April 28, 2007

Movie Review: The Condemned

How far is too far? Reality television isn't going away, and with everyone looking for the next way to shock an audience, how far away are we from a show that introduces a real battle to the death? The things are going, it does not seem to be that far removed from a possible reality. From the ratings that shows like American Idol and Survivor generate, combined with the wall to wall, twenty four hour coverage of such tragedies as the recent Virginia Tech shooting, Columbine, and the ongoing war in the Middle East, I would not be hard pressed to believe that there is some unscrupulous producer concocting a scheme to inject a little more shock and awe over what is presently acceptable for prime time television. It is this very subject that The Condemned seeks to contend with, sadly, they don't hit the broadside of a barn.

The Condemned is the third go around for WWE Films, distributed through an agreement with Lionsgate. Their first film was the successful slasher film See No Evil which featured Kane as the resident psychopath, that was followed by the 80's styled actioner The Marine with John Cena in the title role. The WWE Superstar to get tapped this time? None other than 90's badass icon Stone Cold Steve Austin, playing a Snake Plissken-esque renegade.

The story follows a heartless television producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) as he travels the world looking for a wide array of death row inmates to buy. He buys them in order to pit them against each other in a battle to the death, with freedom as the prize. Once he has all of his players in place, he equips them with an explosive ankle collar, to help keep them in line. The ten condemned contestants are dropped around the island, and essentially left to their own devices as the game gets underway.

The concept is sound, although it is a mash up of other films such as Battle Royale, No Escape, Running Man, Series 7, My Little Eye, and even Halloween: Resurrection. I have no problem with recycled plots, see my enjoyment of Vacancy. What I have a problem with is the fact that it is just a mash up, there seemed to be little to no thought put into the execution. I can picture it now, the writers are pitching the story: "It's going to be great! You see, we take all these hardcore killers from around the world and put them on an island so they can fight each other to the death" "Well, OK, what's the catch?" "This is where you're really gonna get excited! It is actually a contest being broadcast over the internet! It'll be a bigger event that the Super Bowl!" "Sold, cast Stone Cold in the lead and you got yourself a deal!" "Awesome! We can have a script for your approval in an hour."

I like the idea, and I think that it is one that can be done a few times over and still retain a level of interest. Watching this one play out, I couldn't help but shake my head in dismay at what was unfolding in front of me. Granted, I was not expecting much, I just hoped to have a little fun, but even with low expectations, I could not find much to hang onto. It wanted so much to be a message film about our infatuation with violence and what kind of effect it has on people, who draws the line, and who decides when the line is crossed.

There are a few threads that play out through the film. One is the game itself with the ten convicts roaming the island, a second is a change of heart among the production staff, an FBI investigation into the game, and a faltering relationship between Austin's Jake Conrad and a divorced mother of two in Texas. None of them have any depth, and none of them are all that believable.

Above the attempted stories and messages, this is meant to be an action film. The problem is that they forgot to include the action. Sure, there are a few fist fights and a couple of explosions, but the action is not exciting and it is not compelling, in fact, the fights may be the most incompetently shot excuses for action I have seen in a long, long time. Whenever a fight starts the cameraman goes into convulsions with the camera waggling every which way. It is so bad as to induce motion sickness and confuse the viewer. I had no idea what I was looking at. They should have gotten ahold of the WWE production crew to learn how to pull back and let us see the fights, it's OK to use some wild inserts, but give us some perspective on what we are watching.

Beyond the poor action, the characters were flat, uninspired, and rather boring. We do not get to learn all that much about them, aside from their criminal status, and thus are not given a reason to care about any of them. Sure, they try to give Auston a bit of likability, but it was not nearly enough. Then the evil producer, well I don't think we are supposed to like him anyway, but the staff members who have a change of heart that is another story altogether. It is handled rather heavy handed, and not at all within the realm of reality. They want you to believe that they are suddenly shocked by what they are seeing, when they all entered into this with their eyes open, I didn't buy their faux shock.

Believe it or not, there were a couple of things I liked, but they were not enough to make this watchable, or even recommend for the cheese factor. I liked Austin, he isn't given much to do, and his attempts at being sensitive are awful, and watching him run is painful, but put him in a fight or give him a snappy one liner, and he is your man. Then there is Vinnie Jones, who made Juggernaut so memorable last year in X-Men: The Last Stand, makes a memorable mark as a wisecracking murderer and rapist. Finally, Rick Hoffman, who was the American Businessman in Hostel, gives a goofy, highly caffeinated turn as the director of the game. Well, that is about it for the likability of the movie.

Director Scott Wiper does not impress with this outing. What could (and should) have been a fun, over the top action fest turned out to be a drawn out affair that goes nowhere as the stories either taper out or are ended with an unsatisfying conclusion. The writing is right down there with the directing, you can add in all the one liners you want, but you have to have a compelling tale, or at least a fun story.

Bottomline. This is a movie that would have been better left on the shelf, or at most go direct to video. The story is flat, acting is atrocious, direction unbearable, all adding up to an action movie without the action, a message film that fails to make a point. Oh well, at least it gave me something to write about.

Not Recommended.


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