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Condemned, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/27/07 00:00:00

"The message: Don't watch violence. Now watch this violence!"
1 stars (Sucks)

“The Condemned” is a violent movie that suddenly stops everything to tell us that watching violence is bad. I’m reminded of Cecil B. DeMille, who would pack his Biblical epics with writhing, half naked women, only to pause to give lip service to why orgies are naughty, his means of getting around the codes of the day. “The Condemned” tries the same thing, only with less tact and no wit. “You shouldn’t be watching this stuff,” the film tells us, right before showing us this stuff.

The “this stuff” in question is, for the most part, tiresome, unimaginative action fantasy junk - characters are made to wear explosive devices on their ankles (activated by pulling out a tag, kinda like flag football) just so when the plot gets boring, some random guy can get all blowed up real good. There is gruesomeness aplenty, with fast killings and slow killings and even a nasty off-screen rape, but we, the audience, don’t feel so icky watching because it’s presented in the most mediocre cartoonish fashion possible. Characters range from one-dimensional to no-dimensional, and their deaths do not overwhelm us the way the movie tells us they do; aside from the two main stars, it’s a bunch of faceless extras getting offed in a clumsy collection of random fight scenes lifted from other equally brainless action flicks, glued together with the flimsiest of stories. In a movie where the most that can be said about most of its characters is, “oh, is he the guy that blew up as he fell off the cliff, or the guy that blew up when he was on the beach?,” it’s hard to become emotionally invested in the plot.

There is, I should warn, a certain disturbing quality to a late scene, but only because of bad timing: the villain enters a bunker and begins shooting victims haphazardly. Considering the film opens in theaters less than two weeks since a deranged student did the same thing at Virginia Tech, the sequence becomes unintentionally uncomfortable, and feeling the preview audience’s excitement over such a scene was all too squicky.

But to say that the movie’s depiction of graphic violence is intentionally unsettling would be to give the filmmakers too much credit. “The Condemned” is notable only for its stupidity. Here is an action movie where a helicopter explodes, and then it flies into the side of a cliff, and then it explodes again, and then a Nickelback song plays on the soundtrack. It is a movie that includes a character whose only purpose is to say random things like “Aw, that’s gotta hurt!” and “Aw, that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!,” effectively talking back to the screen so we don’t have to. It is a movie that opens with these credits: “Lionsgate and WWE Films presents a WWE Films and Lionsgate production.” Outstanding.

The credits aren’t the only journey into the redundant. Most of the side characters die by the same “surprise” explosion. Our hero is killed-but-I-bet-he’s-not-really-dead! twice. Every single scene involving the sleazy television producer is the same: sleazy producer says something menacing, he is questioned on his ethics, he says something else menacing. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The plot? Ah, yes. The plot. The millionaire sleazy producer (B-action vet Robert Mammone) has collected ten convicted killers from across the globe, in order to drop them onto a deserted island, where they have thirty hours to kill each other; hidden cameras will send it all out to paying customers on the internet; last man standing wins freedom. It’s “The Most Dangerous Game” meets “The Running Man” meets “Series 7” meets “Battle Royale” meets, I dunno, “Hard Target” or something. Which, sadly, was probably exactly how it was pitched to studio heads.

There are a million questions, none of them worth asking. Except, maybe, one: if the producer was expecting to get away, never to be caught, why bring along a journalist so he could brag to the world about his new show? Did the second half of the movie, which shows the producer planning his escape from the feds who have found him, forget about the first half of the movie, which shows the producer grandstanding on national television?

OK, two questions: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, our hero, is alone in the middle of the jungle. To prepare himself for a battle, he grabs some duct tape and attaches some metal rods to his arms. The rods we see him remove from an abandoned building. But just where the hell did he get that duct tape? Did MacGyver drop by in a deleted scene?

So “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is the leading man in “The Condemned,” his first in a three-picture deal with WWE Films. It makes sense: Austin ranks among the most popular pro wrestlers in recent memory, and now that he’s getting too old to go at it in the ring three nights a week, it’s time for him to graduate to movie star. And I was pulling for him, really. The guy might not have the range of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who, despite the lack of quality material, has proven himself to be a solid screen presence), but he’s got the look of an action hero, big and intimidating with a perpetual “screw you” look on his face.

For “The Condemned,” he’s asked to play a quiet, bulky type, a blank slate who goes around cracking skulls while trying to be a nice guy. Austin handles it well, mainly because he looks like he could care less about the movie - his performance is that of a man bored with the script but happy with the paycheck. “You’ll give me how much money to run around and punch people and say stupid one-liners? Yeah, sure, whatever. Where’s the beer?”

Consider this dialogue exchange. Austin is being interrogated by prison guards:

Guard: “What were you doing in El Salvador?”
Stone Cold: “Working on my tan.”
Guard: “Why did you blow up a building?”
Stone Cold: “It was blocking my sun.”

“I came to Casablanca for the waters” it’s not, but despite its horribleness, Austin does manage to bring up enough of his bad boy persona to make us like the actor, if not the movie.

Vinnie Jones is the other only recognizable face here (guess which two make it to the end?), and he, too, seems content with amusing himself with another generic, hammy bad guy performance, provided the money’s right.

But really, who cares? “The Condemned” fails because it refuses to be any fun. There are a few enjoyably stupid moments, nuggets of comic relief that actually work in a “it’s stupid, but it’s a good kind of stupid” way. (The demise of the other American contestant is quite amusing.) But the rest is a major dud. Director Scott Wiper presents every action sequence in an overly kinetic blur, making it impossible for us to know what’s happening at all - it’s one thing for a scene to capture the chaos and energy of a fight, it’s another to go so far as to obstruct comprehension. And when there’s no action, Wiper brings the movie to a grinding halt, highlighting the who-cares? conflict going on in the producer’s tent. The director’s starting to think the show was a bad idea? We get that already. Now figure out something else to tell us. (Again: redundancy.)

And then it’s back to where we came in, with that initial problem. Just where does a low budget action flick get off telling us that we’re horrible people for paying ten bucks to watch a low budget action flick? “Those of us who watch, are we the condemned?” a character asks in a laughable attempt at earnestness. In a way, we are indeed: condemned to watch 111 minutes of suck.

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