It should come as no real surprise that The Condemned, a WWE Films vehicle starring the WWE’s Steve Austin, is a terrible film.
I was quite caught off guard by how terrible it was, however, and the many, surprising ways in which it is terrible. Not content to simply be an unredeemably bad movie, The Condemned goes to great lengths to convey the fact to the audience that the creators know it’s a bad movie, they feel bad about the fact that they made it and look, it’s just as much our fault as it is theirs–after all, we keep showing up for shit like this, cash in hands.
The premise is a solid one, and it should be, since it’s been thoroughly tested in Japan, where as it birthed a novel, several movies and a manga series under the name Battle Royale. The Condemned takes the basic plot of Battle Royale, sucks out all of the wit, humor, irony and commentary, and then subtracts the two biggest hooks–that it featured ordinary school kids put in the extraordinary circumstances, and that they were assigned sometimes quite useless weapons at random.
Here it’s not school kids, but hardened killers culled death row in third world countries. Robert Mammone’s soulless TV exec Ian Breckel (sounds like Edie Brickell) buys them up, puts an explosive ankle bracelet on each of them, and dumps them off on an island pre-rigged with hidden cameras. The last one breathing in 30 hours wins their freedom, plus fabulous cash prizes.
Though the contestants are all bad guys, we learn that some of them are really, really bad, and others are bad in a noble kind of way, and one of them is, naturally, there for a crime he didn’t commit, so it’s okay to root for him. That would be Austin, playing former U.S. black ops expert Jack Conrad.
A mountain of a man, Austin is a rather unconvincing action hero, despite his photogenic physical presence. He has the mysterious ability to silently appear behind other characters as if out of nowhere, but whenever we see shots of Austin running or walking, he has the clumsy waddle of a gigantic toddler, as if he’s not quite used to moving outside of a wrestling ring.
Seventy-five percent of his lines are lines, and are all delivered straight, no matter how ridiculous (I liked “Game on” the best). When engaged in life or death battle, he sounds more like a frustrated suburban dad reaching the point of exasperation in a particularly difficult home improvements project, all muttering under his breath and frustrated, Yosemite Sam-style expletives.
But even judged purely as an action movie, it’s a failure. Of the ten fighters, exactly one of them seems to know a martial art of any kind (the one Asian character, naturally), something that tends to make a movie about people fighting more interesting. It hardly matters though, since every single fight scene is filmed as if the cameraman himself were involved in the fight, blocking punches with the side of his camera and bashing the actors in their faces with the lens.
The Condemned takes the bad movie to a whole new level when, midway through, Breckel’s staff start to have reservations about making “a live snuff film” and broadcasting it on the Internet. Rick Hoffman (Hostel) and Tory Mussett play characters who are totally onboard with setting murderers, rapists and torturers loose to murder, rape and torture one another for entertainment purposes… right up until the actual murdering, raping and torturing starts, at which point they decide, “Holy shit, this is morally repugnant, isn’t it? We want out!”
Near the climax, a Barbara Walters-like TV reporter castigates her viewers/the film’s viewers, giving an impassioned speech about how she ultimately blames our whole society for supporting the fictional Breckel, who grows rich off of showing real violence.
Not a very big jump to see it as a speech against the real creators of this film, who grow rich off of showing fake violence.
But is a violent, lowest-common denominator action movie really the best place to speak out against violent, lowest-common denominator entertainment?