Not a good REH interpretation (it’s too campy), but entertaining in some ways
"Red Sonja" (1985) is essentially "Conan 3," after "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) and "Conan the Destroyer" (1984). Schwarzenegger plays the barbarian 'Kalidor' here because the filmmakers didn't have the rights to the 'Conan' name since 'Red Sonja' was owned by a company separate from the REH people, yet -- strangely -- they could use REH's Hyborian setting, albeit in a half-axxed way.
"Red Sonja" is the least of the three films. In other words, if you couldn't stomach parts of "Conan the Destroyer" you'll loathe "Red Sonja." It starts out pretty good but by the 23-minute mark the goofiness kicks in with the introduction of Prince Tarn (the spoiled Asian child who deems himself a king) and his loyal rotund assistant, Falkon. The sword & sorcery silliness turns full throttle by the final act. Needless to say, Robert E. Howard (REH) was rolling over in the grave at such roll-your-eyes treatment of his S&S fantasy world.
It's strange because, for the most part, the film gets the LOOK of the Hyborian Age down pretty good, although there are some really fake-looking props/costumes/effects here and there. But, generally speaking, they did a decent job with the locations, costumes, cast and props. The problem is the overall cartoonish vibe. It's like Conan for kids or something and it's almost saddening to observe all this expense & effort wasted by the inexplicable decision to go the camp route. It mars what could have been a quality REH-influenced picture. John Milius' "Conan the Barbarian" may have deviated from REH but it made up for it by taking Conan and the Hyborian Age seriously, not that it was totally humorless. Laughter and lightness are an intrinsic part of life but they don't need to devolve into campy silliness. "Red Sonja," by contrast, is so silly at points that it's impossible to take seriously.
This isn't to say it's all bad though. If you're in the right mode "Red Sonja" can fill the bill. It's not good, and you can't take it too seriously, but it's somewhat entertaining. What works? For one, as already noted, the film scores decently as far as visuals go. For instance, the Italian locations are gorgeous and, although Brigitte Nielsen in all her 6-foot glory doesn't match the comic's depiction of Red Sonja and looks more like Red Mullet, I have to admit that she's pleasant to the eye, and her swordplay is impressive. Also, the score by Ennio Morricone (famous for his great Spaghetti Western compositions back in the day, like "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," “Death Rides a Horse” and “Navajo Joe”) is pretty good too, although nowhere near the exceptionality of Basil Poledouris' compositions for the first two Conan flicks.
Also, although Prince Tarn & Falkon are eye-rolling characters, you can't help but start to like them as the story progresses. As a matter of fact, the story in general pretty much maintains your attention, despite the occasional silliness.
Another plus is Sandahl Bergman as the mad villain queen, but the filmmakers dropped the ball here because she appears fully clothed from head to toe throughout. The thing is, although Sandahl's face isn't ultra-cute like Brigitte, Sandahl has a killer body that exceeds Brigitte's. But you won't see it here; you'll have to re-watch "Conan the Barbarian" for that. Not that I'm suggesting a need for nudity or sex; it's just that Sandahl's a jaw-dropping whoa-man and they should have taken advantage of this with some more form-fitting attire to show-off her beauty. But she still looks great here, particularly in black hair and a cool mask.
BOTTOM LINE: "Red Sonja" is a real mixed bag. It fails as a cinematic interpretation of REH's Hyborian world, but only because the filmmakers opted for kid-friendly goofiness at the expense of brutal S&S pseudo-reality. However, the film looks and sounds good, for the most part. Bergman and Nielsen are quality eye-candy and it is somewhat charming if you're in the right frame of mind.
But I’ll take “Kull the Conqueror” (1997) over this; it has a light side too, but it’s less kiddie-ish and was loosely based on REH’s “By this Axe I Rule,” which means it contains more REH. Not to mention Kevin Sorbo makes for a great Kull, although he’s too genial and not brooding enough.
The film runs 1 hour, 29 minutes.
GRADE: C/C- (but sometimes amuses to the level of B-/C+)