Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

JCVD is back! After dominating the 1990s straight-to-video (and occasionally cinema) low-budget action market, making an appearance on “Friends” – he was pretty funny, if you’ve not seen it – and weathering the storm of multiple lawsuits based on his behaviour on set, he was tempted back to the “Universal Soldier” franchise, to that point in his career the highest-budget movie he’d ever been involved with.

I should have taken my own 2012 advice and ignored the two made-for-TV sequels, as they were miserable and boring (with the slight exception of Jeff Wincott’s appearance in both) and felt like watching double episodes of a particularly boring TV series. It seems that director Mic Rodgers (a stuntman making his sole directorial appearance) and writers William Malone and John Fasano (who’ve both directed cool B-movies – “House on Haunted Hill” and “Black Roses”, respectively) agreed with me, because this is packed with action and incident from beginning to end.

Luc Devereaux is, it turns out, not a UniSol any more, having had the process reversed by Dr Dylan Cotner (the great Xander Berkeley); but he’s still involved with the program in some unspecified capacity, taking part in wargames to train the new generation of zombie soldiers, getting involved in budget meetings with the visiting General (the equally great Daniel Von Bargen) and being the only member of staff allowed to bring his daughter to work. This is to show how nice and benevolent the super-computer, SETH, they’ve designed is – when you listen to SETH act as teacher to his daughter, you might be all “hey, that’s Michael Jai White’s voice, I presume he’ll pop up to kick ass at some point”, and you’d be right.

Bill Goldberg, at the time one of the two or three most famous wrestlers in the world, is Romeo, the biggest and evilest of the UniSols; Heidi Schanz, who looks like a soccer-mom Traci Lords, is Erin the news reporter (this was probably due to the original news reporter from part 1, Ally Walker, being unavailable to reprise her role and the producers just re-using the plotline); and Brent Hinkley, the creepy-looking “That Guy” actor, is Squid, a hacker / former staffer on the program who was kicked out for being too weird even for a program whose sole purpose is to take dead soldiers and turn them into zombie killing machines.

This was, amazingly, made the same year as “The Matrix” – while that movie looked forward and still feels modern today, this looks backwards, to a certain Space Odyssey and its malfunctioning super-computer HAL, but is really just a typical 90s ass-kicking B-movie wearing a fancy jacket. On learning that the program is going to be shut down due to budget cuts / ethical concerns, SETH immediately goes crazy, removing the inhibitor chip (called “Matrix”, coincidentally enough) from all the UniSols, creating a bunch of new ones from the staff of the base, and preparing…it’s never really made super-clear, but there’s some world domination in there, one would think. Squid is required to hack the kill-switch code which will trigger automatically in 8 hours, because of course Devereaux is the only person who has it, requiring him to be kept alive. The text-interface between SETH and Squid is hilariously basic, just words appearing on a blank screen, but there’s also SETH’s voice, I guess in case people didn’t feel like reading?

The army swings into action, and there’s a fantastic scene where four UniSols march out of the base towards the assembled troops and just mow them down, their zombie nature and experimental armour (which contains a built-in fire extinguisher, we discover later) keeping them relatively safe. It’s a lovely example of just how powerful these guys are in a movie series which has been very coy about showing the UniSols do much of anything.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN. (l to r): Jean-Claude Van Damme & Heidi Schantz. 1999.

I guess at one point the entire movie was set inside the base, “Die Hard” style, but they expanded things due to more budget or something, giving us an extremely unnecessary scene in a strip club (where Devereaux and Erin go in order to use their internet and do some hacking – the justification of that being a likely place to have the internet is pretty funny). Erin gets hit on by one of the strippers and only acts slightly repulsed, one of the few signs this isn’t a much older movie; Devereaux kicks some ass and ogles some boobs, the usual.

“The only way is to blow them up…and hope the pieces don’t keep fighting us”. In its way, a brilliant line, and although precious few UniSols get blown up, there’s still a ton of good stuff going on as Devereaux fights his way through the base to get to his daughter, who’s obviously been kidnapped. SETH figures out a way to miniaturise his brain and transplant it into super-soldier corpse Michael Jai White, and even though the final fight belongs to Goldberg (presumably some contractual thing, as it makes no sense whatsoever) White shows why he was an action superstar in the making – we’ll be covering his “Blood and Bone” and the “Undisputed” series soon. I’ll say one thing for Van Damme – he’s pretty good at picking his opponents. I’m basing this on him hiring his childhood friend Michel Qissi as the villain for the “Kickboxer” movies, so I guess he has a hand in casting; he understands that he only looks good if the guy fighting him looks good too. This series alone has had him scrapping with Dolph Lundren, White, and (in the last movie) Scott Adkins, who’s one of the best action-movie stars of recent years.

