Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Condemned (2007)

"Don't call me Stone Cold!"

Since Gamer isn't out here yet (and likely to skip theaters altogether) I thought I'd review another film in the inmates-forced-to-fight-for-the-public's-amusement genre. This one is another film produced under the prestigious WWE Films banner. It's a dodgy action film but unlike The Marine it has an R rating which means that people can fuck, say "fuck" and get fucked up in a fight. Also, the main star is a wrestler I've actually heard of. He used to be called "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, but now he's just known as plain old room temperature Steve Austin. He has got a good screen presence and is a big improvement over John Cena.

Austin plays Jack Conrad, a death row inmate languishing in a Central American prison. He and nine other prisoners from around are selected to be contestands on some sort of pay-per-view reality tv show where they are sent to a remote island and forced to fight to the death. It's a rip-off of Battle Royale, you say? Well here the explosive bracelets are on their ankles. Totally different. If they'd tried something as colourful and silly as The Running Man it might still be entertaining, but unfortunately it goes for a gloomy, realistic approach that is alternately boring and condescending. You see, this isn't just a stupid action movie, it's a stupid action movie with a message. It's about violence-as-entertainment and reality TV going too far, something that has never been explored in film in the history of cinema, ever.

The mastermind behind the show is Breckel played by Robert Mamonne. He looked really familiar although I couldn't remember from anything, so I checked his imdb page and it turns out he has been on a shitload of Australian TV. Over the course of the film two of his underlings have a change of heart so for a good chunk of the film instead of watching Austin wrestle with death-row convicts we watch these two assholes wrestle with their consciences. Breckel also tries to pump up the action by giving special treatment to a contestant played by Vinnie Jones, a murderous psychopath and the villain of the film. I'd make a reference to an asshole contestant on a reality show here but I don't watch them so I'm drawing a blank. Sorry.

Jones causes mayhem throughout most of the film, killing indiscriminately and trying to provoke Austin, but towards the end of the film he busts into the control room and starts terrorising everybody. The music tries to convince us that it's a shocking and poignant moment but it is massively unearned. There is a lot of this blunt morality shit too, including fights where the camera cuts away to people watching at home or in the control room looking ashamed, including all of Conrad's friends and family gathered around the TV at a local sports bar. Seems like a weird thing to do, I don't know if I'd want to watch a family member engage in bloody battles to the death on live TV. Maybe I'd TIVO it. There's also a reporter who gives long, boring speeches about violence like she's lecturing a bunch of five year olds, leading to the crowning moment of the film where she turns to the camera and says "Maybe it's us who are the condemned." Jesus Christ.

These kinds of movies really get on my tits. You can't make a fun, violent action film and then point at the camera and say "j'accuse". Don't punish us for enjoying your stupid film. Although, in their defence, the violence in this film isn't all that enjoyable. It's more of that herky-jerky, closeup action that robs you of any sense of choreography, geography or tension. It doesn't help that some of the fights are at night in the rain with a gloomy blue tint and several of the characters are bald musclemen. If anybody you'd think the WWE would be able to shoot a coherent fight scene. It doesn't even make sense in the context of the movie, I doubt the TV show has a cameraman standing three feet away from the fight with the caffeine jitters. Also nobody dies in any interesting ways, they are all shot, stabbed or blown up. If I were one of the suckers paying for this stupid reality show, I would be seriously pissed.

Austin turns out to be a Delta Force operative who was captured during a Black Ops mission, which brings up another thing that annoys me about these kind of films: The hero always has to be innocent of their convicted crime. These films are partly about the dehumanisation of criminals so by doing this you're just cheapening your own argument. Also they always have the producers rig the game in some way, which is pretty funny when you think about it. Forcing death row inmates into gladiatorial combat is one thing, but rigging a reality show? Now they've gone too far. Isn't the idea of criminals being forced to fight to the death for the public's amusement horrific enough, do we really have to stack the deck by making the system extra corrupt and the hero an innocent everyman?

The Condemned explores territory well-covered by other films (The Running Man, Death Race 2000) in a dour and overly-preachy way, punctuated by dull and confusingly shot violence. In a way I guess this film is like the anti-Funny Games. Funny Games failed at it's goal by being a riveting example of the kind of genre film it was trying to condemn. In effect it was too good. Luckily The Condemned doesn't make the same mistake.

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