Marvel Movie Madness! Part 20: Red Sonja

Marvel starts seeing Red. Will we?

by | June 23, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 20: Red Sonja (1985, 20% @ 20 reviews)

Directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Brigette Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr.

Luke: It’s telling when Arnold Schwarzenegger describes this film as one of his worst — he once said that he used it as a threat to his kids: “I tell them, if they get on my bad side, they’ll be forced to watch Red Sonja 10 times in a row.” So what do they and Maria make him watch? Jingle All the Way? I beg to differ with Arnold’s appraisal of his canon.

Not that Red Sonja is good. It’s terrible — but in a pleasurable way. Brigitte Nielsen was apparently cast in the title role mere weeks before production when producer Dino De Laurentis saw her picture in a fashion magazine, and she delivers the kind of magnificently wooden performance that hiring process would suggest. Any time Schwarzenegger shows up — which is not enough, because he disappears for long, deadly stretches of the film — it’s like Olivier stepped on set; that’s how lifeless Nielsen is. But all of this adds to the fun. Watching her and others negotiate lines like “Talisman… stolen… must… destroy… the… talisman” and “so it’s true — only women may touch it” is to be in bad acting heaven. And Arnie’s Kalidor (essentially Conan but by name) wrestling and punching a mechanical dragon in a pond is like that scene in Ed Wood where Lugosi had to tangle with the fake octopus.

One thing that is genuinely great in the film is Ennio Morricone’s score. I was surprised to hear it, but it’s unmistakeably him in Spaghetti fantasy mode. And some of the costume design (there are some fantastic headdresses) and shot composition/photography in the castle scenes (the DP often worked with Fellini, so there you go) wouldn’t look out of place in a Jodorowsky film. Hire that guy to do the remake, I say — you’re sure to get the requisite fantasy nudity missing here, at least.

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Alex: Brigitte Nielsen’s performance, annoying bratty sidekicks, and an endless barrage of weird Arnie lines. There’s plenty of things about Red Sonja that would bug me, but something like Neilsen trying to act up to Schwarzenegger’s level is really a sight to behold. I liked Red Sonja, and not even ironically. This is a one-of-a-kind fantasy camp implosion that could only occur within the confines of 1985.

The movie opens with scenes of carnage, including Sonja’s rape at the decree of Queen Gedren, apparently as an act of revenge for Sonja rebuking her sexual advances. The movie’s plot involves preventing Gedren from using a destructive artifact that evaporates any male who touches it. There’s an upfront and transgressive sexual agenda in play that’s rather delightful, especially considering most sex in comic book movies is handled with kid gloves, drawn from easily-digested affairs or love triangles. Red Sonja is supremely silly, like a Boris Vallejo painting come to life, and that’s got to count for something.

Matt: I have to jump in with a quick note for the nitpickers about how Red Sonja qualifies for inclusion as a Marvel Movie; Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan) did create a character called “Red Sonya” for one of his stories, but apart from the name, that character had little to do with what we see in the movie. Marvel writer Roy Thomas took the renaissance-era, pistol-packing secondary character created by Howard, and dropped her into Marvel’s take on Howard’s Hyborian age, changing her into a sword-wielding, chain-mail bikini-wearing heroine. Confused? Just remember that Red Sonja as seen on screen is mostly based on her comics appearance, and not as a book character.

This is a great example of “so bad it’s good,” and that’s mainly because of the cast. Arnold, Brigitte, and Sandahl Bergman (previously seen in Conan the Barbarian) are all pretty awful here, as is most of the dialogue. Ernie Reyes Jr, as the child prince, is pretty annoying, but you can forgive him because the script is so silly. The other fun part of this movie is spotting the 80s character actors; that’s Paul Smith (Bluto in Popeye and Feyd Rabban in Dune) as the prince’s guardian, and Gedren’s right-hand man was played by Ronald Lacey, who’s probably most recognizable as Major Toht (the black-clad, face-melting Nazi) from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

You can tell this movie was done on the cheap, but producer Dino De Laurentiis still manages to make the movie look pretty good (relatively speaking). It’s not quite an epic production, but it doesn’t look as bad as something like The Sword and the Sorcerer. It’s not a great example of movie making, but it’s a damn sight better that Man-Thing.

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Jeff: There isn’t a lot of analysis I can add to what you guys have already written, but I have to say that I think Red Sonja is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing — words can’t possibly do it justice. Every performance — hell, every single line — is delivered without an iota of visible connection to the material, and watching it while listening to Morricone’s dramatic score is like watching someone desperately try and blow up a leaky balloon. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. I urge everyone reading this to see it at their earliest convenience, preferably after having a few drinks.


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