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Red Sonja

Red Sonja

1985 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 89 min. / Street Date July 6, 2004 / 14.97
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brigitte Nielsen
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Production Designer Danilo Donati
Art Direction Gianni Giovagnoni
Costumes Danilo Donati
Film Editor Frank J. Urioste
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Written by Clive Exton, George MacDonald Fraser from stories by Robert E. Howard
Produced by Christian Ferry, A. Michael Lieberman
Directed by Richard Fleischer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An established fan favorite of bad moviemaking, this sideways spinoff of the Conan Sword 'n Sorcery franchise is a lopsided show that wastes some top production talent on a feeble script. When posing with their shining blades Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brigitte Nielsen look like Frank Frazetta fantasy artwork come to life. But their acting is limited to appallingly bad line readings.

The character of "Red Sonja, She Devil of the Hyrkanian Steppes" was reportedly not originally part of Robert E. Howard's Hyborian tales; the red-haired master swordswoman teamed up with Conan much later in Marvel Comic books. Danish model Brigitte Nielsen was cast as Red Sonja when Sandahl Bergman rejected the part; Arnold's character was written into the script at the last minute. When Red Sonja reached the theaters, Schwarzenegger was reportedly irked to find that the producers had given top billing to his secondary part in order to capitalize on his name.

The story begins with a confusingly edited flashback to childhood scenes of Red Sonja losing her family to the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman). In the first of several repetitious massacres, Gedren throws a group of Amazon priestesses into a bottomless pit and steals their magical talisman, a glowing green orb. Tipped off by her dying sister, Red Sonja swears vengeance. She's assisted by young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr.), a brat tended by the amiable servant Falkon (Paul Smith, Bluto in Robert Altman's Popeye). Tagging along at a distance is the adventurer prince Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Even for the juvenile action crowd this is a limp revenge tale. Red Sonja spends too much screen time playing babysitter to the annoying child Prince. Frequent cutaways to Queen Gedren show her engaged in generic evil monarch behavior, refusing to relinquish the earthquake-generating talisman even though it threatens to shake her castle to rubble. Character dynamics between Brigitte and Arnold never advance farther than swapping laugh-out-loud bad dialogue. She: "No man may have me, unless he's beaten me in a fair fight." He: "So, the only man that can have you, is one who's trying to kill you. That's logic."

Courting the kiddie audience, the movie keeps blood to a minimum with only one arm and one head severed in all the sword slashing. There's no sex beyond Sonja's one Fredericks of Hyrkania costume. Blades clang loudly but the fight choreography is uninteresting. Arnold and Brigitte's fencing style has a lot in common with bodybuilder posing, forming static tableaux that evoke classic Frazetta imagery. Musclebound Schwarzenegger has difficulty slinging his blade around freely, and scores of anonymous soldiers invariably take turns to attack him rather than charge all at once. A skilled fencer like Rob Roy's Tim Roth would make mincemeat of these pretenders.

Red Sonja has flawless lensing from Giuseppe Rotunno and impressive art direction by Danilo Donati, but the film looks like a collection of handsome sets and locations waiting for a worthy story. Richard Fleischer's direction isn't any better than his lackluster effort for the first Conan sequel, Conan the Destroyer. At one point our heroes creep along a narrow ledge until a pullback reveals that they could simply walk to where they want to go. They do battle with a mechanical snake that isn't up to Carlo Rambaldi standards, especially when it spins wildly, as if attached to the same silly rotating rig used by rubber crocodiles in the classic MGM Tarzan movies. Other elaborate effects constructions aren't fully exploited. Accompanied by her pet spider, evil Queen Gedren views a large television powered by an alchemist's bubbling chemistry set. It is used once and never seen again.

When a film's star has limited acting experience, the standard wisdom is to compensate by surrounding them with colorful supporting players of the kind that Red Sonja sorely lacks. Beautiful Brigitte Nielsen just isn't up to the task of carrying scenes on her own. The only accomplished actor in sight is the always-exceptional Ronald Lacey (Raiders of the Lost Ark). When he says a line, it at least sounds like acting. The rest of the picture plays as if the actors are dry-rehearsing their dialogue while blocking scenes. Dramatically, it's no better than the average episode of the animated He-Man: Masters of the Universe cartoon show - most of the enjoyment in Red Sonja comes from laughing at the gaudy badness of it all.

Warners' DVD of Red Sonja presents this noisy action show in the best possible light. The sparkling transfer is colorful and rock-solid, showing off the beautiful locations near Rome in full enhanced widescreen. Ennio Morricone's surprisingly dull score is well served by the clear, mono soundtrack. Sword and sorcery fans will enjoy Danilo Donati's many outrageously garish costumes for various footsoldiers and henchmen. Not counting Arnold's bulging biceps, the art designs are surely the high point of the picture.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Red Sonja rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 13, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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