The Condemned (2007)

It seems that, quite early on in their filmmaking career, WWE got the format pretty much right. But then it seems their initial raft of releases (including this, the first “Marine” movie and “See No Evil”) weren’t as successful as they’d hoped, so they started spending and trying less, to the point they’ve released several movies that I’m not sure anyone has seen (“Term Life”, starring Vince Vaughn and no wrestlers, and “Interrogation”, starring the by-that-point long-retired Adam “Edge” Copeland).

But those reviews are for a later date, and we’ve got a genuinely decent movie to talk about. Although “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had also retired by the time he made this movie, he was at one point the most popular wrestler on the planet, with merch that sold in the millions, and had done a little acting before (“The Longest Yard”, some voice work). So, you’d be happy with him headlining your 2007 action movie.

“Battle Royale” is one of my favourite action movies of all time. Based on a book (which is also really good, go and read it) and a manga, the dystopian movie takes a group of kids and dumps them on a jungle island. One of them gets to survive, so it’s every person for themselves in a fight to the death. It’s such a perfect plot for a story, it’s been ripped off time and time again – everything from “Series 7: The Contenders” to “The Hunger Games” to the 2009 movie “The Tournament”, which we reviewed a little while ago. In 2006, an American version of the Japanese original was announced, and although it’s still stuck in development hell, clearly some people noticed and decided to make their own spin on the story, and one of those was WWE.

Also, as well as drawing inspiration from “Battle Royale”, it goes for that other hardy B-movie genre, which for want of a better term I’ll call “Murder TV”. For some, TV isn’t violent enough, and in these pieces of entertainment we’ll see some maverick who decides to broadcast a murder tournament to the delight of millions of paying customers. I feel almost churlish pointing this out, but there’s no evidence that people want more violence in their entertainment – horse racing is more popular than dog fighting, Formula 1 is more popular than watching footage of head-on collisions, and boxing is more popular than bare-knuckle fighting. And even if you accept that there’s this gigantic untapped market of people who want to watch other people getting beaten to death, especially when it’s on the internet, filmmakers don’t seem aware that governments can stop you from watching illegal content quite easily.

So that’s my “here’s why this fictional movie couldn’t really happen” speech done for the day. A sleazy TV producer called Ian Beckel (Robert Mammone) buys a bunch of murderers from different prisons round the world – legality? Ha! – and puts them on an island to fight to the death. They have 30 hours to get down to one survivor, as they’ve got bombs strapped to their legs – the usual. The main killers are Jack Conrad (Austin), a taciturn man in a central American hellhole; Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones), a Brit who just really loves killing people; Paco and Rosa Pacheco (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruiz), the Mexican murder couple whose arc in this movie is absolutely the most miserable thing you’ll see in ages; and Petr Raudsep (Nathan Jones, who also wrestled briefly for WWE a couple of years before this), who we see murdering a bunch of inmates in an Eastern European prison fight in the movie’s opening scene. Cameras are everywhere, there’s a few actual camera-people in camouflage, but that’s pretty much it. Nice bunch of slabs of humanity crashing into each other, honestly.

Then, there’s a couple of B-stories that don’t really mesh with the rest of proceedings. First up, Jack Conrad isn’t his real name – he’s a black ops Special Forces person whose real name is Jack Riley, and he’s got a girlfriend, Sarah, and a couple of step-kids back in Texas. He popped out for a week to do a job, and ended up in a prison with the American government completely disowning him, disavowing his presence, etc. So she’s a little surprised, when she sees the big news of “The Condemned” web-TV show, to find her missing boyfriend on there as a KKK member and church burner (a fake bio to make him into a “heel” that people will pay to see die). She’s Australian TV actor Madeleine West, and she’s really good in a nothing sort of role.

The other B-story (well, let’s call it a Z-story) is the FBI agent who’s tasked with finding out about the every-law-in-the-world-flouting web broadcast; he also finds out about Riley’s interesting past and becomes motivated to help him out. He’s played by Sullivan Stapleton, who’d soon be wowing audiences (well, me) in the fantastic US / UK co-production “Strike Back” but here was in a part so useless he could have been cut out and the end result would have been exactly the same. He basically exists to take one phone call from Sarah, and they decided to give him a bit of a story as he was there and a decent actor.

