Saturday 13 September 2008

The Condemned (2007)

Saturday 13 September 2008
Director: Scott Wiper
Writers: Scott Wiper & Andrew Hedden

Cast: "Stone Cold" Steve Austen (Jack Conrad), Vinnie Jones (Ewan McStarley), Masa Yamaguchi (Saiga), Emelia Burns (Yasantwa), Robert Mammone (Breckel), Tory Mussett (Julie), Manu Bennett (Paco), Madeleine West (Sarah Cavanaugh), Rick Hoffman ("Goldy" Goldman), Christopher Baker (Eddie C), Sam Healy (Bella), Luke Pegler (Baxter), Dasi Ruz (Rosa), Marcus Johnson (Kreston Mackie) & Nathan Jones (Petr)

Wrestling superstar "Stone Cold" Steve Austen headlines this WWE-produced, high-concept action flick; a Battle Royale rumble where death-sentenced criminals from around the world are taken to an island and forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of internet subscribers...

Austen plays Jack Conrad, one of ten prisoners given the chance of freedom by scurrilous, ratings-hungry TV producer Breckel (Robert Mammone). Having been taken from a Salvadoran prison and dumped on the island with the other reprobates (each tagged with an ankle-bomb), Jack has 30 hours to either play the game and ensure he's the last man standing, or find a way to alert the authorities about this illegal, barbaric competition.

The Condemned is actually a brilliant idea for an action movie, ignoring the fact it plagiarizes Battle Royale and castrates the concept by ditching the "innocent kids forced to kill each other" element. It thus loses the Lord Of The Flies-like controversy of Royale and replaces it with a Running Man-style commentary on TV's potential squalor. Awkwardly, perhaps in an effort to look cutting-edge, the film replaces TV with the internet and (despite the potential for a global audience subscribing to their live-feed) the production crew are oddly content with a meagre 40 million voyeurs.

In stronger hands, this might have been wise-cracking, violent, seditious fun. I was hoping for Con Air's verisimilitude; quotable lines, memorable villains, inventive action and buckets of blood, with satirical swipes in the subtext. Sadly, The Condemned is executed in lacklustre, brainless fashion. It's little more than a lazy showcase for bullet-headed Steve Austen, created by hacks who saw Battle Royale and decided to repackage it in a diluted guise.

Unlike his fellow WWE superstar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Austen isn't talented or charismatic enough to become an action star. Away from the familiarity of the ring, the predictability of bouts, the adoration of screaming fans jabbing foam fingers into the air, and stripped of his catchphrases, "Stone Cold" is a pretty limp presence. He looks like a muscled chipolata, while his only expression is one of constipation.

Austen's adversary is the heavy-browed Vinnie Jones as Ewan McStarley, a British psycho who allies himself with crazy Saiga (Masa Yamaguchi) to terrorize the competition. Jones gives the most enjoyable performance of the film, but that's not really saying much. This crud should cement his downfall from late-'90s hot-property to late-'00s rent-a-baddie.

Of course, director/co-writer Scott Wiper has to accept most of the blame for the film's failings. He orchestrates a few moments of energy and momentum, but his audience are left to imagine a more entertaining film than what he provides. The set-up is half-decent as the prisoners are brought together for combat, but by the time the island slaughter gets underway it becomes inert, repetitive and quite dull.

All the characters are poorly defined and underwritten, with nobody making an impression beyond Austen and Jones -- meaning there are eight deaths you couldn't care less about. Tellingly, I can't even remember three! Most infuriating is Wiper's directorial decisions -- his camera often shying away from shocking the audience, while generally placing it in bad positions.

It becomes very didactic towards the end, too; making the obvious statement about how the real bad-guys aren't the criminals or the exploitative executives, it's the sick-puppies watching the carnage on their computers. Or, by extension, anyone watching a movie where people run around an island killing each other. Is there anything more irritating than a film lecturing its audience about the error of their ways in watching said film?

As it happens, I did feel bad about watching The Condemned afterwards -- but only because it wasted such a good premise thanks to leaden seriousness, bad dialogue, slow plot progression, a preachy tone towards the end, forgettable performances and joyless characterization.

Budget: $20 million
113 minutes