You know who can tell you some wild stories about being trapped on an island with a bunch of killers, relying only on his wits and brawn to survive? Judge David Johnson.
Ten will fight. Nine will die.
WWE superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin headlines this surprisingly above-adequate action film that blends together elements of The Most Dangerous Game, No Escape, The Truman Show, and, I don't know, Scanners, because there's a lot of people that explode?
Facts of the Case
Austin (The Longest Yard) plays Jack Conrad, a mysterious American bad-ass trapped in an El Salvadoran prison and looking at a death sentence. He's granted a reprieve, however, when psychotic television producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone, The Matrix Revolutions) recruits him to join nine other death-row inmates in a fight to the death on an island. Each convict will have 30 hours to take out the competition and receive the grand prize of freedom, plus cash. While the violence goes down, Breckel and his crack team of nerds have rigged the entire island with cameras to catch all the shenanigans and broadcast them on the Internet.
Immediately the phenomenon takes off, and Conrad is thrown into a world of brutality where no one can be trusted and everyone has biceps the size of cantaloupes. But Breckel and company may have bitten off more than they can chew when a renegade killer named Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones, X-Men: The Last Stand) unleashes his own brand of depravity and death on the island.
First: The Condemned was a real surprise for me, turning out to be a pretty good little action movie. Second: it had the potential for actually being much more, flirting even with "one of the cleverest action films I've ever seen" status if not for a giant misstep.
To number one, I'll easily recommend this flick to action movie connoisseurs. The mayhem is brutal, entrenched in realism, and, despite a sagging middle act, copious. All the fighters that are dumped onto this island are absolute monsters, and pitting them against each other leads to increasingly hardcore bouts. The choreography works well (crafted by Australian martial arts legend Richard Norton, who also played Zamir in the smash-hit Gymkata) and director Scott Wiper doesn't ruin the fisticuffs by hyper-editing the fight sequences. The punches land hard and the bodies land harder. Though the bloodletting is minimal, the sheer force of the blows exchanged by the film's actors easily earns the R-rating.
Most of the disturbing stuff is implied. For example, there's a troubling rape scene, but Wiper is talented enough to generate an uncomfortable atmosphere without actually letting his camera linger on the crime. The unease is propelled mainly by the camera operators in the control hub as they watch the scenes unfold (grainy and out of focus to us, their viewing audience) and their expressions of incredulity are enough to saturate the sequence in an unnerving aura. Again, The Condemned isn't an outright bloody movie (lots of people blow up, but there are no showering guts or anything), but it seems bloody, thanks to camera wizardry and excellent sound design.
What makes this movie more subversive and sly than something you'd think was produced by Vince McMahon would be is the reality show premise. The set-up is that millions and millions of people are coughing up money to watch these convicts murder each other, live, uncut, and streaming on the Web. See where this is going? The control-room geeks watch the fights unfold, cheering on the carnage while I'm watching the film, cheering on the carnage, and so on and so forth. Austin and Wiper make it clear on the commentary track that they weren't trying to point their fingers at the movie audience and, of course, there's a difference between watching a movie that you know is fabricated and paying money to check out what is essentially a snuff film, but these guys were sniffing around some sublime meta-narrative goodness. Unfortunately, the cleverness was abruptly nuked with a scene from a news report in which a woman who had interviewed Breckel lets loose an incredibly clumsy moralistic editorial that ends in "Are we the condemned?" It was a total misfire by the filmmakers to include this scene; apparently it led to a lot of negative feedback from people who thought she was referring to the movie viewers. Mr. Wiper, if you ever do a director's cut, make sure this sequence is the first to go.
Lionsgate pieced together a nice DVD package for this release. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen is solid, laced with earthy color tones that accentuate the down-and-dirty nature of the brawling and storytelling. On the audio end, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX mix is righteous and really pounds during the fight scenes. The better-than-average set of extras are highlighted by a well-done five-part making-of documentary, each segment focusing on an element of production and two full-length audio commentaries, one with Austin and Wiper and the other with Wiper flying solo. These supplements reveal Steve Austin as a charismatic and hard-working guy. His character in the film was pretty much an immovable force and not a stretch from his wrestling persona, but there's charm under that exterior and the dude's physical presence is impressive. Rounding out the bonuses is a flashback to a wrestling event in which Austin and Vinnie Jones shared the spotlight and some storyboard sequences.
Just short of being something noteworthy, this no-holds-barred island romp still earns a recommendation. It's fierce, clever, and hard-ass.
The court condones The Condemned.
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Scales of Justice
• Five-Part Making-of Documentary
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