Judge Daryl Loomis is a master of the art of cowering in the corner.
Fight or die.
It seems like it would be easier to make a really good fight tournament movie, but beyond Bloodsport, which is the best, of course, and Undisputed 3: Redemption, I suppose, there really isn't a whole lot out there. Most try to shove in some manufactured drama, which is bad enough, but it also takes away time from the fighting and that's the only reason we're there in the first place. Finally, there's another one that gets it right. It's called Raze and it's pretty awesome, with or without its gimmick.
Facts of the Case
Jamie (Rachel Nichols, Continuum) is a very normal person, just out one night on a rare date. Relaxing in the bath after a nice time, she is tazed, drugged, and wakes up in a room where she meets Sabrina (Zoë Bell, Oblivion), a woman who looks as scared as she is. As they are ushered into an arena, Sabrina tries to explain the situation, that they've been kidnapped and are forced to fight in the tournament. The stakes: if they don't fight, a loved one dies and they die; if they lose, a loved one dies and they die. So there's only one answer: to fight.
This information doesn't really sink in for Jamie until Sabrina is socking her in the face over and over again. By the time she gets the picture, she puts up a good fight and the damage is already done. By fifteen minutes in, before the title credits even role, after having gotten to know Jamie a little bit and entering this situation along with her, Sabrina has gruesomely dispatched our supposed hero in about as definitive a fashion as she possibly could.
That Sabrina is the story's real protagonist is just the first of a number of interesting genre subversions that director Josh Waller (McCanick) pulls out of his hat for the excellent Raze. Biggest is that the setup could easily pass for a women-in-prison movie, the sleaziest of all genres, and I really didn't want that. The guy Jamie went on that date with could be this movie's Eric Estrada, riding in on his Harley to save her from the degradation of her sadistic captors.
Thankfully, that is not the case, as Waller pulls that rug out from under us almost immediately. Very briefly, we learn a few little things about where they are. They're part of a fifty-woman fight tournament on camera for some kind of secret society (led by Sherilyn Fenn, Twin Peaks and Doug Jones, Pan's Labyrinth, of all people) and they're a little more than halfway through at this point. Why Jamie was brought in late is never mentioned, and there is no indication of what made them the right choice for this strange entertainment.
Well, technically, there's some hoo-ha about it late in the game, but neither makes sense nor matters at that point, because Raze is about the fights, plain and simple. The opening match is brutal and well-choreographed, but it only gets more interesting from there. We don't spend a lot of time sitting with our characters, but those moments help make the action work by establishing, in a sentence or two, the briefest of backstories and the loved one they fight for. Some incidental chatter gives them a little personality and soon we're back in the ring. Before each match, a title card establishes who's fighting (it's really difficult to remember all the names), and it immediately moves into fluidly filmed, expertly edited standalone fight sequences.
In part, that's because the battles don't get increasingly brutal as the film progresses. Some are pretty tough to watch, some are interesting uses of the environment, and some are choke-fests. Whatever they are, they are all different, and that comes down to the women who play the roles. Zoë Bell absolutely kills it in the lead role; her screen combat skills are second to none and she's getting better with her lines. But not all these women are Zoë Bells. Most of the actresses had little to no combat experience, but were given their character and told to come up with a fighting style to match. This makes for some fun variations and keeps Raze from falling into the repetitive slog can plague tournament films.
In a movie made up almost exclusively of female fighting, it's nice to see Waller not fall into the exploitation trap. There is no hint of sexualization in these characters or in the violence and that's a rare thing. Instead, there's a lot of emotion in the fights that makes it feel different from your average fight flick. It's brutal and graphic, which is great; they aren't fighting for pride or revenge, though, but out of love and desperation. That makes each fight and each kill have more weight than when, say, Van Damme lands his splits-crotch shot combo.
The important thing, once again, however, is that the fighting in Raze is completely badass. Everything comes together in these scenes in a way that completely overshadows its problems with the weird framing story. Hats off to Waller, Bell, and company for making me feel these battles.
Raze comes to DVD from MPI as part of the IFC Midnight collection. I don't really see how it qualifies as horror, but it's a disc that's better than expected. The 2.40:1 anamorphic image looks good for SD, with decent black levels and colors that look natural and solid in the low-light environment. The Dolby Surround track performs great, with a lot of heavy work in the background, strong music, and nice distribution of sound effects, all of which really helps to sell the fights.
Extras are where the package shines, though:
• An commentary with Bell, Waller, producer Andrew Pagana and fight choreographer Kenny Gage is fun and informative. They're an affable bunch and may not be entirely sober, but they have a good time telling their stories.
• A series of interviews with just about all the principle players in the movie. They run about half an hour in total, and we're going to hear some of this material over again later.
• A fifteen-minute production featurette is your standard affair, but uses pieces of those previous interviews along with some new material.
• A shorter featurette covers all the same business.
• A short bit about the fight choreography is interesting and, thankfully, mostly new material.
• Thirty minutes of deleted scenes are interesting, but in some cases really would really have changed the tone of the movie. These are also accompanied by the commentary.
• A reel of extended fights shows us some of the battles that didn't make it into the final cut.
• The original ten minute short for Raze, which is a much more comedic edit of the material and takes us up through the first fight. It's a solid short.
• A gag reel, a poster gallery, and a trailer are all things I barely care about.
Raze isn't a perfect movie, but it's as good as fight movies get, with some twists on the formula that make it really worthwhile. If you like your action movies simple and to the point, then you should go somewhere right now and watch Raze. It's an easy recommendation.
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