Last year there was a perfectly awful horror flick released under the WWE Films banner, See No Evil, starring wrestler Kane, that perfectly matched expectations. What else would you expect upon learning that Vince McMahon, overseer of the WWE and the "mind" behind the thankfully short lived football league XFL, was now producing movies which were surely to be lowest common denominator swill created for the most non-discerning fans out there? Now there's another, an action flick that borrows (read: rips off) liberally from The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man and the like. It's called The Condemned, and of course it stars retired wrestling superstar "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in the leading role.
The plot is easy enough to set up: successful TV producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone, TNT's Salem's Lot) decides to one up Mark Burnett's Survivor by assembling ten death-row convicts from Third-World prisons around the globe, dump them on an island set up with thousands of cameras, give them 30 hours to engage in a kill-or-be-killed bloodfest until there's only one left standing (and the winner gets to go free), broadcast the whole thing live on the Internet and make millions doing it. One of the convicts, Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones, X-Men: The Last Stand), a former British SAS operative, responds with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. Another, an American plucked from an El Salvadoran prison, Jack Conrad (Austin), seems largely unimpressed while he keeps his mouth shut and eyes open - it's obvious from the jump that there's more to him than we're told. The "contestants" - including a psychotic Asian with mad fighting skills, a Russian mass-murderer who could be the Hulk's body double, and a Latin American thrill-killing couple - are thrown off helicopters into the ocean and swim to the island to begin the game. Oh, and they've all got a nice chunk of C-4 strapped to their ankle to make things interesting. Conrad does what he can to stay alive, Starkey goes apeshit with bloodlust and joy, the authorities back in the USA try to find out where this island is and how to nail Breckel for computer crimes, all while Breckel sits in his computer monitor laden control room with his trusty director/editor Goldie (Rick Hoffman, Hostel) and a bunch of cheering tech geeks, plotting how to get better ratings than the Super Bowl.
The Condemned, surprisingly, is not a bad movie at all - certainly better than The Marine (another WWE production) which was mindlessly entertaining but MUCH cheesier than this. There's some good action scenes and many brutal fights choreographed by martial-arts expert and B-movie star Richard Norton, and it moves rather quickly (even if it is too long at 1 hour and 53 minutes). Director Scott Wiper does a decent job at selling the action; not so much the situation, even if you just KNOW that if this kind of thing went up on the Net it'd be more popular than American Idol. There's tons of violence, yet his style isn't too graphic, which is unexpected. Even a highly unpleasant rape scene isn't shown in any real detail, just alluded to, which is all that's needed. The cinematography by Ross Emery has its strengths and weaknesses; the hand-to-hand combat scenes work well enough but could stand to be a bit less frantic in their movements, and in other moments, the whole zoom-in-on-the-face for dramatic effect wears out it's welcome quickly and comes off as too seventies. The island footage is shot well, though, and the flick certainly looks good enough.
The actors do basically what is expected of them and not much more. In smaller roles, convict Paco (New Zealander Manu Bennett) is sympathetic and Madeline West does well as Conrad's girl back home. Jones chews on every piece of island scenery he can get to and is just as hateful as you'd want your action-movie villain to be. As the REAL bad guy here (or, as Wiper refers to him in the featurettes, the "cerebral" villain to Jones' "physical" villain), Mammone is calm, sociopathic, and emotionless about all the mayhem he has caused - the only time he gets even remotely fired up is when someone has the audacity to question him or this whole sordid enterprise; it's a good performance. Hoffman, as his right-hand man, steals about half of the scenes he's in, as he is wont to do - I am getting to the point where if I hear Rick Hoffman's got a small part in ANY movie, I immediately know that at least his scenes will be kickass and will show off his perfect delivery and timing. Bringing us to Steve Austin as all around bad ass Jack Conrad. I haven't been a wrestling fan since I was about 12 and watched my last Wrestlemania; I don't mean that to be elitist in any way - today's pro wrestling is just another form of entertainment and if it makes as many people happy as it obviously does, then good for them, have fun. I just mean that I don't know much about his previous show-biz persona, but from what I saw here, I wouldn't mind watching him whip a little more ass, not at all. He's got the action hero look, the moves, and the understated way of speaking lines - as well as the staredowns - that any bad ass needs. Austin pretty much owns his role and is charismatic enough so that we have his back through the whole picture; no, he's not Brando - hell, he's not even The Rock - but he doesn't need to be; it's just good fun to watch him walk all up and down people's asses, and that's enough.
The script (by Wiper and Rob Hedden, he of the infamous Jason Takes Manhattan) is competent enough at setting up the situations, the characters and all that; however, it gets more than a little heavy handed when it decides to take a moral stance regarding on-screen and real-life violence and our - as the audience - bloodthirst for it. In a more serious movie, it would be nice to see how these issues are raised and dealt with, and the implications of such ideas, but here it's too leaden and ultimately feels out of place for the most part. There are some decent scenes with crew members not being able to take watching what is essentially a large-scale snuff film, but by the time the picture all but stops for an editorial monologue about what this means as us for a society - complete with hangdog, embarassed looks from the viewers - it's gone too far.
Lionsgate's DVD is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and 5.1 surround (which any self-respecting action movie needs to be heard in); it looks and sounds great. As for extras, to start with there's two commentaries, one with Wiper and Austin and one with Wiper solo; they're an interesting listen, with Wiper's (of course) being more concerned with what he was trying to achieve in terms of storytelling and his direction, while the duo's track being a more relaxed listen, with Wiper and Austin joking amiably and enjoying themselves - here, as on the other features, Austin comes off as a rather easy-going kind of guy with a good sense of humor about himself. There's a five-part making of (about 35 minutes long) that is very well done; in depth and insightful, it covers most every facet of the production you'd want to see or hear, with cast/crew interviews of all the major participants. There's also "Capital Carnage Reunion," a few minutes of footage from Austin and Jones' first meeting at a WWE event in England back in '98 where the now good friends have a laugh and reminisce, as well as a very brief look of Austin signing autographs for fans at a meet and greet in Australia at the Movie House. Finally there's some storyboard sequences and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
Little to no CG, darker than the average action pic due to the premise, and not without its fair share of excitement, The Condemned is a solid beat 'em up/shoot 'em up/blow it up flick. If you're into this kind of thing, it'll get the job done on a raucous Friday night with your friends.