So, it’s packed with good actors, good action and plenty of incident. I feel like the script could have done with a few more run-throughs, but I realise this is a Van Damme movie and he’d have probably demanded the silly changes anyway. It feels old-fashioned, but that’s not always a bad thing – it’s just a very solid, if stupid, action movie.

It was actually released to cinemas, surprising for a series which just the year before had been a failed TV pilot; but it was an absolute disaster, barely recouping a quarter of its budget. I feel like, if you’re going to have a scene where your super-computer villain programs a hand flipping you off to appear on a screen, you ought to stick to the budget level and straight-to-video outlets you’re more comfortable with.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Interrogation (2016)

Every now and again, you need a movie to remind you to go and do other things with your life for a bit. Summer is pretty nice at the moment, there’s dogs need walking, I’ve not seen some friends in a while. Basically, anything other than this, which might well be the worst movie (non-Leprechaun division) that WWE have had anything to do with.

Okay, you’ll definitely think that until about 10 minutes from the end, when one of the all-time craziest twists happens. “Interrogation” is a twist delivery system, and if you’re a fan of that particular device, then I guess you might get something out of this. Maybe. I genuinely can’t tell if it’s something the writer thought of first, and had them work back from, or if they’d shot 90% of the movie and their original ending was such a complete waste of time that they had to reshoot.

Starring today is Adam “Edge” Copeland, former WWE champion and one of my favourite wrestlers of his era. A spinal injury forced him into retirement in 2011, but he’s made occasional non-wrestling appearances since then and is still friendly with the company, hence movie appearances like this. He’s Lucas Nolan, with a freakish eidetic memory, the greatest negotiator in the history of the FBI – we find this out, not only from his initial voiceover, but from his work colleagues, who give us the “ultimate badass” speech. You know the one! Usually reserved for an action movie where a group of soldiers will say about the star “ex special forces, kicked out for being too awesome, can kill a man by looking at him harshly” and so on. He stops a shooter by the astonishing tactic of being able to count (seriously, the opening segment is dumb as hell) but then is called in for the toughest job of his career.

An olive-skinned fellow with no name but a heavy Middle Eastern accent walks into an office building and says “a bomb’s about to go off”, then a bomb goes off across the street. He’s arrested, and Nolan is brought in to question him, to find out what he knows about other terror attacks planned for the city.

It’s a sort of cross between TV shows “The Blacklist” and “Homeland”, with a sprinkling of the movie “Seven”. We learn more about Nolan’s character, whose Dad was arrested trying to steal money for food for his family. Nolan was homeless as a teenager, but pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became a great agent…and as they ping-pong across the city, letting the still-unnamed terrorist escape pretty much at will, we learn a little more about him too.

It’s really silly, and boring, and all the characters act in stupid ways, and it’s not like the twist resolves all these problems either – think back on how two certain characters interact when there’s no-one around to see them, for one. It would have been nice if any of the other characters suspected something was going on, even for a second, but no. Copeland is a fine actor, as is everyone else (including a smaller role for fellow WWE star CJ “Lana” Perry), with special kudos going to “villain” Patrick Sabongui. Direction by Stephen Reynolds, whose work we enjoyed in the third “12 Rounds” movie, is decent too, if a little heavy on the handheld stuff.

So I guess most of the “huh?” must land on the two credited writers. It’s an unusual credit, “written by Michael Finch, based on an original screenplay by Adam Rodin”. Finch is one of WWE’s writers, having also written “Countdown”, but Rodin is a co-producer on Halle Berry’s TV show “Extant” and not much else. I presume there’s an interesting legal story behind the credit being the way it is, and which perhaps explains how bonkers that final section of movie is.

It’s very difficult to write about without giving it away, and I’m not a good enough writer. I don’t think it’s worth your time, to be honest, and I don’t think I’ll be doing any more WWE movies for a while. This one was a slog.

