Thursday, February 19, 2015

(Not) Love Actually: Red Sonja

Flipping through channels I came across Robert Rodriguez's ElRey Network showing Red Sonja. I hadn't seen the flick in a long time, like as a kid on TBS long so I tuned in. First off, ElRey is a pretty cool channel showing lots of kung-fu and exploitation movies along with original programs like The Director's Chair (more episodes please!) where Rodriguez sits down with Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter among others to discuss their storied careers. This would be my first time watching a movie on ElRey and in a neat twist, they don't edit the movies as in there's a warning for graphic content to preserve the filmmakers original vision. So you get the uncut flick just with commercials.

Red Sonja takes place in the same fantasy universe as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan flicks as we meet Sonja (Brigette Nielsen) after her family has been killed and she's been raped for rejecting the sexual advances of Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman). After being bestowed with strength by a spirit/god/ghost thing Sonja goes and trains in sword fighting with some Asian dudes like in Conan then heads off on a quest of revenge. On her way she meets Lord Kalidor (Arnold), young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and his servant Falkon (Paul L. Smith). Sword fighting, beheading, stabbing, mechanical underwater snake creature, eating, Tae Kwon Do, magical orb only Sonja can touch, beautiful landscapes, huge sets and Ennio Morricone score shenanigans ensues.

As you should know, Conan was the literary creation of Robert E. Howard who also gave us Kull and Solomon Kane. Sonja came from Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith based loosely on Red Sonya in Howard's short The Shadow of the Vulture. Dubbed the "She-Devil with a Sword", Red Sonja appeared in  Conan the Barbarian comic books in 1973 before headlining her own series. Conan the Barbarian film producer Dino De Laurentis had struck massive success with the 1982 film starring Arnold directed by John Milius. Less violent and sexual sequel Conan the Destroyer from Richard Fleischer was released in 1984. Both films grossed more than $100 million worldwide on budgets under $20 million.

Producer De Laurentis offered the title role to Conan the Barbarian co-star Sandahl Bergman who had played the viciously vivacious Valeria, Arnold's love interest and fellow sword fighting thief. Bergman turned down the role in favor of the evil Queen Gedren. With production nearing, De Laurentis saw 21 year old Danish model Brigitte Nielsen on the cover of a magazine and flew her to Italy to screen test. Standing in line with 25 other hopefuls, 6'1" Nielsen barely fit into her costume and immediately became returning Destroyer director Richard Fleischer's favorite. Schwarzenegger was under contract to De Laurentis and came on board for what he thought would be a glorified cameo as the sword swinging Lord Kalidor. Originally intended to be a reprisal of his Conan character, De Laurentis didn't pay Universal for name rights so Arnold is basically Conan but with fancier clothes (is that red vest and pants ensemble velvet?!). The $18 million dollar film with a script by George MacDonald Fraser and Clive Exton shot in Italy near Rome. A total newcomer to acting and movie making, Nielsen quickly fell for Arnold and the two embarked on an affair during shooting. Arnold shot his role in less than 4 weeks and was horrified to see his cameo had turned into a full on supporting role with his name listed first on the movie's poster and his image being larger than Red Sonja's.

Released on July 3rd of 1985, Red Sonja grossed an anemic $2.2 million dollars at # 9 behind Back to the Future, Pale Rider, Rambo II, The Goonies and Fletch among others on it's way to a $6.9 million total. A huge drop off from Barbarian's $38 million domestic take and Destroyer's $31 million total. Reviews were unsurprisingly harsh with Nielsen and Bergman each receiving Golden Raspberry Award nominations for worst acting. Arnold would soon fulfill and terminate his contract with De Laurentis while years later describing Sonja as his worst film, reserved for punishing his children if they misbehaved. The title would be brought up nearly 30 years later when Sabotage barely cracked $10 million at the box office, making it his worst showing since Sonja not adjusting for inflation. Star Nielsen would soon meet action icon Sylvester Stallone, a rumored "gift" from Arnold as the two men were still rivals at the time. Nielsen would marry Sly and appear in Rocky IV and then Cobra before landing a plum role in the 1987 hit Beverly Hills Cop II. The two divorced in 1987 and Nielsen's follow up film roles would never match her early output. In 2014 she appeared in Mercenaries, a low budget knock off of Stallone's The Expendables featuring female action figures like Zoe Bell, Kristanna Loken, Cynthia Rothrock and Vivica A Fox.

Young co-star Ernie Reyes, Jr. would go on to roles in film and television, notably in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and Surf Ninjas while bodyguard Paul L. Smith had already been acting for 20 years and would continue to pop up in film and TV into the 90's before passing away in 2012. Dancer turned actress Sandahl Bergman would go on to appear in genre movies like Hell Comes to Frogtown and episodic TV into the 2000's. Red Sonja would be director Richard Fleischer's penultimate motion picture preceding another De Laurentis production, 1987's Million Dollar Mystery before retiring. Fleisher passed away in 2006. Talk of a Red Sonja remake percolated in the late 2000's with Robert Rodriguez looking to direct his then fiance Rose McGowan in a Nu Image/Millennium Films production but nerve damage in McGowan's right arm nixed the idea and she appeared in the flop 2011 Conan the Barbarian remake as a witch instead. Nu Image is still pushing forward with a film, allegedly with Con Air and Expendables 2's Simon West at the helm and Amber Heard at the top of the starring wish list.

While Red Sonja may have been a looked down upon disappointment upon release, all these years later the film still holds up as a prime entry in the sword, sorcery and fantasy genre that the wonderfully weird 80's gave us. Sure there's some bland and over the top delivery but production values are terrific from the ornate costumes, weaponry and huge castle and cave sets. Characters are all decently fleshed out and memorable with Sonja claiming she would never be with a man who could not best her in combat so cue to her fighting with Arnold to Falkon's penchant for food and Prince Tarn's precocious, bordering on annoying prince who can throw down . The fights are excellent with solid back and forth choreography, bettering the circle then slash approach of Conan the Destroyer. Ernie Reyes, Jr. gets to show off his impressive martial arts abilities, especially considering his age and the film moves quite quickly wasting no time at 90 minutes. It also lacks the jokey cheesiness of Destroyer with it's pretty straight ahead approach that somehow effortlessly mixes lesbianism, rape, revenge, romance, magic, swordplay and high adventure.

No comments:

Post a Comment