Q: So, tell me a bit about Red Sonja.
A: To tell you the truth, even though I scheduled this one long in advance, I am sort of sorry that I have to write this. See, Red Sonja was my introduction to the Sword & Sorcery movie genre…and if I wasn’t a child, I would have never watched another fantasy film, ever.
A: Really? This was your introduction to the genre?
A: Well, sort of. My actual introduction was the He-Man & The Masters of the Universe cartoon, but I’d never seen any live action fantasy films before this one. It was a childhood favourite, but like most childhood favourites, I remembered very little of it. In fact, aside from a crush on Brigitte Nielsen, the idea that women can play action stars (which I based on this movie) and a vague connection to Conan the Barbarian, I remembered nothing of the movie. Then, I saw it again.
Q: Did it hold up to your childhood memory of it?
A: Do you really want an answer?
A: Despite passing the Bechdel test, this is perhaps the most vile piece of sexist garbage I can remember ever being committed to film.
Q: There’s no way it can be that bad, can it?
A: Well, despite being the title character, Brigitte Nielsen ceded top billing to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays High Lord Kalidor.
Q: Well, Arnold was riding pretty high then, what with Pumping Iron, Conan the Barbarian and the Terminator. Wasn’t it sort of common to put the bigger name on top regardless of the real protagonist? They did it in the Godfather, remember?
A: OK, well, in almost every fight Sonja’s involved in that isn’t a sparring match, she wins only because a man helped her. I kept track. While she legitimately beat Lord Brytag, she couldn’t handle his personal guard, which Kalidor beat back with ease. She also defeated Queen Gehdren (played by Sandahl Bergman) at the end, but every other fight was either won due to Kalidor’s assistance, or in one instance, the help of a small child who knows karate (Prince Tarn, played by Ernie Reyes Jr. of Surf Ninjas and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame). The greatest warrior woman needs a man to help her, while men like Kalidor need no help to handle a small army.
Q: Well, male heroes need help too sometimes…
A: She got her powers through rape. Rape gave her fabled strength to her.
Q: What? Are you serious?
Q: And you don’t mean that her rape motivated her to train a bunch to get revenge or something along those lines?
A: No, I mean literally, a goddess comes down after the rapists leave her for dead and gives her strength because she was raped. It’s subtly implied that she was given it to get revenge on the lesbian Gehdren because, by resisting her homosexual advances, she showed herself morally worthy, so we can add some homophobia to the sexism. Furthermore, as part of her blessing, she can’t have sexual relations with any man who can’t beat her in a fair fight.
Q: You mean…she can’t have sex with anyone who isn’t able to rape her. She has to choose celibacy or relive the most traumatic experience of her life every time she makes love.
Q: Isn’t that…isn’t that fucking horrible?
A: Yes, yes it is. And it gets worse.
Q: By Ishtar and Mitra…dare I ask how?
A: After the first scene, the rape isn’t mentioned again, but her anger at men is, regularly. Both her mentor and Kalidor tell her she needs to trust men more, and not be so angry. On top of that, when Sonja finally confronts Queen Gehdren, the rape is completely forgotten. She’s angry about her family being killed, and rightfully so, but not a hint of anger at Gehdren ordering her men to rape Sonja.
Q: So in addition to everything else, the movie actually downplays the rape? Crom’s devils…at least fans of Robert E Howard can be happy seeing Conan on screen again, right? I mean, Kalidor is just Conan by another name, right?
A: Not really. While he’s smart and fierce enough to be Conan, Kalidor is the High Lord of…well, they never say where, but he’s nobility, meaning he’s not a barbarian. Also, he loathes the idea of being a mercenary, something Conan had no issue with. Granted, they had to differentiate Kalidor from Conan for legal reasons, since the studio lost the rights to the character before this spin off was out of the scripting stage, but this character is not Conan. In fact, aside from a mention of “the Hyborian Kingdom” in the text scroll at the beginning (which is wrong, since Hyboria was an age, not a kingdom) and the character of Red Sonja, created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for the Conan the Barbarian comics, which were based in part on two other Howard characters, a Renaissance era swashbuckler named Red Sonya of Rogatino and a 16th century French sword-fighter, Dark Agnes de Chastillon, there’s nothing connecting this with anything Howard wrote at all.
Q: Huh. OK. So, what else is wrong with this movie?
A: Honestly, even without the moral issues, this would still be a bad movie. Its budget definitely shows in the special effects, which were awful even for the time. The acting is atrocious, most lines sound like a grade school play rehearsal, and the handful of people who can act are either pushed into minor roles, or are clearly just there for a paycheque (Schwarzenegger). The worst offender is Razzie award winner Brigitte Nielsen, who has a natural disadvantage being a Danish woman whose English wasn’t very good. Even without that disadvantage, she seems only capable of emoting when she’s overacting, which is bad because it adds unintentional humour to what should be some very serious moments. The only performance I can compare to Nielsen’s in this movie is Tommy Wiseau’s portrayal of Johnny in The Room (though Nielsen wasn’t quite as bad as Wiseau was). And, unfortunately, most of the fight choreography failed to inject any sort of entertainment value into this turd.
Q: Wow. OK, so what, if anything, can you say that’s good about this movie?
A: Sandahl Bergman and Brigitte Nielsen’s scenery chewing can make for unintentional laughter at points, and as sexist as the movie is, at least Nielsen wasn’t in the chainmail bikini that Red Sonja made popular, in fact, her outfit was somewhat practical, given that her fighting style seems to rely on mobility. Also, Brigitte Nielsen was very pretty back then, which is a shallow compliment but that’s really all I have.
Q: Alright, so who would you recommend this to, if anyone?
A: Nobody except very, very bored people and sexist homophobes. And people who are able to make fun of “so bad it’s good” stuff who can stomach the unfortunate implications.
Q: Huh. So Arnold Schwarzenegger is right to use this movie as a punishment for his kids?
A: While I give this film 1 bad red wig out of 10, this is at least twice as good as Junior. So, at least it isn’t the worst Schwarzenegger movie ever…which is actually a horrifying thought.