Rating: thumbs down

Countdown (2016)

In a rather pleasant reversal of the usual “X’s girlfriend / wife” sexist reporting, WWE wrestler and star of this movie Dolph Ziggler is perhaps most famous for being the ex-boyfriend of comedy superstar Amy Schumer; he’s another wrestler whose career began after I stopped watching pro wrestling, so I have no background to give you on how well he “acts” in the squared circle. He did host a few online shows for WWE, and has both acted and done standup comedy, so even saying that I was certainly less nervous coming in to this than I have been for other WWE movies.

We’re introduced to undercover cop Ray Fitzpatrick (Ziggler) in a fun sting operation, where he has to shoot his partner, who’s wearing a vest, in order to maintain his cover. He plays by his own rules! In case you weren’t sure about what a loose cannon he is, his boss Lt Cronin (fellow wrestler Kane, who looks like a crude chainsaw sculpture of a human being) and Internal Affairs officer Julia Baker (Katharine Isabelle) point it out to us in an early scene. Turns out, shooting your partner, even if it was sort of necessary, is frowned upon and he’s suspended!

Ray is troubled because his kid died a few years ago…at a police picnic…due to a drunk cop crashing his car into him. He sued the department and lost, his marriage broke up but for some reason he kept working at the place that closed rank to protect the person who murdered his son? I’m sure it makes sense to someone. Anyway, he’s about to leave work for good when one of the many hate-mail packages he gets every day turns out to be the real thing – a link to a website where there’s a video of a child being held hostage, strapped to a bomb. He wants $2,000,135.50 and, even though he’s not un-suspended, Ray is right back in the thick of things trying to rescue the kid and solve the case.

In a scene I’m surprised they’ve never done before, they chase the kidnapper through a wrestling event, with a few very brief cameos from other pro wrestlers (I was sort of hoping he’d watch a Dolph Ziggler match and go “this guy sucks”, but no). But, dear reader, all I could think about was “how did he bring all that ransom money into an arena? They made me clear my pockets out the last time I went”, and “he left an unattended bag on the front row of a wrestling show? Come on!”

Then, it seemed Julia decided to help Ray out, even though he remained suspended til the end. Perhaps I missed a bit where they bonded, with my cat jumping on me and shaking me from my action-movie reverie. But, he’s got to track down the kid in a small number of hours, and he’s not got time to be nice, or to not torture and brutally beat everyone who gets in his way. You can be forgiven for tuning out on act 2 a little, because there’s a really weird bit where Ray is arrested thanks to a fake paper trail left by the villain of the piece, and has to escape from a police station where no-one apparently feels like shooting him despite them all having firearms. But the ending is fine and action-packed.

Kudos to the guy who choreographed the fights, as they’re really good, and Ziggler is great in them. The punches, kicks and throws look like they actually hurt, and everyone else does their part well. Kudos to the actors, too – Ziggler is excellent, and Kane, it turns out, could totally have a career in the movies. I don’t want to get too effusive, but he’s a monster who can do a decent blue-collar cop. Isabelle is the best, for me, as I’ve been a fan of hers since “Ginger Snaps” and while she never got the star-making role she deserved after that, she’s never less than entertaining.

Also, I actually believed they filmed in Seattle for a while – I know, it’s obviously Vancouver, because it’s always Vancouver, but they hired a guy to edit in shots of downtown Seattle with the shots they’d already filmed, and whoever that person is did it well.

Finally, even though the middle was a bit dull, WWE hired a real proper director to make this, and it shows. John Stockwell, former actor, has directed “In The Blood” (the Gina Carano vehicle we thoroughly enjoyed) and is in charge of the new “Kickboxer” movie, which is either going to be awesome or miserable. Please be awesome!

Anyway, it’s exactly what you expect when you think race against time movie, starring a wrestler. But probably better. I expect bigger and better things from Ziggler and Stockwell in future, so keep an eye out.

Rating: thumbs up

12 Rounds 3: Lockdown (2015)

In news that’s as curious to me as it is to you, WWE left the best til last. I stopped watching pro wrestling in 2006 or thereabouts (although I occasionally pop on a Wrestlemania for old time’s sake) so my knowledge of the current product is fairly limited; although I was aware of the star of today’s review, I’ve never seen him in the squared circle.

