Not up to she-devil’s role

Fending off epic unwholesomeness

Published: Nov 22 2019, 01:01:am

Monday, July 8, 1985

RED SONJA. Written by Clive Exton and  George MacDonald Fraser. Based on the 1973 Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas, and the 1934 pulp fiction character created by Robert E. Howard. Music by Ennio Morricone. Directed by Richard Fleischer. Running tine: 87 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violence, occasional nudity.
BECAUSE OF BRIGITTE NIELSEN, there will probably be a Rambo III and  maybe even a Rocky V. “I guess she saved my life,” Sylvester Stallone said seven weeks ago [May, 1985] in a Los Angeles interview.     
     Injured during the filming of Rocky IV, Stallone was one good punch away from the final bell. Stallone wanted to get back in the ring, “but my girlfriend got hysterical,” and the actor went into the hospital instead.
    Because of Brigitte Nielsen, it is unlikely that there'll be a Red Sonja II. The lady who saved Sly will be remembered along with Tanya Roberts (1984’s Sheena) and Helen Slater (1984’s Supergirl) for displaying virtually no talent at all when cast in the title role of yet another disastrous female superhero epic.
    A  Danish-born fashion model, Nielsen is out of her depth in motion pictures. Stolid and bovine-looking, she conveys neither the passion, style nor intelligence required to breathe life into the “she-devil with a sword,” Red Sonja.
    In all fairness to Nielsen, it must be said that this particular Dino De Laurentiis production has something to disappoint everyone. Readers familiar with novelist Robert E. Howard's original Red Sonya of Rogatino — a 16th century Russian whose name he spelt with a “y” — will hardly recognize this Sonja, an apparent contemporary of Conan the Barbarian.
    Readers who have followed her comic book career — adapted for Marvel by Roy Thomas, with Frank Thorne the definitive Red Sonja artist — may wonder what happened to their heroine's distinctive ironclad bikini. Nielsen thuds through most of the movie in a little item more appropriate to figure skating than heroic fantasy.
    Filmgoers who've seen the Conan pictures will be confused to see Arnold Schwarzenegger turn up here as a swordsman named Kalidor. Identified as the High Lord, he must supervise the destruction of a sacred talisman that is endangering the world. The pesky thing has been stolen by the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman), the selfsame villainess who ordered the destruction of Sonja's family when our straight-arrow heroine rebuffed the naughty monarch's unwholesome advances.
    Filmgoers who remember Bergman's outstanding performance as Valeria in the 1982 Conan feature will wonder how she missed out on the starring role here. A dancer with the natural grace and instinctive physicality to play a legendary warrior, she expresses more character in a simple walk down a corridor than Nielsen manages in her most intense scenes.
    In Red Sonja, director Richard Fleischer tries to build an interesting action-adventure film around a star devoid of martial arts skills  — the doubling techniques used are obvious and embarrassing — and without any personal presence. Neither he nor she makes it.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1985. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Thanks to Brigitte Nielsen, there was a Rambo III (1988), followed by a fourth (2008) and fifth (2019) installment of  Sylvester Stallone's military frachise. Rocky V was released in 1990, with Sly reprising his pug role again in 2006, 2015 and 2018.
     I was not kind to Nielsen, an actress making her feature film debut in the fraught role of a medieval rape victim who accepts the help of a warrior goddess in her quest for revenge. As it turned out, hers would be a career in B-movie roles that made more of her amazonian presence — she stood a commanding 1.85 m (6”1”) tall — than any acting prowess. Speaking of of Amazons, I had much the same reaction to the performance of fashion model and beauty queen Gal Gadot in director Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman, though I will concede that the former Israel Defence Force combat instructor did manage the required athleticism.
    The move Red Sonja remains something of an outlier, a rare example of a sword-and-sorcery epic featuring a woman in the leading role. High fantasy films were a phenomenon of the 1980s, an action-entertainment form that spoke to the anxieties of teenaged boys. The focus was on musclemen — among them, Conan the Barbarian, Hercules, The Beastmaster and Deathstalker — their quests and one-on-one combats, with women present more as prizes than protagonists. The genre was basically a boys' club. Not surprisingly, its cartoonish storylines attracted the attention of animators such as Ralph Bakshi, who teamed with comic book artist Frank Frazetta to produce 1983’s Fire and Ice.
    Five years earlier, Bakshi had incurred the wrath of fanboys with his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, considered by many to be an important work of literature. Though I find Tolkien unreadable, a lot of people take him seriously. In the 21st century, director Peter Jackson brought his jolly tale of male camaraderie to the screen in three outrageously successful big-budget feature films — The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003) — a trilogy that generated nearly $3 billion dollars at the box office, and major interest in New Zealand as a tourist destination. Its “fellowship” consisted of nine guys on a quest to save the world from a “dark lord.”
    Times are changing. The success of that 2017 Wonder Woman feature, followed by the Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck team-directed Captain Marvel (2019) has sent the DC and Marvel movie moguls into a frenzy to play catch-up with their audiences. DC has Wonder Woman 1984 scheduled for release in June 2020. Though Marvel no longer has the rights to the character, a reboot of Roy Thomas’s 1973 creation Red Sonja is currently in the works with gender non-conforming TV producer Jill (Transparent) Soloway taking on the writing and direction duties.