In olden times, the lands of Hyborea are threatened by Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) who steals a Talisman from a group of priestesses who guarded over it since any man who comes into contact with it is immediately destroyed, and women are immune to its magic. But the Queen's soldiers slaughter them and she is intent on using it to give her the power to rule over the world, by causing massive chaos only she will be able to control. Fortunately the High Priestess Varna manages to escape in spite of a mortal wound, and contacts her sister Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) who is a survivor of one of Gedren's attacks - can she fight back and save the world from the awesome power of the Talisman?
After the Conan the Barbarian films, a different Robert E. Howard character was adapted for the screen (by Clive Exton and George MacDonald Fraser), or at least Howard was credited as the creator though his Red Sonya and the movie's Red Sonja were different kettles of fish, the film drawn from Conan-esque comic books rather than actual writings of the celebrated pulp author. And who better to play Howard's statuesque Amazon than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself? Well, it must have crossed their minds. Instead, Nielsen was chosen for Sonja and Schwarzenegger is given a supporting Barbarian role, despite being top-billed in the credits, apparently because producer Dino De Laurentiis duped him into reprising his Conan role in all but name.
The trouble with the string of Sword and Sorcery movies that turned up around this time is that, unless they present themselves as an outright spoof, they have to take themselves very seriously - and you, the viewer have to take it just as seriously to enjoy it, unless you're in the mood for unintentional camp. Some of them did have a sense of humour about the shenanigans they portrayed, but more often they would demonstrate this was actually a very conservative genre, with all problems being solved by brute force and the survival of the fittest being paramount. You could argue that was taken from Howard's worldview as presented in his celebrated stories, but there was a streak of the fascistic ubermensch to the business that went on with them, even when there was a female lead.
Red Sonja was one of those going for a more progressive spin on things by having a sword-wielding woman as its protagonist, but she ends up looking after a ghastly child prince (Ernie Reyes Jr, son of martial arts expert Ernie Reyes Sr, funnily enough) and getting Thrud the Headsplitter (or whatever his name is) as a boyfriend. Schwarzenegger and Nielsen must be among cinema's least captivating romantic couples (what can you expect with chat-up lines like "Prepare to be conquered"?); they have no sexual chemistry and have only their creaky acting and pithy proverbs to bring them together, which was curious since according to contemporary reports they were prompted by this movie to indulge in a passionate affair while it was being made.
Nevertheless, there is humour in the script, but mostly of the "isn't the precocious kid hilarious?" variety; in fact the only bit of self-parody comes when the soothsayer gets the wrong channel on his magical TV set. Although the prodiction designer Danilo Donati manages a sense of a world in decay with huge crumbling statues and echoing halls looking to be on the brink of collapse even before Gedren gets to do her evil deeds on them, the clichés of sword fights, wizardry and evil tyrants showed that this strain of fantasy was running out of ideas even by 1985, and when the evil Queen's forces are brought to their knees by four - well, three and a half - people, the action looks decidedly unimpressive. It didn't help that while Nielsen may have embodied the role physically (OK, maybe the ginger mullet was a mistake) she wasn't really up to the task of acting it out to any convincing degree, no matter how handy she was with her blade. It wasn't until Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings that things started to look up again for this genre. Music by Ennio Morricone (sounding rather Spaghetti Western).