But any doubts about the acting ability of the lead ought to be allayed when you see the crew that was assembled round him by director Stephen Reynolds. You may know them as “That Guy!”, but to me they’re the glue that holds some of the best recent genre TV together. Roger Cross, Ty Olsson and Lochlyn Munro are crooked cops Burke, Harris and Darrow and are extremely solid hands, so kudos to the casting – there are plenty of other Canadian TV veterans on hand too.

Dean Ambrose (real name: Jonathan Good) is cop John Shaw, returning to work after a seven-month absence after his partner was shot on his first day on the force. Turns out a lot of people blame Shaw for the kid’s death and his return is not universally popular. But, the most popular cop in the precinct, Burke, is dirty as hell, having shot the only witness to his drug-dealing operation and (so he thought) destroyed all the evidence. But…the coroner notices a flash drive disguised as a credit card on the corpse, and because Shaw is bored and isolated, he looks into it. Photos of deals! Bad things going on!

Quickly, things degenerate, and we’re presented with an interesting spin on the dependable “Die Hard” template. Burke triggers the fire alarm and gets the police station locked down with just him and his crew, Shaw, and innocent cop Jenny Taylor (Sarah Smyth) inside. Not sure how useful it is to be able to lock a police station up so tightly that no-one can get in or out (including cutting all the phone lines and blocking mobile communication), but we’ll leave that issue for the moment. Whereas “Die Hard” was the right man in the right place by accident, this is like if Hans Gruber was a cop, and wanted to kill another cop, so locked up Nakatomi Plaza so he could kill him at leisure.

You may be wondering “where do they crowbar 12 rounds into this?” and the simple answer is, they don’t. Shaw and Burke are having a chat near the beginning, at the firing range, where they’re sort of angling for power, trying to get the upper hand, in a very nicely written scene. Burke sees Shaw’s boring police-issue gun, and notes it only has “12 rounds”, and that’s the sum total of the bullets Shaw has to use to try and win the day. One other thing – Burke mentions their history together, that they went through the academy at the same time. Roger Cross is actually 16 years older than Dean Ambrose (although Cross looks younger than his age, and Ambrose older than his), which makes it a slightly odd visual.

Burke has one friend, Captain Matthews (Rebecca Marshall) on the outside; and if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you’ll know at least one of the beautiful lady-cops is working for the bad guys. Which one it is, I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves.

Although it’s set in one location, there’s plenty of variety and they actually bother to do something with them. A shooting range, a server room, a roof, plenty of offices…one must give kudos to director Stephen Reynolds, who started in self-funded short films before moving to LA and knocking on doors til someone gave him a job. I imagine it would be very easy to take WWE’s dime and knock out the same old rubbish, because no-one really cares, but it seems he was interested in moving onwards and upwards (he also directed the WWE movie “Interrogation”, which we’ll be covering soon).

Ambrose is surprisingly good in the lead role, too. I completely believed he was a cop returning to work after the death of his partner, and he wasn’t embarrassed stood next to some decent actors. I’d be very happy to see him in more movies, so I hope WWE continues producing them, or he moves on and gets some normal action-movie gigs the same way Steve Austin and John Cena did.

No problem recommending this to everyone. It’s logically ridiculous (why didn’t he just smash a window and jump out of the building? Or just shout to the cops outside that everyone else was trying to kill him?) but put all that to one side, because why on earth are you this far down the cinematic ladder if you want logical consistency? You want action and fun and “12 Rounds 3” delivers in spades.

Rating: thumbs up

12 Rounds 2: Reloaded (2013)

Part 2 of this franchise is a fine example of “addition by subtraction” – by taking away the stylistic gimmicks and “big” names (relatively speaking) you get a simpler, more direct movie. Of course, that makes it more similar to the vast morass of “hero against the clock” efforts that have littered video shop shelves since time immemorial. Okay, the early 80s.

John Cena, perhaps the best of the WWE’s actors, hands over to Randy Orton, who’s…surprisingly okay. He’s Nick Malloy, an EMT – how many of these movies are going to star EMT’s? – and we begin with him and his wife Sarah (Cindy Busby) walking from a movie, where they saw a chick flick. Ah, women and their choices! Anyway, you’re right away confronted by the artifice of cinema, as they are walking through a completely empty landscape, nowhere near anywhere. Are they urban exploration enthusiasts? Were they just arguing about how far away from the cinema they had to park? Or did the people making this movie not expect idiots like me to pay so much attention to the background?

