Published at: April 25, 2007, 7:32 p.m. CST by quint
My friends, I write to you with a heavy heart to admit that the prestigious WWE Films banner is starting to lose its luster. They have three movies under their belt now (get it, belt - that is a wrestling pun in my opinion) but the record now is 1 in 3. And the one I'm counting as good is SEE NO EVIL (click for review!) , the slasher movie about a big bald sexually repressed muscleman poking out people's eyes in a scary hotel. So your mileage may vary. (mileage is a car metaphor, that is no longer wrestling related, sorry.)
THE CONDEMNED sort of stars Steve Austin, formerly known as Stone Cold Steve Austin, but maybe he dropped that after he got fired from wrestling for getting arrested for wife beating. I'm not sure. Austin is the most sympathetic of ten convicts that an amoral millionaire buys out of prisons in third world countries, puts on an island and forces to kill each other for one of those live streaming internet shows they have in horrible movies (see HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION). They have bombs attached to their ankles so they can't escape, and if one is able to be the last one remaining he or she will be set free.
The movie has two advantages over the disappointing THE MARINE. Number one, it's rated-R so it can have actual violence in it, not just explosions. Number two, Steve Austin makes a good action anti-hero, he is not bland and laughable like John Cena. Sure, they both have unnaturally large necks, but Austin seems like a genuine tough guy, not just an out of control muscle-sculpting experiment for some crazed fitness artist. The bad guys always call him "redneck" and "hillbilly" and I guess he has a little bit of a drawl, but his main appeal is his gravelly voice and his Plissken-esque don't-give-a-fuck attitude. This crowd seemed to love it every time he barked out a sarcastic comment or called somebody "sweetheart," and I don't blame them. If he was given an actual character to play in a movie by people who knew how to make a real movie, he could be at least as good as Roddy Piper. (Not that any wrestler movie will ever match THEY LIVE. That's a pipe dream.)
But they don't give him much. At the beginning, when all the competitors are chained up in a helicopter, there is one good moment that shows what his character is about. Before they get tossed out onto the island a guard gives them a mouthpiece that has the key in it, so once they land they can unlock themselves. Austin sees how this works but when it comes to his turn he elbows the guard in the face and jumps without the key. He would rather figure out some other way to get out of the chains than submit to the humiliation of a guy putting something in his mouth.
But that's about it. After that everything we find out about him (his special forces background, his girlfriend and her kids who he left behind, why he was in jail) is from dialogue between other characters, in scenes that he's not even in.
I got one question. Why the fuck does nobody remember how to make action movies anymore? Alot of people laugh at the old lowbrow action movies of the '80s and '90s, but there must've been more of an art to them than people realized, an art that is now lost. Sure, they're still making some good martial arts movies now and then, but the techniques and disciplines behind great, or even good, American style action movies have been erased by history, like the construction of the pyramids. The mystery of the McTiernan Code. The old masters have lost their touch or their interest, and they never took on apprentices, and now our choice seems to be Bruckheimer or DTV. This one is a little bit of both.
First thing they need to remember: an action movie has to have a good story to structure the action on. Not an original story, that's only a bonus. It doesn't matter that it's basically BATTLE ROYALE without the clever part of it being teenagers. There are plenty of fun action movies that are clearly lifted from DIE HARD, but they give you a good character to root for, a good villain to root against, a structure that builds momentum and a series of fights and stunts that are exciting to watch. (UNDER SIEGE 1&2, SPEED 1, SUDDEN DEATH 1.)
But this is not a good story. They don't even know where the story is. The movie doesn't start out with Austin, it starts out with the pricks who are creating the show. There is the evil millionaire (Robert Mammone, MAN-THING), his hot girlfriend (Victoria Musset, who I guess is the lady the Merovingian gave an orgasm pie to in THE MATRIX 2) and the bitchy tech guy (Rick Hoffman, the American torturer guy from that one memorable scene in HOSTEL). As the movie continues it gets more and more depressing how much time we have to spend with these people looking at screens in a control room instead of on the island where the actual story is probaly taking place, off camera. I don't think the filmatists realized they were doing this, but they made a movie entirely in the point of view of the least interesting and sympathetic characters in the movie. They don't spend nearly enough time on the guy they probaly thought was the main character.
