After a decent date with a handsome-looking guy, Jamie (Rachel Nichols) goes home to kick off her shoes and soak in the tub, but just after she's climbed in, she opens her eyes to see a man in a ski mask looming over her. When she wakes up, she's in a strange prison, nothing more than a hallway with an elevator she can't summon at one end, and a single round room with a dirt floor and stone walls at the other. Before she can get her bearings, she runs into another occupant, Sabrina (Zoe Bell), who tentatively informs her that the elevator is not the way out. Once both women are in the room, however, Sabrina attacks. They've both been captured by a mysterious couple (Sherilyn Fenn and Doug Jones), along with 48 other women, for a brutal fight-to-the-death tournament with only one winner.
Raze takes the women-in-prison genre and mashes it together with a "deadly entertainment" idea in the vein of The Running Man or Death Race, and subtracts the exhausting winking that comes with so many modern exploitation films. Raze may be fun in a certain brutal, grimy way, but it achieves that through intensity and skillful fight choreography rather than ribbing the audience about what a throwback it is for 90 minutes. Armed with a script that trims away a ton of the expository nonsense that would bog down a lesser movie, and featuring the magnetic talent of Quentin Tarantino's favorite stunt performer, Zoe Bell, Raze is nearly wall-to-wall action, and good action to boot.
The premise is sinister perfection: Elizabeth (Fenn) and Johnny (Jones) haven't just captured each of their contestants, but also keep a watchful eyes on the people closest to each one: parents, children, significant others, etc. If a woman loses, their significant other dies as well, providing each one with a torturous reason to continue to fight even as their spirits crumble. Since each of the captives are equally innocent (well, except for one), and each one is tied to an innocent life hanging in the balance, the the viewer's allegiance to one or the other is torn, and each fight is a rollercoaster ride of sympathy. In fact, the filmmakers actually double down on sympathy, setting up friendships and familiarity between many of the prisoners. On the flipside, the filmmakers also know that it's not important how Elizabeth and Johnny can afford their elaborate prison, how they pull off all this surveillance without being caught, or how they attract the upper-class audience that apparently watches and bets on these fights. Thus, Raze practically ignores these aspects entirely, allowing more time for fight scenes.
Those fight scenes are what make the film worth watching, not only for the way they play with the audience's emotions but simply because they're thrilling to watch. Waller doesn't entirely shy away from the "shaky cam" style of action filmmaking, but he does avoid quick cutting other than as a way to emphasize character beats or to try and obscure truly graphic violence. More importantly, the choreography has a believable rough-and-tumble nature to it, capturing a level of raw energy that so many modern action films lack. Heads bounce off walls, stomachs are kicked, throats are strangled, and faces are punched with enough force and verve to make anyone wince. Although many of the characters are hardly more than a name on screen (each fight is introduced with a title card -- nice touch), each actor's fight training shows, with each lunge and grab in tune with Waller's cinematography. When the characters are developed, such as the rivalry between Sabrina and Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall), the one woman in the prison whose dreams of killing are actually being fulfilled in captivity, the resulting fight is even more satisfying.
There are moments when Raze falters: not just the anonymous supporting cast, but also the lack of great material for Fenn, and an ending that awkwardly hints at some sort of twist I didn't entirely follow. With just a bit more storytelling meat on its bones and some great scenery for Fenn to chew, Raze could be perfect. That said, so many modern films are bloated on their own sense of self-importance and fail to deliver on their premises until it's far too late. Raze is sleek and streamlined, a fighter rearing to go, aggressive and amped up. The fights are good, the performances are effective at pulling the most emotional investment from the threadbare story, and the movie doesn't waste the viewer's time. If other throwbacks would stop patting themselves on the back so often, they might be half as effective as this one.
