"10 people will fight. 9 people will die. You get to watch." So proclaims the poster for The Condemned, a movie executive-produced by World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon, and starring self-professed "whup-ass machine" Stone Cold Steve Austin and oft-suspended former soccer star Vinnie Jones.
So can someone explain where this movie gets off lecturing its audience about how awful they are for enjoying violence in entertainment? McMahon's no dummy he has to know that the movie's main villain, a greedy entertainment promoter named Breckel (Robert Mammone), sounds awfully familiar when he defends his product by saying that it isn't marketed to children, or that he's just giving the public what they want. You don't have to agree that onscreen violence is inherently bad to be offended by the hypocrisy.
One of WWE's real-life defenses is that it never features murder in the storylines. Technically, that is true, but it has featured "attempted vehicular homicide," necrophilia, immersion in liquid concrete, "buried alive" matches, heart attacks during sex, grave desecration, and wrestler Al Snow secretly being fed the cooked remains of his kidnapped Chihuahua. But no actual killing, save the accidental death of Owen Hart a few years ago. So that's the distinction: Here, Breckel has gathered 10 death-row inmates from around the world to kill each other on an island rigged with cameras. As in Battle Royale, all contestants are strapped with explosives that will detonate if they don't participate. After 30 hours, only one will be left alive.
Directed by Scott Wiper. Written by Scott Wiper and Rob Hedden. Starring Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, Robert Mammone, Rick Hoffman, and Nathan Jones. Rated R.
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It's no surprise that, lost in the movie's moralizing about the dangers of violent entertainment, there is no commentary on the morality of the death penalty itself except when Breckel says that one of the 10 will get to live. I guess director Scott Wiper opts out of the debate by having his inmates come from a foreign prison.
Meanwhile, before the movie hops up on its high horse, we get several cool battles involving the likes of Texan redneck Jack Conrad (Austin), ex-SAS sadist McStarley (Jones), crazed martial artist Saiga (Masa Yamaguchi), and a 7-foot Soviet (Nathan Jones, who briefly had a WWE stint before realizing that big-screen henchman roles are more lucrative and less punishing). Unlike the Rock, who did his trademark eyebrow-raise in The Scorpion King; or Kane, who utilized the chokeslam in See No Evil, Austin doesn't wink at his audience with any signature moves. Granted, the Stone Cold Stunner wouldn't be the most effective jungle combat move, but it's a shame Austin doesn't get to flip the bird at least once (although, free from basic-cable restrictions, he's plenty good at verbalizing the gesture's equivalent).
Audiences are cued to cheer along with the corrupt promoters for the Mortal Kombat-style fatalities that ensue, but the line is apparently crossed when McStarley and Saiga kick the crap out of a woman and enjoy it. If you enjoy it too, you're a sick puppy, says The Condemned. Born-again Vince must have forgotten the time when the Dudley Boyz slammed 80-year-old Mae Young through a wooden table, to the cheers of an adoring fan base.
Flaws, double standards, strange detours, and all, this is still the most entertaining WWE release to date. Hostel's Rick Hoffman, doing his fast-talking shtick, is great as a controller with a crisis of conscience. And we already know from TV and from his standout turn as a racist guard in The Longest Yard that Austin can act. In the second half of the film, when he finally loses his temper and gets down to the business of revenge, Stone Cold really heats up the screen. Don't feel guilty for enjoying the violence. Just thank Vince.