Techie and girlfriend quickly start feeling bad about what they're doing, and try to stop it (only by complaining, not by taking any action). So Mammone is the villain, and he's as bland as John Cena. It's not like an Alan Rickman, Tommy Lee Jones or Eric Bogosian situation, you're not happy to be watching the villain when you could be watching the hero.
The second ancient secret of action movies that needs to be revived - well, you wouldn't think this would need to be pointed out. But you gotta put some god damn ACTION SCENES in your movie! Some good ones. There are no good action scenes in this movie. There are a bunch of fights, and all of them go like this: two guys punch or swing knives at each other. THEN THE CAMERA SWISHES VIOLENTLY FROM SIDE TO SIDE UNTIL THEY STOP! You know, to create the illusion of excitement. Movie magic.
Now, I don't watch wrestling, so I could be wrong about this. But my guess is that in wrestling they have a couple cameras that mostly stay stationary, and they watch as the two guys wrestle each other. That's how it works, right? In fact, I'm guessing that if the cameraman tried to wave that thing around like they do in every fight in this movie he would be immediately fired, and probaly beaten up in the parking lot. So you'd think if a wrestling league was gonna make a movie starring wrestlers, about wrestlers fighting each other, they would have the common sense to sit the fuck still and get a clear shot of what's supposed to be going on. What the fuck is wrong with these people? It almost seems like they're doing it on purpose to fuck with us. Hey guys, want to see a fight? TOO BAD. Instead we're gonna show you the blur of skin tones and trees waving back and forth in front of you. So fuck off.
If it is on purpose, it must be because they're taking a moral stand against good action. That's a more unusual problem that the movie has. From the first scene on they lecture the audience about enjoying violence. First there's a murky prison fight, and Graeme Revel's score emphasizes that it's wrong, not that it's exciting. Then there's a scene where a journalist interviews the millionaire and is outraged by how he's exploiting violence and it's wrong. Then those two members of his team start preaching the same thing. Vinnie Jones (SUBMERGED) plays Austin's main rival on the island, a psycho who the producers drop care packages of weapons to because "he puts on a good show." At the end he busts into the control room and murders the crew, shouting some variation of "ARE YOU ENTERTAINED?" and judging by the drawn out shots of the crew crying this is not supposed to be some ironic or darkly humorous moment, this is supposed to be really deep and powerful.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. How can anyone, much less the WWE, make an action movie that is OUTRAGED at people who want to be entertained by violence? Didn't it occur to them that every single person who pays money to see this shitty movie is doing it because they mistakenly thought it was going to entertain them with violence? I don't think it's a subversive act, I think it's an accident. They just made a movie against violence because it seemed like what you're supposed to do. Or maybe they are trying to draw a distinction between what they do as wrestling promoters/makers of boring watered down action movies, and what these characters do. Sure, we make money from muscleheads fighting each other, but what about these internet millionaires with their live internet snuff shows? THOSE are the guys you should be going after.
Whatever their reason, it makes for a horrible action movie. It's like if Meg Ryan made a romantic comedy where half of the movie was about some other group of characters talking solemnly about how monogamous love is an illusion. Meanwhile, Meg Ryan does briefly fall in love, but the camera keeps swinging around so much you're not sure who it was she fell in love with or how they met. The ladies who watch those movies would never put up with that shit, and we shouldn't put up with this. Just because it has musclemen, guns and one exploding helicopter doesn't make it "kick ass." Let's at least set the hurdle one inch above the ground. Jesus.
