Starring: Brigette Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr., Paul L. Smith
Rated PG-13 (for Action Violence/Gore and a Brief Rape Scene)
Chances are that I wouldn't have seen this movie had it not been for "Siskel & Ebert." Normally absolute professionals, the two of them could barely contain their laughter when talking about this movie. Not a good sign...
Taking it at face value, "Red Sonja" is a very bad movie. The story is trite, the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, none of the actors are able to speak their dialogue convincingly on a regular basis, and the action scenes appear to have been done in one take. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger knows it's bad; he successfully kept his kids in line by threatening to make them watch it 10 times back to back for any transgression, and his then-wife Maria Shriver told him, "If this doesn't kill your career, nothing will!"
However, viewed in the right frame of mind, "Red Sonja" is a lot of fun. While everything I said is absolutely true, it adds to the film's campy charm. Plus, the film looks great; the camerawork by Giuseppe Rotunno is gorgeous (at times jaw-droppingly so), and so is the art and set design by Gianni Giovagnoni and Danilo Donati. Then there's the score by the always superb Ennio Morricone. It's not great art, but I'll be damned if I didn't enjoy myself.
"Red Sonja" is based on the pulp character created by Robert E. Howard, famous for creating Conan the Barbarian, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star (Schwarzenegger appears here essentially playing the same character, but the studio couldn't get the rights to his name, so he was rechristened Kalidor). The story, such as it is, details the adventures of Sonja (Nielsen). Her family was brutally murdered by Queen Gedren (Bergman), a megalomaniac (complete with a cackling laugh). She wants a glowing green orb, or "talisman," as it's called in the film (I always thought those were small and wearable) so she can take over the world. Unfortunately, the more power it gets the less stable it becomes, and in a few days time it will destroy the world entirely. So Sonja, her rescuer Kalidor, and two companions, Prince Tarn (Reyes), the prince of a city destroyed by Gedren, and his servant Falkon (Smith), journey to take down Gedren.
Like I said, the story is Fantasy 101. But the film looks so good that it's impossible to truly dislike. Plus, the actors give it a game try, perhaps unaware of their limitations and the wonderfully corny lines they're given. It's hard to dislike a movie that is this earnest.
The less said about the acting, the better. To be fair, no one is cringe-inducingly bad, but based on the evidence, none of them will ever be Oscar contenders. Brigette Nielsen is certainly beautiful and looks great in her fight scenes, but she has trouble with her dialogue; I challenge anyone to take anything she says seriously. Still, she projects warmth and an inherent likability that's hard to deny. Despite everything, Sonja is easy to root for. She's beaten out in terms of glorious badness by Sandahl Bergman. "Hammy" doesn't do her performance justice, and in that sense she's fun to watch. It borders on insulting to the acting profession, but I'm certain she was having a grand time chewing the scenery.
Their co-stars are in similar positions. Arnold Schwarzenegger is fine, and considering that he was in the film for far longer than he signed up for (he agreed to appear as a favor to producer Dino De Laurentiis but the role was expanded without his knowledge, a fact that led him to try and end his contract with De Laurentiis), he's not just a plot device. As the arrogant, dethroned prince, Ernie Reyes Jr. is at times too bratty, but not bad. Paul L. Smith provides some low-key comic relief.
"Red Sonja" cannot be watched in a normal frame of mind. You have to sit back and enjoy it for what it is. It doesn't work the way it was probably intended (or maybe it was...maybe director Richard Fleischer played up the camp value in an attempt to salvage something). It's a silly, cheesy, fantasy that is the very thing that "The Princess Bride" parodied. But if you accept it for being a cheesefest, it's a lot of fun.