Sunday, December 11, 2016

Cimmerian Week, part III: You're a brave girl, but danger is my trade!


The legend of Conan continues without Conan, but not without Schwazenegger, and what we get is a bog standard fantasy-actioner that does nothing very well and nothing very poorly.  It is content, instead, to just exist.

Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Clive Exton and George MacDonald Fraser
With Brigitte Nielsen (Sonja), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Kalidor), Ernie Reyes Jr. (Prince Tam), Paul L. Smith (Falkon), and Sandahl Bergman (Queen Gedren)

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's mildly damning once you realize it: the single most interesting thing there is about Red Sonja, Dino De Laurentiis' third sojourn into the Hyborian Age, is the process of piecing together why it takes the exact form it does.  Of course, the answer to that riddle is inevitably industrial, and maybe it's even a little dull itself.

Either way, the story goes something like this: by 1985, Conan the Barbarian and its less-than-ideal continuation, Conan the Destroyer, had made De Laurentiis a great deal of money; naturally, De Laurentiis wished to go on making a great deal of money.  The original plan, of course—propounded by both Barbarian's director, John Milius, and by DDL himself—was a full-on trilogy, concluding in Conan the Conqueror.  And why not?  Recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger—the very embodiment of the Cimmerian who would one day be king—had been locked up early, having signed a three-picture contract with De Laurentiis' production company back when he still came cheap.

And that's when reality got in the way.  De Laurentiis didn't wait for Milius after Barbarian, turning instead to the nearly-dead Richard Fleischer.  Together, DDL and Fleischer guided the franchise into the petty juvenilia of Destroyer, which was received with rather less enthusiasm than its predecessor—fittingly enough, one supposes, considering that it was made with rather less enthusiasm, too.  And, Schwarzenegger, whose star was exploding, was hardly going to be readily contained by any Italian schlockmeister, contract or not.

The result?  A compromise of a film—a spin-off from nowhere.  It sought to adapt the heroine of Howard's 1934 short story "The Shadow of the Vulture," Red Sonya, by way of Roy Thomas' comic creation, Red Sonja (with a "j"), while leaving that "Conan" fellow to languish in the legendarium.

And, theoretically, Red Sonja could've easily stood on its own; but that was surely not to be.  Instead, we have the Red Sonja they actually made—the dissonant Conan the Barbarian remix.  It possesses something close to the exact same damned plot, except not nearly as good; and De Laurentiis decided to employ the franchise's repertory players in a bunch of new (or "new") roles that, I can imagine, probably served only to badly confuse the film's intended audience of pubescent children.  De Laurentiis' solution to his problems was to take the Conan out of Conan; and, to this end, he made a movie starring (or "starring") Schwarzenegger, but this time as the swordsman "Kalidor," in what amounts to a supporting role, all in order to accommodate the actor's increasingly-busy schedule.

Not to mention his increasing desire to act with his shirt on, for a change.

The plot, as noted, is Barbarian reheated, only without the themes (or the poetry); nevertheless, serviceable enough for a basic revenge-inflected barbarian romp.  (But then, the very first hints of this pseudo-sequel's greatly-reduced ambitions are provided during its opening moments—a text crawl delivered in silence, possessed of absolutely none of the ancient authority evoked by Mako's introductions to the first two films.)

So: once again, we find ourselves in the time before time.  Here we meet Sonja, a peasant girl targeted for seduction by the evil Queen Gedren; and when the young maiden refuses the queen's advances, Gedren has her home burned, her family executed, and Sonja herself raped by proxy, by her guards.  But the young woman survives—and, stumbling into the forest, finds herself visited by a spectral vision, who grants her the power to carry out a mission of revenge.  (And who is forgotten by this film's screenwriters, somewhere around the half-hour mark.  Oops!)

Now possessed of strength, but not yet skill, Sonja goes off to train in the arts of murder with Asians; but in the meantime, the wicked Gedren is pursuing yet another vile scheme, this one in the name of world domination.  She and her army strike the temple that houses a certain mystical talisman, killing its priestesses and stealing the enormous glowing emerald that contains the power of storms and earthquakes.  But one priestess escapes Gedren's clutches, and before the arrow in her back can claim her life, makes her way across the country, befriends the barbarian noble warrior Conan Kalidor, and gets the word to her red-haired sister—and thus does Sonja find herself crossed by Gedren's endless depredations for a second time in her life, just in case a couple of dead parents and some vaginal tearing weren't already enough motivation for our heroine to act.

Well, the quest laid before her is certainly obvious enough now—but Sonja, who hates and distrusts men (because she was raped at the order of a woman—I guess?), dismisses Conan Kalidor, who now (and conveniently!) becomes a mostly-offscreen presence.  She treks across the land herself, picking up an imperious child prince and his obsequious retainer with their own grudge against Gedren; eventually, Conan Kalidor rounds out her dungeon-raiding party, for he turns out to have been trailing her all along.  In the end, it comes down to what it always does: an infiltration of Gedren's fortress, leading to a battle to save the world.

And you win precisely no points for guessing that Sonja falls in love with Conan Kalidor in the process.

It is surely not one whit more efficient than Conan the Barbarian; only much quicker and less mythopoeic, which takes a fair amount of the Hyborian soul out of it.  On the plus side, this means that it's also much, much shorter—and that means that Sonja's brazenly episodic quality doesn't wind up quite as offensive as Destroyer's own vignettish construction.  Better yet, the obnoxious comic relief that tended to overwhelm Destroyer is kept to a happy minimum here.  Sonja's sidekicks are typically more cute than they are out-and-out annoying.

