The Condemned (2007)

Hold the front page. Something is wrong with the universe. WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is producing decent movies. That ... just doesn't seem right. But See No Evil was, surprisingly, one of the best horror films of last year, and The Condemned is, well, better. Both movies transcend their allotted genres, which, considering they both initially seem to be nothing more than vehicles for wrestling superstars, really shouldn't be the case. See No Evil was a glossy, surprisingly entertaining slasher that easily balanced its darkness with humour without becoming exploitative; The Condemned manages to be a great action flick with plenty of gratuitous explosions and, at the same time, a spirited evisceration of the current cultural climate. The government, the media, the military, and finally the voyeuristic audience itself are each bludgeoned over the head with the movie's political standpoints - hardly subtle, but then it's not subtlety isn't the point.

The initial set up sounds like a straight lift from Battle Royale: a group of people are dumped on a remote island, with explosive devices strapped to their bodies, and told that only one of them will get off the island alive - and only if they manage to kill everyone else first. Except that where Battle Royale used schoolchildren, The Condemned plucks its contestants from third-world prisons. Only the nastiest, most murderous criminals - those who are already facing the death penalty are selected (including ex-SAS McStarley, played by Vinnie Jones and mystery man Jack Conrad, played by Stone Cold Steve Austin). The sole survivor will be granted a second chance at life and the whole thing is filmed and broadcast live over the Internet to some 40 million paying subscribers. The whole thing is the brainchild of a maniacal millionaire whose morality stretches only as far as he can make a profit off of it.

The only sympathetic characters in the whole mess turn up in the shape of Conrad's all-but-widowed wife back home, and in a couple members of the reality TV crew who actually have some degree of humanity left. Everyone else is ripe for the grisly, gory picking.

Considering that, of the ten people dumped on the island, two are women, both of whom is required to wear a cleavage-flaunting vest top, and that within 45 minutes there's been one attempted rape and one off-screen rape and murder, you'd expect the whole film to turn exploitative fast. But as the cinema audience, we're always at least one degree away from it: much of the action is viewed through the eyes of the film crew, and sometimes we actually watch their reaction instead of witnessing the brutality they're reacting to for ourselves. It makes a surprising change to see any film, particularly in the action or horror genre, actually acknowledging the moral repercussions of its subject matter, and though it's a fairly obvious route to take, the moment when the whole production room goes quiet as McStarley beats a woman to death is startlingly effective. And that's just in the first half.

As the film continues, the message behind it all becomes more and more blatant. There's some real anger behind this movie, and it's directed towards practically everyone: a government that mistreats its soldiers; a military that's become dehumanised; and the mass media which has become first desensitised then completely morally bankrupt. If the film weren't so well made, this could come off as incredibly sanctimonious, but thankfully the filmmakers know what they're doing - it's stylish and entertaining enough that the moral of the story doesn't stick in your craw. Plus they, y'know, have a valid point. When Breckel, the man behind the whole show, makes an appearance on a chat show and proclaims that it's up to the parents to safeguard their children, and that the media doesn't create the demand for ultra-violent content but only supplies it, it's hard not to feel slightly uncomfortable. After all, The Condemned is a very violent movie.

There are all sorts of touches throughout the film that just work. The shots of the live feed on the website, for instance, which all films of this nature tend to get horribly wrong, look entirely convincing. The chat show host, delivering her verdict of sadness about the whole horrible fiasco, is note-perfect; The Condemned is incredibly media-savvy, so self-aware it hurts. The acting - given that this is, after all, a WWE movie! - is of a consistently high standard, though Rick Hoffman is worthy of particular mention. He's the highlight of anything he appears in, and here he plays against type as a neurotic, ultimately soft-hearted and conscience-ridden nerd. He's completely believable and might actually be more sympathetic than Conrad's mostly pointless woman-back-home.

Everything, right down to the lively photography and well-chosen soundtrack, comes together seamlessly in this movie. Its obvious agenda will rub some people the wrong way, but somehow, I don't think the WWE is going to feel the least bit remorseful about that.

IMDB link


so_wildish said...

I really liked "The Condemned" as well.

I went with my younger brother to see it, not expecting much of anything at all. I ended up really enjoying myself! I love it when a movie surprises you like that.

Ron said...

I tagged you for a meme which is completely unrelated to anything covered on your actual site.