentor, continues to gaslight her and act like she’s crazy. She keeps saying “No man may have me,” but the movie’s ultimate message seems to be, “Not all men! Stop being such a downer! Try sleeping with that big muscley guy!”
You’re also never too old for a good fart joke.
Speaking of muscley guys, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the obvious highlight here, but the nature of his sporadic presence in the movie means his character disappears for large swaths of the film, only to randomly show up, save the day, and then vanish again depending on the actor’s availability. And since he was essentially being coerced in to doing this movie in the first place, you can tell he does not give a damn, turning in one of his worst performances. Meanwhile, the budding “romance” between Sonja and Kalidor is like watching two incoherently-programmed robots attempt to mimic actual people in love. The scene where he challenges her to a fight in order to be able to sleep with her, while potentially sounding like a fun bit of foreplay, ends up overly drawn out and boring thanks to their incredible lack of chemistry together.
Also worth mentioning is TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II (and THE LAST DRAGON!) star Ernie Reyes Jr. as a tiny prince who has to count as one of the worst child characters of all time. He acts like a spoiled brat, constantly berating and ordering everyone around, then gets in trouble and requires rescuing, over and over again. He’s also notable for the disturbing scene where Sonja teaches him how to use a sword in the most phallic way possible.
Honestly, this is one movie where I’m fine with them torturing the kid.
There may be a few worthwhile elements in its mercifully short 89 minutes (I am quite fond Arnold fighting a mechanical fish monster in a sequence that looks like a rejected theme park ride), but RED SONJA makes for a better character with potential than this film that squandered it. Unless you have a lot of nostalgia for this movie, you’re better off watching any of the many similar, better fantasy films like KRULL or THE BEASTMASTER instead, or just wait for the inevitable remake.
The movie version of Sonja’s outfit is decidedly not as skimpy as it is in the comics.
Take a shot or drink every time:
- Someone touches the Talisman
- Someone delivers a line unconvincingly
- Prince Tarn is a dick
- There’s a giant statue or skeleton
- Arnold lifts something heavy
Double shot if:
Thanks to Quincy for suggesting this week’s movie!
Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.