IFC sticks with Raze's poster artwork for the DVD cover, with Zoe Bell standing tall in front of blood-red images of the rest of the ensemble cast. The back cover continues the angular look of the front cover nicely, and the whole thing feels more uniform as a result. I suspect the list of special features ought to have been double-checked for duplication. The single-disc release comes in a translucent eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Three things standard-def DVD does not always handle well are delineation of detail in shadows, soft focus, and the color red, and Raze opens with a soft-focus shot of a character lit entirely by harsh red light. For all the challenges this presents, the scene looks decidedly okay, with crush being the biggest issue, but nothing too pervasive ruining the 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen frame. It's indicative of the whole picture, which frequently has minor crush and artifacting problems, an occasional bit of aliasing, or looks a little murky, but always stays in the firmly above-average range, which is a feat considering how easily it could look awful. I didn't even notice any significant banding issues, which has become one of the most common DVD (and Blu-Ray) compression artifacts. It's disappointing that IFC rarely releases its films on Blu-Ray, as Raze could look much better, but this DVD is less frustrating than I anticipated.
Audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track that also impresses. Nothing underwhelms in an action movie like a weak sound mix, but the wet thump of punches and kicks landing are as amped up as the women delivering them. The prison environment provides an opportunity for distant howling of contestants through concrete walls, and the echo-filled hallways also provide ambience. Music sounds nice as well. Still, it's those fight scenes that really get the blood pumping, with each blow packing a real ferocity. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Raze gets a nicely stocked-up DVD release from IFC. First is "Raze: Behind the Scenes" (12:00). Although it opens with some clips from the movie, the tone of this feature is refreshingly non-promotional, with director / co-producer Josh C. Waller, Zoe Bell, and many other cast and crew members reflecting on the project's genesis from short film / web series pilot to feature film, including touching on an abandoned Kickstarter and other subjects. The interview subjects are all enthusiastic in a way that conveys a more authentic passion for the project than many EPKs, and the B-roll of the actors bantering on set between takes is fun to watch. A selection of interviews (3:22) feel more like a traditional promotional piece.
The fight scenes get their own featurette (5:04), showing the director, fight choreographer, and Zoe Bell thoughtfully talking about how to link face smashing with character motivation. For those who aren't interested in talking heads, they can also check out "Raze: Behind the Scenes" (2:04), which presents a bunch of B-roll without interviews. The most entertaining bit is a clip of rehearsal footage of Nichols and Bell rehearsing in sweatpants on mats, with the full-force sound effects laid in. The one extra listed on the box that feels a little overblown is the extended fights (2:11), which refers not to the full-fledged fight scenes but those that fly by in the montage.
These are followed by a surprisingly lengthy selection of deleted scenes (35:58), which include more of Rachel Nichols' Jamie (and her friend, who is unseen in the finished film); a bit of additional information about a character briefly glimpsed at the end with an implied air of importance; an alternative scene with Joseph; and more of the relationship between Cody and Sabrina. Optional commentary is also included. For a change of pace, there's also a fairly lengthy gag reel (4:52), which highlights the loose atmosphere on set, as well as Zoe Bell's skill with accents.
Video extras conclude with the original short film (19:22), which is not much different than the opening to the feature, other than the arrangement of the editing and the use of some of the material seen in the deleted scenes. There is also a poster gallery.
The disc as a whole ends with an audio commentary by Waller, Bell, producer Andrew Pagana, and fight choreographer Kenny Gage. Considering the making-of featurettes are very general, it works out fairly nicely that the commentary trends more toward the anecdotal, about specific days of shooting, random minor cast and crew members, and individual little challenges. The track occasionally gets awkward, with the participants talking over one another or getting off onto tangents, but it's a good commentary if you're a fan of the film.
An original theatrical trailer for Raze is also included.
Although it would've been nice to see Raze on Blu-Ray in the United States, everything else about the package is fairly pleasing. The image quality holds up despite the photography challenges, the sound mix is great, the disc is loaded with bonus features, and the movie is a rock-'em-sock-'em extravaganza that takes no prisoners. Highly recommended...if you think you've got what it takes.
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