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The other side-plot involves the people working for Beckel – there’s an assistant who looks far too similar to Sarah – and their responses to what’s going on on screen. The assistant, Julie (Tory Mussett) isn’t cool with the female contestants getting raped, yet another female TV person seems delighted to watch it – you’ll be glad to know all these plots go absolutely nowhere, and exist merely so the entire movie isn’t over-muscled, ugly men beating each other to death. I wonder what Julie thought the job of filming people murdering each other would actually involve?

I wrote “what’s the audience for old white men raping black women?” because the morality of this movie is seriously all over the place. It wants us (the viewers) to enjoy the grim violence and sexual assault, while the people inside the movie are telling us it’s wrong to enjoy it (that tens of millions of people are paying to watch this is a moral conundrum which the movie pays the barest of lip service to).

The fighting is both brilliant and rubbish. The brilliant comes from the co-ordination, planned out by kung-fu movie legend and ISCFC Hall of Famer Richard Norton; the rubbish comes from how it’s filmed, the shakiest of shaky-cam and enough to make you want to slap the cinematographer. There’s a dozen logic holes too, but that’s to be expected in a movie like this. The one thing I will mention, though, is Beckel’s repeated mentioning of how many blogs were talking about “The Condemned”, and how that would translate into lots of people watching the broadcast. I don’t want to discourage any film companies from sending me screener copies of movies to review, but blogs don’t really generate the big traffic, and never did (unless you’re a famous person with a vanity blog).

It feels like one of the many 80s/90s underground fight league movies we’ve covered here at the ISCFC, and unlike so many modern remakes is genuinely sleazy, like the exploitation cinema of that era. And it’s kind of entertaining, in its way, but suffers so badly with irrelevant side-plots and meanness for its own sake that it doesn’t quite make it over the line into being actually entertaining.

Writer / director Scott Wiper also had a hand in the 3rd, 4th and 5th “Marine” movies, so someone at WWE likes him, even if relatively few other people do. If you really, really like seeing muscly dudes scowl, then you’ll still enjoy this, I reckon. A lot of plot, even if not all of it is good or relevant, a lot of action, it certainly wasn’t boring even if it wasn’t terribly good. Still, I’d take this over the deathly boring “Marine” sequels.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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The Tournament (2009)

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The 90s are back! If you remember the days of wisecracking psychopaths, ultraviolence and pointlessly twisty plots, then…well, you’ll have probably seen this years ago, as we here at the ISCFC may do many things, but reviewing movies in a timely fashion is not one of them. Bearing extreme similarities to 90s comic “Button Man”, and vaguer ones to movies “The Condemned”, “Mean Guns”, “Battle Royale” and “Series 7: The Contenders”, it feels like a script which was left on the shelf for 10 years, or perhaps just written, directed and paid for by emotionally stunted man-children.

 

Every 7 years, there’s a big tournament to decide who’s the best assassin around, and 30 of them are assembled in some unsuspecting town and set loose, with nothing but an implanted tracker and a case full of weapons. CCTV cameras are taken over, emergency phone lines are diverted, and the world’s wealthiest people come to gamble on the outcome because, you know, normal entertainment just doesn’t cut it any more when you have a lot of money. Apart from a brief flashback to the previous tournament, the entirety of this movie takes place in the small northern town of Middlesbrough, which may well be the first time it’s ever appeared on the big screen.

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The cast is the thing which will have you maybe wondering if you should pay attention to it or not. The champion of the previous tournament, returning as one of the other assassins killed his wife, is Ving Rhames as “Joshua Harlow”; then you’ve got Kelly Hu as “Lai Lai Zhen”, Ian Somerhalder as “Miles Slade”, and Scott Adkins (“Ninja”, “The Expendables 2”) as “Yuri Petrov”. “Powers”, the fellow organising the whole shebang, is Game Of Thrones’ very own Liam Cunningham, and one of his assistants, “Tech Eddie”, is Andy Nyman, last seen by us in the classic “Severance”. Rounding out the cast, playing a local Vicar who gets rather unfortunately caught up in events, is Robert Carlyle! Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a hell of a cast for a movie I’d never heard of before this morning; no huge names, but a lot of people who individually could headline any B-movie, or provide solid back-up in a big-budget one.

