Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 17, 2015


In the 1970s, in the pages of their popular “Conan” comics, Marvel Comics introduced a character named Red Sonja. Though loosely inspired by a Robert E. Howard character named Red Sonya, this Sonja was different and shared a universe with Conan. (The character’s literary origins and legal ownership get kind of complicated after that.) Sonja, probably due to her curvaceous body and infamous chain-mail bikini, became popular enough to hold down her own series. This is probably why de Laurentiis productions, hot off the success of their “Conan” films, decided to give Red Sonja her own movie. Despite the connection, “Red Sonja” was a box office bomb and received acidic reviews. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has appeared in a few stinkers, considers it his worst movie. But is the movie really all that bad?

The movie’s generic fantasy plot certainly doesn’t do it any favors. Red Sonja’s origin – a goddess granting her fighting prowess after her family is killed and she’s raped by marauders – is awkwardly brushed over in the opening minutes. After that, the film gets down to business. There’s a MacGuffin, a magical stone with nebulous world-conquering abilities. There’s a stock villain, a vain lesbian queen who hates Sonja because she scarred her face and rejected her romantic advances. After being properly trained in the art of combat, Sonja sets after the queen and the stone. Along the way, she teams up with an annoying boy prince, his bodyguard, and a character that is basically Conan the Barbarian but, for legal reasons, technically isn’t.

At the time of release, “Red Sonja” was widely criticized for its lead actress’ wooden performance. The film was the screen debut of Dutch supermodel Brigitte Nielsen. Nielsen certainly has the Amazonian features associated with the character. However, her thin and muscular body is a bad match for Sonja’s notoriously voluptuous figure. Accordingly, the film doesn’t attempt to get Nielsen in the chain-mail bikini, instead settling for a leather skirt/armor combo. As a further disservice, the film saddles Brigitte with a ridiculous red mullet. To be totally fair, Nielsen isn’t great in the part. She makes a clumsy attempt to hide her natural Dutch accent. Her line-reading is frequently flat. However, Nielsen isn’t terrible either. As an action hero, she works fine. She leaps, tumbles, and swings a sword confidentially. As far as first time roles go, she’s better then Arnold was in “Hercules in New York.” Given a second chance, Nielsen probably would have evolved into a decent movie star.

Speaking of Schwarzenegger! Disappointed with “Conan the Destroyer,” Arnold signed onto “Red Sonja” believing his part would basically be a cameo. Instead, he was on set for four weeks playing the secondary lead. He even gets top billing on the DVD! Despite probably being annoyed while filming, Arnold remains a professional. Arnold plays an adventurer named Kalidor, who is Conan in everything but name. (A popular fan theory believes that Kalidor actually is Conan and the barbarian is merely traveling under an alias.) Despite some awkward dialogue, Arnold seems more invested in the material then he was in “The Destroyer.” He’s only on screen for about half the movie but he makes the most of it. As always, he brings a lot of humor to the proceedings, especially when wrestling a mechanical sea serpent. Schwarzenegger actually shares decent chemistry with Nielsen. The scene where the two have an extended sword fight is easily the high-light of the film. Though Arnold keeps his shirt on the entire time, denying us a perfect Schwarzenegger performance.

Probably the weakest part of “Red Sonja,” as in “Conan the Destroyer,” is its cheesy, occasionally annoying comic relief characters. On her adventure, Sonja runs into Tarn and his body guard Falkon. Tarn is a boy prince and is as haughty, conceited, and obnoxious as that suggested. The character softens as the movie does on, eventually proving himself useful, but I question his introduction into the plot. Falkon isn’t much better, acting goofy and swinging a giant bone. At least the movie has a decent villain. Sandahl Bergman was offered the lead part but turned it down, deciding it was too similar to Valeria. Instead, she plays the wicked Queen Gedren. A stereotypical evil lesbian, part of Gedren’s hatred of Sonja is motivated by her spurning her sexual advances. Her vanity is also a stock female villain characteristic. Bergman’s performance is suitably ridiculous. If she had a villainous mustache to twirl, you know she would.

The action scenes in “Red Sonja” are still pretty good. As I said, Nielsen is competent as a swordsman. A sword fight with a sexist Viking king is a good moment. Kalidor provides plenty of horse top hacking and slashing, sending decapitated heads sailing into the air. The fight with the mechanical sea serpent is ridiculous but mildly amusing. If nothing else, it’s memorable. The conclusion, which has the heroes infiltrating the villain’s lair, is decent. Arnold gets more fun moments here, when he leaps upon a broken table or holds a split beam up with his head. The final duel between Sonja and Gedren is a fine wrap-up to the film.

Though “Red Sonja” is a cheesy film, it obviously wasn’t a cheap one. The sets and special effects are actually quite impressive. Next to the Asian ring where Sonja trains is a giant statue of a stone king. The bridge across a gorge is made up of dinosaur bones, a nice touch. The bad guy keeps the film’s MacGuffin in a striking room full of candles. The villain’s lair is actually a great set, full of arching hallways and red torches. The music is also way better then it has any right to be. Though it’s not equal to Basil Poledouris’ work on the “Conan” films, Ennio Morricone’s score has plenty of sweeping themes and adventurous suites. With its decent action, wonderful sets, and impressive music, “Red Sonja” probably would’ve been a lot better without any dialogue at all.

Sorry, Arnie. This isn’t your worst movie by a mile. Though it’s cheesy as hell and features some embarrassing comic relief and stiff acting, “Red Sonja” is still a mildly entertaining sword and sorcery flick. It’s better then “Conan the Destroyer,” at the very least. [6/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[X] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

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