TCM Underground: Red Sonja (1985)

I’m not big on the fantasy genre, as a general rule, and it’s not anything to do with the movies or stories themselves, it’s just not my cup of tea.  It never has been and it just never will be, and that’s cool.  I have my tastes and fantasy has its fans.  We don’t need each other.

But, every few years, probably literally every three years, I get a craving for one of my very favorite movie rituals:  I smoke a couple hits of very, very powerful weed (as someone who partakes every other month, this knocks me on my ass), sit down with a six-pack of beer and I get down with the Conan the Barbarian movie.  I.  Fucking.  Love.  That.  Movie.  I really, really do.  I love everything about it.  It’s one of my favorites.

I also kind of like, but don’t really love, its sequel Conan the Destroyer, which is much more kid-friendly than its predecessor.  I knew that Red Sonja was somewhat related to those movies, and I had never seen it, so this week I was really excited to re-enter that world again.

Brigitte Nielsen (best known by me as a former model who once dated Flavor Flav) plays Red Sonja, another creation by Robert E. Howard (sort of), the man behind the Conan character, through stories in pulp-fiction magazines and comic books, as well as Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith.  Arnold Schwarzenegger also appears, although not as Conan himself, since securing the rights to the character proved to be too expensive.  Dino De Laurentiis just sort of works around it and hopes no one cares too much, since the character he’s playing is similar enough.

Sonja is tasked with finding a mysterious orb that brings about powerful destruction when wielded by evil forces.  Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman, also of Conan the Barbarian) uses the orb to cut a swath of destruction through the land, taking gold and lives as she pleases, growing more and more mad as the power of the orb corrupts her further and threatens to destroy the entire world.

Also along for the ride are arrogant, pint-sized Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and his comedy-relief servant Falkon (Paul Smith).  The character of Prince Tarn is possibly the most ill-advised decision of any movie.  The kid is the worst.  If I had a dime for every time he shrieked “Ayah!” and swung a sword uselessly at someone, I’d have enough for a meal at Del Taco.  I’d have to order off the dollar menu, but I’d be able to get a drink and fries.  The little Prince brings the movie to a complete standstill whenever he’s onscreen and the actor playing Falkon does his damnest to rectify the scene with a sort of natural charm and charisma and genuine comedic skill, but he can’t quite pull off the impossible by making any scene focusing on Prince Tarn anything above terrible.

And you just know, from the first time you see that kid, he’s going to be there until the end.  He’s easily on the list of top five most annoying kids from movies in the 1980s, and there’s some stiff competition.  Ernie Reyes is probably best known for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II where he’s not awful.

Red Sonja is one of those movies where it begins promising enough, balancing the darkness of Conan the Barbarian with the lightness of Conan the Destroyer, and creating a deft balance of menace, revenge and adventure.  It really has a decent opening and introduction, but by the end it becomes one of those movies where you sort of sit back and watch cheap sets fall apart.

The film is directed by Richard Fleischer, an old-timey professional known for other films like, yes, Conan the Destroyer as well as Tora! Tora! Tora! and Soylent Green.  He does a serviceable job with Red Sonja but it’s pretty clear that his heart’s not in it.

If I’ve been a bit hard on this movie, it’s because it squanders a whole lot of talent.  There’s quite a bit to admire.  The special effects have actually aged quite remarkably, particularly the matte paintings to give the world of Red Sonja a life of its own.  A bridge formed from the skeleton of a long-dead dragon is such a wonderful image, giving insight into the background of the world the story is set in.

The score, also, courtesy of the legendary Ennio Morricone, is catchy and memorable.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was slated only to be in the movie for something of a cameo, but when his one-week commitment became four, it was revealed to him through screenings that his cameo was actually, sneakily, a supporting role, achieved through multiple camera angles unbeknownst to him.  Furious, he decided to terminate his ten-year contract with Dino De Laurentiis.  It’s a shame that of all movies to terminate a relationship it was this one.

Did I enjoy the movie?  Yeah.  Sure.  Some of it was decent fun, such as a non sequitur in which Sonja beheads a pesky magician getting on her last nerve in the climactic showdown.  While I’m glad I saw it, to sate my curiosity if anything, I have no desire to ever watch it again.

Join me next week for a Pam Grier double-feature: Black Mama, White Mama and Hitman.