Anyway, a car crash happens right next to them, and Nick and Sarah rush to help. Nick rescues the driver of one car, a young man; he rescues the passenger of the other, an older chap, but is unable to rescue the driver, the older man’s wife. He seems like he’s done as much as possible, but one year later (I do love a “one year later”), he’s still upset by what happened. His partner comes to pick him up for a night shift, and almost immediately, events start occuring.

Whereas part 1 was almost to the half-way point before the 12 rounds happened, here it’s barely ten minutes. Someone who you wouldn’t recognise unless you were paying really close attention to that opening scene wants revenge on Nick, despite him being fairly blameless; much like part 1, he’s wired the city up good and proper to arrange 12 tasks for Nick to complete. If he “wins” a majority of them, the mystery villain will hand himself in to the authorities; if he loses, then his wife dies. Nick realises he’s for real when a guy with a bomb literally implanted in his stomach blows up his ambulance and almost kills his partner, so the game is on.

It’s high speed car chases and fighting cops and then, raiding a no-tell motel to kidnap a young guy. As I was paying attention at this point, I noticed he was the Governor’s son (a graphic on one of the villain’s hundreds of computer screens) and at that point, the big reveal, which is still 20 minutes of screen time away, becomes blindingly obvious. Cops start following the trail of destruction, but they’re smart cops who don’t immediately blame Nick; Nick and the Governor’s son, Tommy (Tom Weaver) become a sort of double act as they try and keep ahead of the 12 challenges. It’s sort of curious to have the drunk-driving drug abuser be the comic relief in a wrestling movie, but whatever.

Part 2 is a Canadian production, as can be gathered from the nondescript locations and the cast, almost entirely comprised of people you’ll recognise from the tons of genre TV produced north of the border. Most notable is villain Heller, played by Brian Markinson, who’s been in everything (I feel like he’s captained more police districts than I’ve had hot dinners). It’s directed by Roel Reine, who’s one of the WWE’s regulars, and unlike part 1’s Renny Harlin, directs in a very TV-movie fashion. Much less handheld stuff, shots are flat and clearly composed – whether this is a good thing for you or not will very much depend on your tolerance for handheld-for-its-own-sake (which is what part 1 was, I felt).

I liked it. Once again, I like Randy Orton, he does a blue-collar everyman pretty well (just one with an odd face and lots of tattoos) and I’d be happy to see him in more of these sorts of action movies – I guess he’s sort of a dick in real life, but I’m not paying to watch him in real life. The rest of the cast is solid and dependable too, so I’ve got no complaints on that score. The bad guy’s plan is once again crazily complicated, but you’ve got to leave those sort of complaints at the door. The most interesting thing, though, is how you want the villain to win, and how (up to the very last moment) the movie does too. He’s fighting back against a corrupt system, and if he’d left the honest EMT out of it, I’d have been happy with him being the shadowy central character. As it is, he has to go crazy and try to kill Nick and his wife, just for not doing his job the way he wanted. Ah well.

Solid and entertaining, I’d put this in the top bracket of WWE movies. Part 3 stars a guy whose entire wrestling career happened after I stopped watching, so we’ve got that to look forward to. See you then!

Rating: thumbs up

12 Rounds (2009)

 

Welcome back to our series of WWE reviews, where we try and tell you which movies starring bone-benders are worth spending time on – or just insulting them and the entire concept of a wrestling company making action movies, whichever seems more fun at the time.

John Cena is (non-Dwayne Johnson division) the most charismatic star the WWE has. He’s a decent wrestler, and in terms of acting can do action and comedy – unlike the other guys we’ve seen so far, you believe he’s an actual human being and not some curiously animated robot. After “The Marine” (which I rather liked), this was his next starring role, and it was back in the day when WWE still had some sort of pretensions about making mainstream movies, hence the co-starring role for Aidan Gillen and the hiring of Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2”, “The Long Kiss Goodnight”) as director.