The problem with Sonja is what it lacks: certainly, Destroyer is in the main a bad movie, but a bad movie elevated by great scenes, especially its unforgettable ending; meanwhile, Sonja is just a watchable movie, that hardly ever rises above just okay, and it ends with more of a whimper than a bang—regardless of all the magical explosions that accompany it.

There are individual elements that work rather well, to be sure: for starters, it's reasonably bloody for a PG-13 flick; and when he's actually around to do it, Schwarzenegger proves that he's evolved sufficiently as a performer to act every last one of these also-rans right off the damned screen; and Ennio Morricone's score, while never wanting to be anything but a feature-length homage to Basil Poledouris, certainly works well enough, even if it doesn't have half the soul-stirring impact; and the great Danilo "Flash Gordon" Donati's combined production and costume design has several moments of real, bona fide glory, like the skull helmets on Gedren's soldiers, or the chamber of candles, or the awesome dragon skeleton which Sonja and her friends use as a bridge to cross into Gedren's Mordor-like kingdom of woe.

Even the Italianate 80s-fantasy-ness of Gedren's robotic "killing machine" has something to recommend it, despite the fact that the best Fleischer can actually do with such a well-crafted monster is to stage a very long and very confusing battle in a flooded cave, wherein Conan Kalidor thrashes about for about five minutes with an exceptionally-obvious prop.  (Incidentally, I have decided not to dock Donati for covering Schwarzenegger's chest; for it does fit with his slightly-different character, even if a "slightly-different character" played by the same actor in the same universe is, literally, the last thing a fan of this franchise could possibly want.)

Clearly, Fleischer's direction is in no sense improved from Destroyer; indeed, if anything, the technical skill he employs is significantly worse.  Thus Sonja often looks even cheaper than it is; and despite a fair number of exacting, well-balanced images, the abiding mode of Sonja's cinematography is only ever "uninspiring murk."  The action scenes tend to be undone by the stuntpeople's outrageously-blatant insert shots; and, indeed, there is not one single minute of Sonja's runtime that can compare to the music-driven dance of destruction that defined the best scenes of Barbarian and Destroyer.

Last, and worst of all, Fleischer simply does not possess any of the insight that Milius must've had, when it came to directing an inexperienced would-be star: while Milius was able to finesse Schwarzenegger's performance into something compelling by reducing him to nothing more than a purely physical presence, Fleischer takes on his star, former model Brigette Nielsen, as if she already knew how to act, even though she rather plainly does not.

The outcome is a lead who does look the part—and credit De Laurentiis for this: between Sandahl Bergman, Grace Jones, and now Nielsen, his Hyborian Age is populated by some of the more plausible-looking warrior women you'll find on screen.  Unfortunately, however, Nielsen never even has the chance to do what Schwarzenegger had done three years prior, which was use her body to sell the character, as opposed to her totally-undeveloped talent at reading actual words.  It cannot be overemphasized how much better Bergman's Valeria was, back in Barbarian, and this smacks of a real missed opportunity—for Bergman actually turned down the leading role in Sonja, sending De Laurentiis scrambling to find another woman "amazonian" enough to play the part, whilst Bergman made herself comfortable in the role of this film's antagonist.  (Now, of course, Bergman had her reasons, believing Sonja was too similar to Valeria.  Yet this explanation seems a lot like willfully missing the point—of course Sonja is similar to Valeria, in the sense that they are practically identical, except for the palette-swapped hair and Sonja's tragic backstory.  One suspects that Bergman simply conjured that the one-note villainy of Gedren would be more fun to play, and perhaps she was even right about that, for Bergman, alongside Schwarzenegger, turns in the closest thing Sonja has to a "good" performance.)

And this is still true even though Fleischer gives Gedren virtually nothing whatsoever interesting to do—except, that is, to be gleefully obsessed with her two favorite hobbies, black magic and violent lesbianism.

But then there is the weirdness sitting at the heart of the relationship between Sonja and Kalidor, which hardly any actor could redeem, though Nielsen and Schwarzenegger, bless them, do try.  It starts with the vow she's taken (somewhere offscreen, naturally) to never be with a man—unless, of course, he can defeat her in combat.  It already sounds a lot like how I presume a piece of erotic rape fiction would start, and it even progresses in pretty much exactly that direction for a while ("If you yield only to a conqueror, prepare to be conquered!"), until it just kind of peters out.  And it's just so off-putting—even if the scene where Kalidor and Sonja duel themselves to sexless exhaustion is probably, taken on its merits, the most endearing moment of the whole film.

This is on top of the great hay Sonja makes of its heroine's martial prowess—honored more in the breach than in the observance.  Consider: Sonja's very first real swordfight leads to her being disarmed about five seconds in, and while she does eventually win this contest, it surely suggests a reticence on the part of the writers and director about making her too competent; and this gets underlined, as Kalidor emerges from screen-left to rescue her, over, and over, and over.  One might prefer one's warrior woman to crush her enemies, and hear the lamentations of their men; after all, that only seems fair.

Still, I'd be lying if I said it's a hard sit.  Yes, Red Sonja is a boring B-movie with cheapness in its heart; but it also came from an era where such a thing didn't need to hide its true nature behind a $200 million budget and two and a half hours of runtime.  It has its charms—minor ones, but charms nonetheless.  Surely it's no crime that it's been practically forgotten; but neither does it do particular dishonor to a franchise that, after all, had taken its biggest step down in quality already.

Score:  5.01/10

Other reviews in this series:
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Destroyer
Red Sonja
Kull the Conqueror
Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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