When those two I mentioned earlier got religion and started preaching to the evil millionaire that what they were doing was wrong I couldn't help but think of that corny overrated movie I saw recently, BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON. In that one a lady does a documentary about a serial killer and then when he starts killing people she gets upset, like she never saw this coming. It seems like she's supposed to be a reasonable and sympathetic character, and yet she has the common sense of an inbred crane fly. This is the same shit. When their boss says "You're either with us or against us" it's like he's Bush and the other two are the Democrats in Congress who voted for the war authorization in the first place, and only LATER realized that maybe he was gonna invade Iraq and fuck it up.
No shit, Sherlock. Maybe you should've been against murder BEFORE you decided to work on a TV show where real people really murder each other. Er, not TV show, but webisode or whatever. By the way, this is the first and hopefully last action movie in history to use the word "blog" five or six times. It's one of those movies where they keep talking about the internet as if it's a new and exciting frontier that the audience is just hearing about for the first time. So between the insinuations that the audience are sickos and the assumptions that they are so stupid they don't know what the internet is, you might feel a little bit insulted.
(By the way, if you're wondering what the studio thinks of you, the trailer for DELTA FARCE starring Larry the Cable Guy/Health Inspector is attached to THE CONDEMNED. Just for your info.)
To be fair, the anti-violence preaching does lead to the one big laugh in the movie. This is a SPOILER because if any of you poor suckers are still gonna go see this you better have something enjoyable in there. If so skip to the next paragraph. At the climax of the movie all of Austin's blue collar friends back home (as well as his love interest who he never shares a scene with) are somehow watching the streaming internet show on a TV in a sports bar. In one of the two or three pretty-cool shots in the movie, Austin falls down a bunch of rocks and everybody decides he's dead. Suddenly the internet cuts to the outraged journalist who interviewed the evil millionaire. She says that after the interview she was really mad, but in the next 24 hours, after seeing how many millions of people watched the show online she was no longer mad, she was sad. (At this point, they show many emotional closeups of Austin's buddies in the bar, feeling guilty for watching.) The whole speech is really, really funny but I didn't see the punchline coming where she says, "maybe it's really us who are... THE CONDEMNED." I recommend everyone applaud at this point in the movie if you see it. Good shit.
It is hard, but possible, to make a good action movie that preaches against violence. I like the BILLY JACK movies and plenty of other "I am a pacifist but sometimes you just gotta kick a motherfucker's ass" stories. But if it's gonna work you gotta be at least a little hypocritical. You gotta have some fun with the violence. The approach they should've taken, I think, is the Verhoeven approach. Instead of saying over and over again that this show is horrible, they should just make the show really fuckin horrible. Take a look at ROBOCOP or STARSHIP TROOPERS, you can see where he takes violence to an absurd level and that in itself makes the statement about the society where that violence is a normal part of life. It makes the point better and is more entertaining to watch.
Hell, maybe they should've taken a look at a little movie called BATTLE ROYALE, or one called THE RUNNING MAN, not sure if they've heard of those. Neither is a great movie but both get the point across and make the movie fun by taking the violence over-the-top.
If you want a more sublte approache there's Jet Li's FEARLESS. It's a movie all about Jet Li's character learning not to kill people, but it's in the context of competitive martial arts. So even after he learns his lesson they can still have great fight scenes.
And that reminds me of another wasted opportunity in the movie, another example of the incompetence in American action filmatism these days. There's a guy named Nathan Jones who fights against Jet Li in FEARLESS, against Tony Jaa in TOM YUM GOONG/THE PROTECTOR and now against Steven Austin in THE CONDEMNED. This guy is an Australian strongman who was briefly a WWE wrestler. He's a scary lookin muscleman, not a martial artist, but he got to fight Jet Li and Tony Jaa because he's 6'10", and it looks cool to see those guys fight against a behemoth motherfucker like that. Jones plays "The Russian" (I only got that from the credits). He shows up and fights Austin, but with the camera angles they chose you can't even tell he's giant at first. There is only one shot that shows him towering over Austin. He's 9 inches taller, so it looks cool. Then the camera shakes around for a minute until he falls off a cliff and blows up.
