Technically, 1985's Red Sonja, one of the key films in the disintegration of the sword & sorcery genre, is not at all a Conan the Barbarian film. And technically, it isn't based on the writing of Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator. The character of Red Sonja in fact made her debut in 1973, in the Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian title, nearly 40 years after Howard committed suicide.* However, the film that houses her was initially meant to be the third in the Conan trilogy, following the trendsetting Conan the Barbarian and the trend-humping Conan the Destroyer. It fits, really: once again, Dino De Laurentiis stands hovering over it all like a beatific god, Richard Fleischer of Destroyer is back in the director's chair, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in the role of Co- um, "Kalidor", a name given to his character fairly late in the game, when it was decided that for this reason or that, it was best not to tie Red Sonja in with the other two, despite how transparently "Kalidor" is Conan in virtually every respect, right down to the little leather headband. Didn't want to dilute the brand name, I guess, though how the brand name could possibly be diluted any more after Destroyer is frankly beyond me.

By any name, Kalidor isn't the main character; in the first half of the movie, he just pops in like a wacky neighbor on a sitcom. Being called Red Sonja, the film is, naturally enough, about Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen), whose family was massacred by the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman), leaving Sonja to swear revenge on Gedren and train herself to become the finest swordswoman of the Hyborian Age. This is all tossed at us in a flurry of narration accompanied by a Cliffs Notes montage of the scenes in question, and for this, at least, I am thankful: shorn of any flabby exposition - I take that back, shorn of some flabby exposition - Red Sonja is able to come in under 90 minutes, as well it might. Sometime later, there is a temple of priestesses, among whom number Sonja's sister (Janet Agren); their job involves protecting a big green orb that can only be touched by women and can, in the wrong hands, be used to destroy everything. Naturally, the wrong hands in this case belong to none other than Queen Gedren, who steals the orb and throws all the priestesses into a convenient dark airless pit, leaving only Sonja's sister to escape and die in a much less stuffy field, though not before she has told the story to Kalidor, an apparent wandering barbarian who will, in due order, turn out to have a secret, though it doesn't end up seeming like his secret matters a damn, so I don't know why they bothered.

Kalidor finds Sonja and explains all of this, and the red-haired warrior immediately leaps into a quest, which takes her first to the ruined kingdom of Haplock, where the bratty child prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr. - son of the film's martial arts consultant) and his zaftig retainer Falkon (Paul L. Smith) plot their own revenge against Gedren. It takes a couple of more wacky adventures before Sonja actually teams up with this pair, and a while yet longer before Kalidor joins her team officially, saving the trio from a metal sea monster and dedicating himself to the task of getting in Sonja's loincloth. Thus does the band of four finally march on Gedren and her snivelling lacky Ikol (Ronald Lacey) who reminded me in some ephemeral way of Wallace Shawn.

Both of the Conan films, I have found, suffer in their way from plots that are cobbled together rather uncertainly and leave plenty of space where it's not entirely clear why things are happening quite the way they are; but Red Sonja is just fucking daft. The whirlwind exposition dump has the excuse of being rushed and contracted, and in that respect it is probably the most well-written sequence of the whole movie. Everything going forward from that point is arbitrary and random: in particular, the re-introduction of Tarn and Falkon to the plot makes no damn sense at all, almost as though (and I don't think this is what actually happened) the script had two completely new characters in there at first. For that matter, the presence of Tarn and Falkon does not, by itself, make very much sense, unless it is that the filmmakers decided that having a shitty little kid was a surefire way to cover their marketing quadrants.

Still and all, I'd have to say in good faith that the film is at least as good as Conan the Destroyer. Which is faint praise, indeed. But at least Red Sonja includes two vital things that Conan the Destroyer lacked: messy decapitations and one abbreviated appearance of naked female breasts (it only being the second year that PG-13 existed, they were a bit more lenient than they'd become, before getting more lenient again). And in these two respects, at least, it is much more of a respectable sword & sorcery picture.

Admittedly, it feels on the whole a lot cheaper than either of its predecessors: the sets look awfully set-ish, and Ennio Morricone's score is appalling lazy, recycling barbarian film clichΓ©s with an absolute lack of artistry (let us not judge him too harshly: he as in the lull between the pinnacles of Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission). The costumes in particular look absolutely ridiculous, hardly one step above the sort of get-ups that '70s-era Doctor Who might run into on a vaguely-themed medieval planet.

But the acting is, sort of, passable: Nielsen is kind of terrible, and it's not a shame that her film debut didn't turn into a career of any real vitality, but hearing her thick Danish accent sparring with Schwarzenegger's Austrian is good for the soul in its way, and her badness recalls his in Conan the Barbarian: it's similarly boiled-down to just the essentials of "look mean" and "hold a sword". Bergman (the initial choice for Sonja) has fun tearing it up as the purely evil queen, though as it did in Conan, her slightly Nasal All-American '80s voice does absolutely no favors to her attempts to portray a barbarian queen. Everyone else... "sort of passable" might have been over-praise. Certainly, Schwarzenegger just looks humiliated.

All right, so it's a shitty film. At least it's short as hell, and cheesy in the fun way, not in the aggravating way. Which is as much to say, it's a fairly typical '80s barbarian picture, and worth watching for the reason any of them are: it's restfully stupid and has lots of clanking swordplay and ridiculous costumes. Junk food doesn't have to be tasty to be satiating.