Cena is New Orleans cop Danny Fisher, a sort of loveable doofus who, while a very good husband, forgets stuff like fixing broken taps and where his gun is. He’s off for a shift with his partner Hank (Brian White) but the two of them get involved in a huge crime happening in the city. International arms dealer Miles Jackson (Gillen) is being transported across the city to stand trial, but a dirty FBI agent has helped him escape, but then Jackson kills him (presumably because you can never trust a dirty agent) and escapes with all his money and his girlfriend.

Danny is looking at old footage of Jackson as he happens to pull up alongside the girlfriend, which means he pursues the two of them across the city, on foot (because he’s awesome). Anyway, rather luckily he captures him, but she’s killed by a passing truck and this, understandably, upsets Jackson – but who cares because he’s off to prison, right?

A year later, the two cops have made Detective (entirely to do with that one night) but…well, here we get to the title of the movie. Two weeks previously, Jackson escaped from prison along with something like 30 other people, and wants revenge on Danny for the arrest / death of his girlfriend thing. After kidnapping Danny’s girlfriend, he sets in motion an impossible task he’s devised, 12 events across the city, involving rescuing runaway tram cars, deciphering clues, saving lives, making impossible decisions, and so on. The FBI agents who Danny showed up from before are back, too, but whose side are they on this time?

This is a pretty excellent basis for an action movie, honestly, and Harlin is a fine choice for directing (although I’m not sure he had tons of options, after the entirety of Hollywood sided with Geena Davis over their divorce). It also helps if you just pop your brain into neutral, because it’s based on a few fairly hefty “huh?” moments. Like, wouldn’t a prison break involving such a high-profile inmate have made the news, especially in cop circles? Wouldn’t someone have mentioned it to Danny anyway, even if it didn’t? And how does this notorious arms dealer get around the city to so precisely set all these tasks up without anyone noticing him? At one point, Jackson says to Danny “I know you, you’re predictable” – how? They’d never met and it’s not like they give inmates access to the files of the cops who arrested them. Plus, a rather large plot point at the end relies on one of the cast members being able to fly a helicopter, despite not a single clue they could do that in the movie to that point.

But, if you start doing this sort of thing with cheesy mid-budget action movies, you’ll be asking yourself questions til the end of time. Just accept the pieces are they’re placed on the chessboard. What then? Well, you can appreciate Cena’s performance, for one thing. I feel like he could be headlining bigger things than this, but he seems happy with his niche, wrestling, occasional movies and appearing on TV – here he’s a fine action hero, performing quite a few of his own stunts too, apparently. Gillen has a heck of a time as the villain, although his accent gets more and more Irish as things go on (perhaps the Finnish director couldn’t tell). The rest of the cast are pretty background-y and interchangeable, although it was fun to see Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, (aka E Honda from “Street Fighter”), pop up in a brief role.

I think it’s the script and direction that have something worth talking about, though. 12 rounds of anything in a 90 minute movie is going to be a squeeze, and they start to blend into each other at the end (it’s 24 hours later, and I could maybe name half the rounds). Don’t even start thinking how similar this is to “Die Hard With A Vengeance”, something the director must presumably have been aware of.

Harlin was on the skids by 2008, as mentioned, and “12 Rounds” came towards the end of a series of undistinguished genre fare, starring former A-listers on the way down; he’d work in TV for five years after this. His choice for this one was “handheld, all the way” and while it saved him a few dollars, it just looked terrible after a while. There’s a lot to be said for being able to frame a shot properly, but after the nth extreme shaky close up, I was pretty sure Harlin had long since lost that ability (or the cinematographer he hired, whoever). One doesn’t have to feel like the camera is part of the action to enjoy an action movie.

But, after all that, it’s a lot of fun, still. Good leading man, packed (perhaps too packed) with action, bit of humour, they seem to genuinely film in New Orleans so you can enjoy that, you could do a great deal worse. I look forward to part 2, where Cena hands over the reins to Randy Orton, so we’ll see you then.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Condemned 2 (2015)

In this, one of the more pointless sequels it’s ever been our pleasure to cover, we have a very entertaining movie which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. It’s not so much “leave your brain at the door”, it’s “arrange to have it surgically removed and beaten long before you even set off to the cinema”.