Maybe it was naive to believe in the dream of WWE Films. Maybe you have to be a starry eyed idealist to think that all the poetry and magic of some muscle dudes yelling and throwing each other could survive the transition to cinematic storytelling. But to me, SEE NO EVIL really did fulfill the ridiculous promise of these roid rage weirdos making a movie. That one is 100% moronic, poorly acted, sometimes poorly shot, and completely unoriginal in most of its content. But it makes a point of pushing the limits of taste and has some really funny and clever violence in it (you know, that stuff we should feel guilty for watching). It has what slasher movie fans used to call "creative kills," which is not true of THE CONDEMNED. I know Massawyrm said otherwise, but I got no idea which parts he could be talking about. I think at least 3 died from the bombs on their ankles, one guy got stabbed, two or three got shot - how is this interesting? SEE NO EVIL had a vegetarian thrown through a skylight who ended up hanging upside down, where a dog she was nice to earlier eats her face off. It also has a great play on the traditional slasher movie ending. You expect the killer to come back from the dead, instead the last thing you see is the dog peeing in the gouged eye socket of his corpse.
I guess Gregory Dark was the perfect director to get. He's a porn director, but a well known and distinctive one, and he did some pretty good music videos. You could argue that he has a vision, and at least a little bit of chops. Unlike THE MARINE and THE CONDEMNED, he appeared to be actually trying to make a movie, not just trying to do enough shots for a trailer with filler in between.
The guy who directed THE CONDEMNED, by the way, is Scott Wiper. I know, I never heard of him either, but I'm a thorough individual and one who strives for excellence, so I checked out one of his earlier directorial works to find out his background. A BETTER WAY TO DIE (2000) is nothing special, and has some of that embarrassing "everything I learned about writing tough guy dialogue I got from half-remembering RESERVOIR DOGS" feel. But it's much more enjoyable than THE CONDEMNED. Wiper himself stars as an ex-cop who gets mistaken for some other guy and has to fight a bunch of assassins and corrupt government agents. It has actual action sequences in it, where you can tell what's going on, and scenes that build momentum. A conversation turns into a shootout turns into a chase turns into an explosion. It also has a few clever action ideas. He escapes a bomb by climbing into the toilet in an outhouse. Also he throws Andre Braugher head first into a wall, then has to go into the other room to talk to his head. There's nothing half that good in this one. Maybe Wiper blew his load 7 years ago with the head through the wall scene, all he could think of now was punching and guns.
I saw that Massawyrm liked the movie. And some of the people at this preview screening seemed to like it. But it seems to me like alot of Stone Cold fans are gonna be real disappointed. Because once it's all over you think back and realize, jesus, for being the main character he sure wasn't in that movie very much. Alot of his lines are pretty funny, but how many does he even have? It would be fine if he just didn't talk much, if there were scenes of him traveling around the island and fighting and stuff, if it was a non-verbal role. But that's not the case. They just waste too much time on all the boring filler parts. If this movie had any intention of entertaining the audience they would be following him for most of the movie, it would be in his point of view. There's kind of a cool thing where the cameras on the island slide around on cables above, and cameramen sneak around disguised as bushes like on TO CATCH A PREDATOR. If they actually showed you the surreal experience of being stuck on this island from his perspective it could be pretty cool.
When Austin is on screen they do take advantage of his persona, but if he has any fighting talent they sure don't showcase that. When he's brawling the camera is busy frantically jerkin itself off, and then the three bad guys he takes out at the end are 1) done in by a gun close range 2) done in by another gun close range 3) blown up. It's like putting Fred Astaire in a movie where he doesn't dance. But without a burning building.
By the way, speaking of Stone Cold fans, the movie STONE COLD starring Brian Bosworth is finally coming to region 1 DVD in June. So at least this review has a happy ending.