 

There’s not a ton of plot, really, as you might expect, with the tension coming from Rhames’ attempt to figure out who killed his wife and why. When the French parkour assassin removes his tracker and gets the Vicar to accidentally swallow it, that puts him on the “leader board”, and Hu is forced to protect him while he waits for the tracker to work its way out of his system. The big twist in this tournament is, if more than two assassins are left alive at the end of the 24 hour time limit, they both get blown up thanks to the trackers having an explosive in them.

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They really want you to know how violent it would be if 30 assassins were all set loose on each other in a normal town. Somerhalder (who, spoiler alert, kills a dog, if that’s the sort of thing which puts you off a movie) is the most gleeful of the murderers, but everyone blows up at least one person, or gets blown up themselves, shotguns are fired into heads at point blank range, and folks get run over by trucks and buses, with gore being liberally flung round the screen. While it’s not especially graphic, it might turn a stomach or two.

 

They also really want you to know exactly what you’re supposed to think at every moment. It’s got the extremely annoying habit of cutting to Powers, then to Tech Eddie, every time something interesting or violent is about to happen, with Powers telling the assembled gamblers what they can clearly see on the hundred monitors in front of them, then Tech Eddie and his mate giving a dumb running commentary – like when you see someone get kicked in the balls and then you’ll cut to some bloke saying “that had to hurt”, as if you the viewer would be unable to tell on your own, yes, a kick to the balls would probably hurt quite a lot. It has absolutely zero faith in its audience, and as much as I like Andy Nyman, by the tenth time of him making some off-colour joke about the violent murder of a human being, I was ready to shoot him myself.

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Now, time to go a little deeper, in case my snarky tone didn’t let you know I had some problems with it. The assassins are a mixed bunch, with some of them being ex-soldiers doing it because they like killing, and so on. But at least one (Kelly Hu) and probably others, are doing it because they were forced into the lifestyle, or because they were born and brought up that way. There’s a sense it’s just a job to them, and they’re not all particularly horrible people. The real villains, of course, are the people who organise the event and those who are gambling on others’ lives, and aside from one rather inevitable final death, everyone just walks away scot-free. The film doesn’t really have a moral view on any of them, they’re just props to look happy or sad when one of their bets succeeds or fails.

 

Even leaving aside such plot holes as “how did Ving Rhames know that the trackers were explosives?” and matters extending from that; how he carried on fighting after being shot in both arms; how the trackers apparently work on body heat yet stop working the instant you die; why every assassin doesn’t just cut out their tracker; why so many of them, in the middle of a 24-hour fight to the death, decided to go to a strip club; or the extraordinary cheesiness of the leaderboard, the betting odds and all that, it’s still a pretty weak movie. The fight scenes and special effects are occasionally great (Hu’s fight with Scott Adkins, for example) but it’s too often “cool” for its own sake. There’s only so many times you can see a man in the middle of a room, grinning as millions of bullets fly everywhere, his only protection that he’s a main cast member and he has to get killed in a cool way later on, before you get a bit bored. The parkour guy, for the absolutely zero characterisation they give him, is on screen a heck of a lot too; perhaps they paid him a lot of money and were just getting a decent amount of use out of him.

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Director Scott Mann made TV before this (and probably should have stuck there), and nothing afterwards, until “Heist” in 2015, starring Robert DeNiro, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gina Carano. Perhaps he pays well, because they’re not working for him based on any skill at directing movies. Ripping off the plot of other, better movies are scriptwriters Gary Young (“Harry Brown”, amazingly), Jonathan Frank (nothing else, although he’s got some credit on “Heist” too), and Nick Rowntree (also nothing else). A film which is sort of fun while it’s on, but which becomes increasingly annoying the more you think about it.

 

Rating: thumbs down