Red Sonja, 1985.
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brigitte Nielsen, Sandahl Bergman, Paul Smith, Ronald Lacey, Ernie Reyes Jr., Pat Roach.
A female warrior sets out for revenge against the evil tyrant who murdered her sister, aided by a skilled swordsman and a child prince.
Red Sonja is one of those ‘80s fantasy movies that a lot of people tend to remember quite fondly, mainly because it introduced the world to model-turned-actress Brigitte Nielsen, whose statuesque physique and no-nonsense screen persona seemed to personify the titular character, and also because it featured a then-hot Arnold Schwarzenegger, fresh off the back of playing a deadly cyborg in The Terminator and about to create action movie gold in Commando after shooting this movie.
It also didn’t hurt that Arnie had played Conan in two movies previous to this, as the character of Red Sonja was also created by writer Robert E. Howard. However, despite his appearance and costume being the same his character in this is not Conan but credited as Lord Kalidor (although it is really Conan) because the filmmakers did not have the rights to the Conan name.
Nevertheless, Arnie looks mightily impressive when he first appears on the screen, riding his horse across vast plains during the Hyborian Age (which is the same time period that Conan is set in, but this is not in any way, shape or form Conan so get that thought out of your head) on his way to find Sonja (Nielsen) to inform her of her sister’s death at the hands of the wicked Queen Gedren (Arnie’s Conan the Barbarian co-star Sandahl Bergman). Sonja has been given the gift of strength by some random spirits and vows to take revenge, and clearly does not need or want Lord Kalidor’s help but look who has top billing, so he’s going along too.
With that in mind, Arnie was only supposed to appear in a cameo as a favour to producer Dino De Laurentiis but ended up appearing in quite a bit more of it than planned thanks to some sneaky cameramen and editors, which actually helped him in the long run as it meant if he was the ‘star’ of the movie then he could get out of his contract with De Laurentiis early and start to move up the Hollywood ladder, which he did with admirable ambition.
But despite his name being credited first, this isn’t really a Schwarzenegger movie, and with this being her first role it isn’t really a Brigitte Nielsen movie either as she had no box office power at this point. This sort of aimlessness weaves its way through the movie in more than just whose name to put on the poster as the writing is also very uneven, especially when the writers give in to that awful trope of throwing a child into the mix, therefore watering down any potential violence or adult content. Conan the Barbarian pushed its AA/15 rating with gore, sex, nudity and brutal violence but here we get one beheading that could have come from a Looney Tunes cartoon and lots of people falling over when shot with arrows or hit with swords in bloodless deaths, and when you have peak ‘80s Arnie in your movie this just doesn’t feel good enough.
The child in question is Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr.), who may win the prize – if there were one – of the most petulant child character in any movie ever; in fact, Brigitte Nielsen is at her least wooden when threatening to put him across her knee and one suspects that she isn’t in character at the time. Tarn is escorted by his put-upon slave/guardian Falkon (played by Pieces actor Paul Smith) and, after Schwarzenegger’s charisma, is probably the best thing in the movie as he is basically the comic relief, but Smith makes what could have been a nothing role quite memorable thanks to his kindly persona and watching him take on the baddies alongside Arnie in the final act gives him a heroic arc, which Smith seems to relish.
But despite having a few moments to savour, Red Sonja is a rather empty movie fuelled by nostalgia for those who saw it in the ‘80s or hardcore Arnie fans (worth noting that Schwarzenegger himself rates this as one of his worst movies and used to threaten his kids with making them watch it if they were naughty). The plot is basic and straightforward, but Sandahl Bergman is totally wasted as Queen Gedren, whose plan to take over the world seems a bit muddled as the talisman she has taken possession of seems to be destroying it, and Ronald Lacey as Gedren’s number two Ikol is equally undersold, basically recreating his role as Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark but without having anything to do other than tell Gedren that she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, and the audience have already figured that out by the second act.
Having been restored for its 4K release, Red Sonja looks pretty good in UHD, the reds and golds of the costumes looking bright and bold against fairly bland backgrounds. There is quite a lot of grain throughout, especially during scenes set inside, and it isn’t as detailed or good looking a movie as Conan the Barbarian but considering how the original movie looked on previous formats it is a step up. If you are not able to view the UHD disc there is a restored Blu-ray available that isn’t significantly different, aside from a few edges not being quite as defined when there is something bright on the screen (such as the glowing green talisman), so you still get that HD detail and colour grading without too much compromise.
So overall, get beyond the nostalgia factor and Red Sonja isn’t really that great a movie. More comparable to the lighter (and cheaper) Conan the Destroyer (also directed by Richard Fleischer) in tone and, unfortunately, quality than it is to the mighty Conan the Barbarian, it proved that giving Brigitte Nielsen lines wasn’t a very good idea, and neither were the close-ups on her face when she was delivering them – her shouting “Gedren, where are you?” whilst gurning in full widescreen is never not hilarious – and that Arnold Schwarzenegger could make even the biggest turds watchable, whether he was aware he was in the movie or not.
If you are upgrading your Arnie collection to 4K you will likely pick this up regardless but maybe wait until the sales, or, even better, wait until both Conan movies get the same treatment and pick up the lot in a package deal. Either way, time has not been too kind to Red Sonja, and it was never that good to start with.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★