Red Sonja

August 19, 2011
Arnold and ‘Gitte, happy at last

Red Sonja, a medieval semi-epic, may be the first example of a sequel without a predecessor. As the film begins, we see the title character (played by model Brigitte Nielsen) waking up among the ruins of her home. Something big has happened, though we don’t know what. A ghost appears and tells Sonja to avenge the carnage here—a convenient expositional device to let the audience know how all this happened.

The ghost says that Sonja’s family was killed by an evil queen (Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian) and that Sonja must avenge the deaths and retrieve this big glowing green ball, which contains the power to destroy the whole world. Sonja fulfills this revenge, naturally, which constitutes the rest of the film.

So, basically, the filmmakers have saved themselves the trouble of shooting the whole first half of the story by summarizing it in this introduction. You’ve got to give them credit for being smart; unfortunately, this leaves the film a bit shy of motivation and meaning. We don’t care too much about what happens here—we just know who’s good and who’s evil.

Included in the good is Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a warrior who helps Sonja along her sword-swinging way. Since the film is basically a showcase for the long, lanky physique of Nielsen, Arnold is to be forgiven for looking a bit miffed during the action. Just when he’s riding hotter than ever (on the strength of last year’s hit The Terminator), he gets saddled with a smaller role.

Sonja and Arnold attack the castle of the evil queen with the dubious help of an obnoxious child king and his obedient slave (Paul Smith). They’re the comedy relief, such as it is.

Even though Red Sonja is only half a movie (at barely 90 minutes), there’s little evidence it would have been any better longer. Veteran director Richard Fleischer, whose career has ranged from interesting small films (The Narrow Margin, 10 Rillington Place) to sprawling epics (The Vikings, Conan the Destroyer), clearly hasn’t got his heart in the proceedings.

He manages only one good sequence—a nifty fight with a mechanical monster, in an underground cave in which the water keeps rising—and the rest is perfunctory. Even the pretty photography of Giuseppe Rotunno doesn’t help.

Mogul Dino di Laurentiis, who also executive-produced the Conan films, brought these folks together after having spotted Nielsen in a magazine ad. She’s moved on to a co-starring role in Rocky IV, alongside Sylvester Stallone (a role she inhabits in real life, too).

About the only element of interest here, for those who wish to bother about it, is the women’s lib subtext. These kingdoms—or queendoms—are ruled by women who wield their swords and decapitate men. Sonja herself has an aversion to men, which blocks Arnold’s hopes for hanky-panky until he can “conquer her,” or vice versa. It’s all a little weird. A decade from now, someone may evaluate Red Sonja in Freudian terms and proclaim it a rediscovered masterpiece. Until then, give it a wide berth.

First published in the Herald, July 1985

This weekend brings the new Conan the Barbarian, so here’s a shard from that world. Can’t find my Conan the Destroyer review, but I remember it as being pretty lame—I like Fleischer as a director, and along with his top-line stuff he did nice work on lesser material, but I can’t recall anything really noteworthy about these two pictures.

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Cobra

January 31, 2011

shades + matchstick = '86 radness

It seems almost irrelevant to synopsize Sylvester Stallone’s newest film—but would you believe it, Sly plays a renegade cop who resorts to his own unorthodox methods to clear the streets of scum? And would you believe his superiors are always wringing their namby-pamby hands over such trifles as First Amendment rights?

Stallone, as he repeatedly makes obvious through the dialogue and action, has had it up to here with this innocent-until-proven-guilty nonsense. Cobra is his Dirty Harry, and he’ll take care of business—in this case, a subhuman serial killer and maniacal followers—with an arsenal of guns and grenades.

The movie, written by Stallone and directed by his Rambo collaborator George P. Cosmatos, delivers exactly what you’d expect. It’s a vehicle for violence, and the bruising pace is maintained throughout its 90-minute running time.

Cobra is the nickname for this specialty cop who deals in extreme situations. This guy drives a vintage car as oversized as himself, wears blue mirrored sunglasses, and sucks on a matchstick. You can see it right away: attitude problem.

He’s drawn into the serial-killer case when he protects the only witness (Brigitte Nielsen, Stallone’s wife and Rocky IV co-star). After she’s attacked in a hospital, he and his partner (Reni Santoni) spirit her away to a small town in rural California, which is promptly descended upon by dozens of gun-toting motorcycle-riding freaks.

At least one action sequence is okay—the opening, in which Cobra defuses a psycho in a grocery store (Psycho: “I’ll blow this whole place up!” Cobra: “Go ahead, I don’t shop here.”) Of course there are a couple of gonzo car chases, plenty of rock music, and lots of flying glass.

Equally important to Stallone (it seems) is the opportunity for pithy political commentary. He throws his unread newspaper (full of bleeding-heart editorials, no doubt) in the hibachi. He declares the court-and-jury system hopelessly civilized. And a wall photo of Ronald Reagan hangs prominently in his office.

However, the president doesn’t rate quite as high in the film’s pop iconography as Pepsi, who probably paid big bucks to have their logo turn up just about everywhere, including a huge neon sign outside Stallone’s apartment.

Most of Stallone’s hijinks are laughable enough to shrug off. But his final response to a fellow cop’s conciliatory handshake, coupled with the relentlessness of the film’s vigilante message, make Cobra a little more unpleasant than his usual.

I said that Cobra contained nothing unexpected. I correct that. Although Stallone still likes strutting his physique—he sticks his chest out a lot—he does resist the urge to take his shirt off at any time during the film. Perhaps we may view this as a significant variation in Stallone’s storytelling formula. Then again….

First published in the Herald, May 1986

You couldn’t get away from those blue mirrored sunglasses on the poster for Cobra the summer this came out. The film seems nastier and stupider than some of the other breast-thumping action pictures of the period, unleavened by humor or Chuck Norris-level cheesiness. For a good parlor game, try guessing at the actual duties of George P. Cosmatos on his Stallone vehicles.