What's worse? A film that celebrates violence or a film that celebrates violence while scolding the audience for celebrating violence? If you feel a little lightheaded at this point, imagine watching a film as thick as "The Condemned" try to solve that riddle.
An ambitious reality television producer is about to take his latest work to the internet. The project is called "The Condemned," and sends 10 death-row prisoners from around the world onto an island to battle to the death for a chance at freedom and for the viewing pleasure of the paying audience. Sent to the island is Jack Conrad ("Stone Cold" Steve Austin), a dangerous man with a secretive past who is more interested in figuring out a way to undermine the program than killing his way off the island.
"Condemned" is a WWE production, the same fine folks who thought "See No Evil" and "The Marine" were worthwhile concepts to push into production. Truthfully, "Condemned" has a quality the earlier films did not share: potential.
An angry mashing of "Running Man" and "Battle Royale," "Condemned" is primarily packaged as an 80's action side dish – a perfect snack for a Saturday afternoon matinee. It's a simple plot, stocked with hulking but not intolerable talent, and leads with two fists clenched. When action cinema keeps it clean and breezy, I have no trouble gobbling up the results. But this picture doesn't know when to quit. It dissolves from a passable grab at entertaining malarkey to a sour little puddle on the floor of the theater.
The script is engineered as piss take on reality television; how far will a program go to satisfy its bloodthirsty audience? Taking the natural progression to outright murder, the talking points about diseased T.V. and the general flaying of decency are made early and pointedly; director Scott Wiper need not take a step further to sell the theme of the film. Yet Wiper can't contain himself, and as much pain is inflicted on the characters during the brutally long 110 minutes this film boldly dares to run, even more is dished out to the audience in the form of preaching about the moral compass of the media. Of course, this material is nudged in-between rapes and bodily explosions, but let's not break Wiper's heart and mention that little irony.
The bitter medicine of truth would be so much easier to consume if the action, or the film itself, had any real jive to speak of. "Condemned" is dreary, unimaginative entertainment when it had every right to be so much more effortless and forgettable. Wiper comes from the school of shaky-cam, leaving most of the hand-to-hand combat a nauseating blur, and his editorial choices with the acting are astonishingly inept. Wiper has no business behind a camera, much less an action sidewalk sale such as this, where each new sequence the audience strolls by should be building explosively into the next. The director constantly deflates tension to rake the knuckles of his audience with increasingly hilarious displays of conscience, and I mean hilarious.
The best compliment I can pay to the film is the casting intelligence of putting Vinnie Jones ("Snatch," "X-Men: The Last Stand") in the villain role, and instructing Austin to Eastwood himself up. The two burly men make swell dance partners and their scenes of conflict – well, scenes of Jones sass-mouthing while Austin exhales deeply – contain the precise amount of frivolity and ageless appeal of lunkheaded violent cinema the whole film should've been assembled around. To stop a movie like this to lecture an audience (primarily made of wrestling fans) that violence is w-r-o-n-g is either the most inspired button of psychosis I've come across yet during my time as a critic, or actual proof that nobody was paying attention when they made this film. I think we all know the answer to that question.
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