The Best Movie Critic + TIME

Watch This Instantly: Red Sonja

About half way through Red Sonja, Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) and Lord Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) have a gratuitous, ten minute long sword fight. If Red Sonja wins she gets to keep her virginity, if Kalidor wins he may “have her.” For the record, this was Sonja’s idea. They fight and fight. They fight for so long that their royal child companion, Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), falls asleep out of boredom. The music swells in with an exciting adventure-fantasy cue and then fades out again, but the fighting keeps going. Finally, Sonja and Kalidor collapse out of exhaustion. A draw. Here’s the point: I may be the only human being on planet earth who thinks that Red Sonja is a forgotten classic, but if a ten minute sword fight for Brigitte Nelson’s virginity is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Red Sonja is bad in the way that a fantasy-epic written by your 11-year old brother would be bad, but it’s great for the exact same reason. Take the movie’s opening, for instance, where Sonja’s family is murdered by the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman). Instead of just showing the attack, the movie inexplicably opens after the events in question with a visit from an Exposition Fairy – I call her that because the movie provides no other explanation and because that’s what she is – who repeats Sonja’s story back to her: “... and so it was that Gedren ordered your family murdered.” It’s about this time that a rational audience member might start to ask questions like “Wouldn’t it have been easier and less convoluted to just show this happening in normal chronology since you obviously filmed the scene and are showing it in flashback ghost-o-vision?” and “Why is the Exposition Fairy repeating the events that happened to Sonja just moments ago back to her like she didn’t just experience these things mere seconds before the Exposition Fairy showed up?” and “Exposition Fairy, seriously?” But you see, that rational audience member is missing the point. Gratuitous, unnecessary randomness is the crux of Red Sonja’s greatness.

So the Exposition Fairy takes off after giving Sonja "strength" (way to be specific). Meanwhile, a coven of priestesses (assorted babes) attempt to destroy a powerful talisman, but before they can cast it into the pits of darkness, Queen Gedren and her minions attack, killing the babes and taking the talisman, which will give her the power to rule the world. One babe escapes and manages to spill the beans to her sister Red Sonja (surprise!) and Lord Kalidor before she dies. Sonja wants help from no man, demanding to go it alone. Lord Kalidor, brave and... horny, apparently, trails behind, making sure Sonja doesn't come to any harm. Owing to the filmmakers' contractual obligation to provide a comic relief subplot, Sonja teams up with Tarn, a plucky, haughty, karate-fighting child price, and his fat (guido?) manservant Falkon (Paul L. Smith). I don't know the rationale for karate existing in a prehistoric fantasy Europe, but thank god nobody thought to ask about that during production. If there's one thing Conan the Barbarian was missing, it's karate.

The smorgasbord of accents on display in Red Sonja is surreal. It's as if director Richard Fleischer forgot to tell his cast whether to use their own accents, speak in fake "fantasy"-British, or what. Brigitte Nielsen goes for the expected haughty faux-Beowulf vibe. Arnold, well... I mean, he only has one setting, right? Ernie Reyes, Jr's Prince Tarn sounds like he stepped off the soundstage for a Kix commercial. He speaks in the measured American English of a child actor whipped into perfection by overbearing parents. Paul L Smith's Falkon is the icing on the cake. Lord help him, Smith sounds like he's doing a bad Dom DeLuise impression. Set against the backdrop of high fantasy, it's positively bonkers. This band's quest for the talisman - or as Arnold would say, “da tahl-iz-mon!” - is a linguistics professor's nightmare.

As a connoisseur of schlock cinema, it pays to know the difference between regular bad movies and unwatchable bad movies. As mediocre as Red Sonja is in terms of rational standards of quality, the movie’s extreme watchability is undeniable. There is always something interesting or unexpected going on. Not five minutes of movie goes by without a cameo by a mechanical marine monster, or a perilous bridge made of the bones of a giant dead creature whose spine spreads over a pit of hot lava, or the superfluous introduction of the evil queen’s Doberman-sized pet spider. This movie is not boring, people. At the very least, there is an abundance of funny hats to distract you from even the movie’s driest passages, which are surprisingly few and far between. Seriously, Red Sonja’s hat designs are like the devil-spawn of Frank Frazetta and Dr. Seuss.

I have to digress for a moment, because there is one bizarre element in Red Sonja that trumps all the others. I’m talking of course about Queen Gedren’s magical DJ. In Gedren's throne room, there is what I can only describe as a DJ station, where her minion mixes potions and casts spells. The motions he makes when he casts said spells look an awful lot like "raising the roof." Gedren wants to watch Sonja's progress from her magic DJ's boiling pot. Right before he conjures up a view of Sonja, we see what appears to be a "magic pot screen saver" of a dancing naked fantasy babe. My girlfriend and I tried to come up with any rational explanation other than "magic pot screen saver," but there isn't one. I can't be sure I am describing the lunacy accurately, so I would encourage you to watch this video starting at about 2:25.

Finally, I need to get up on my soapbox for a sec. There is something wrong with The System when a movie as goofy, fun, and entertaining as Red Sonja can't get any support, but "quality films" as dull, predictable, and paint-by-numbers as The King's Speech are lifted up as the best the medium has to offer. Because Sonja is schlock, it frees the movie from any pretension of importance, and in many ways actually allows it to be more radical than it's highfalutin peers. For instance, did you notice that King's Speech, though it takes place 70 years ago, is a morality-photocopy of our generation's overvaluation of the triumph of the individual? Even though WWII was arguably about putting aside personal and selfish pursuits and coming together as Allied nations, we desire to see the dishonest and more importantly boring reflection of ourselves in another time and place so much that we whitewash history. Red Sonja, though it exists in a fictional time and place, does an admirable job of presenting sociological conditions that are fundamentally unacceptable to our contemporary ethical standards. To wit, Falkon, fat and goofy as he is, is unquestionably submissive in his role as slave to Prince Tarn. He has no rights; he was born a slave and he will die a slave. Because Sonja is schlock, there is no need, time, or budget to shove a message down the audience’s throats about the evils of slavery and dictatorial monarchy. It makes sense for a movie about a different time and place to have characters with values that don’t hold a mirror to the audience’s values. That’s right, I went there. I think Red Sonja is more honest than The King’s Speech. If you can’t get with that, you can go choke on my tahl-iz-mon!

-Ben

adventure, best, Cinema, fantasy, Movie, review, and more:

Watch This Instantly: Red Sonja + TIME