WWE star Randy Orton finally gets his chance to star in an ISCFC-reviewed movie, after almost being in parts 2 and 3 of “The Marine” (missing out on part 2 due to injury, and part 3 due to someone discovering his less-than-stellar real life military past). He’s Will Tanner, a Bail Enforcement Agent, which I think just means bounty hunter, but you never know, and he and his team are trying to arrest Cyrus, who’s running the strangest underground gambling den of all time.

We’ve seen people bet on all sorts of strange things, but this is perhaps the strangest of them all. Along with his assistant Raul, he’s got two old homeless guys off the street, strapped them both into chairs and given them a lethal dose of some chemical. The betting is on who will die first! I can’t imagine this being too thrilling, even for the sort of jaded psychopath who can be found at one of these events, but there you go. Anyway, Will and his crew go non-lethal all the way, then Cyrus accidentally falls on some spikes and dies. There’s also one of those scenes that the great TV show “Justified” skewered so successfully, where the bad guy, told to stop moving, keeps creeping closer to the good guys until he’s within striking range. Shoot him when he won’t stop moving, dummy!

This causes arrests, even though the only real-life bounty hunter I ever read about killed several people and never did a minute of jail time for it. The team splits up, and Will has to go and apologise to his father, played by the slumming-it-for-20-years Eric Roberts. But Dad is cool with it, eventually, and supports Will when he gets a job as a tow-truck guy. There’s a little scene inserted here, when he helps a couple of college girls out and they basically undress him with their eyes – I think it’s in there because there’s not a whisper of romance, and the only female character is the boss of the towing company (she’s only in one scene). They needed to let you know ol’ Will is straight as a die.

Anyway, I’m just recapping the movie here! One day, one of his old crew shows up, takes him out for a beer and then tries to kill him – luckily, plenty of witnesses means Will is released pronto. Then, another crew member shows up and Will just heads off with him too, as if the last scene didn’t happen, and this guy tries to kill him too!

The gist of things is, Raul, the former assistant, even though he didn’t seem to like Cyrus at the beginning, has set up a “Most Dangerous Game” style event, blackmailing his old team into hunting Will down as revenge for the death of his boss. Dozens of high-rolling gamblers are there, betting on who will come out on top, and Raul keeps standing on tables and saying stupid things. It’s great!

But we must break things down with some bullet points. Not a single thing makes the slightest bit of sense from this point on, so let’s look at how and why. Spoilers, I guess, if you’re going to watch it.

  • Raul claims to have gotten his inspiration from the original Condemned “tournament”, despite them not being the same sort of thing, at all
  • He also claims the original was low-rent, surrounded as he is people gambling. That first movie had about 30 million people watching, at the cost of $50 each, netting him (at the very least) a high eight-figure sum. Given Raul has to pay the people who win, how much does he think he’s going to make?
  • Wouldn’t it be easier for him to just hire a bunch of people who are happy to kill for sport, rather than threaten the families of his old team?
  • Of the five team members who participate, three turn on Raul and help out Will. Does he do anything to their families? Of course not.
  • But one of the guys who does turn chooses to die rather than surrender, when dying holds no promise of helping out his family, surrender being by far the better option.
  • Raul puts himself in the game at the end, helped out by 20 armed goons. Given he’s expecting people to bet, who’s going to bet against the heavily-tooled-up army taking on three injured guys?
  • All the “participants” are sort of boring. If this was a wrestling tournament, you wouldn’t care about who won or lost, and you certainly wouldn’t bet on them. At least the first movie gave you some colourful villains!

This sounds like I hated it, and that’s not the case. There are some fun set-pieces, like in the minefield, and it’s anchored by a surprisingly good lead performance. Orton is great as a sort of super-tough everyman, the kind that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper used to play so well (although Piper was better at it), and if he’d been a bit less stupid I’d have been on board with it 100%. Roberts could have probably phoned his performance in from home, and Steven Michael Quezada as Raul starts at “way over the top” and just keeps on going. He understood the best just what sort of movie this was. Director Roel Reine has done tons of WWE movies so if you’ve seen one of them, chances are it looks quite a lot like this.

It’s a curious one. Lots of fun while being among the dumbest movies we’ve ever covered here, if you’re a WWE fan I’d recommend it; if you love gasping with incredulity I’d recommend it; if you like movies where zero women have anything to do, then…screw you, you sexist asshole, you don’t get a recommendation.

Rating: thumbs up

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.

The Condemned Movie

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