If you’re going to promise audiences a death match, pony up a real budget instead of padding your plot to make us feel guilty for watching it.
On a remote island in the Pacific, a live, pay-per-view event is about to debut on the Internet. 10 death row inmates will battle until one remains. Among them is Ewan McStarley (X-men 3‘s Vinnie Jones), Jack Conrad (WWE’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin), and a score of others chosen for ethnic diversity and to maximize the online audience. Of course, whoever decided to put the studio actually on the same island where the battle is going on wasn’t the brightest producer in Hollywood…
Full disclosure: the studio bought me the ticket to review this film, so here it comes. First off, every piss-and-vinegar stand-up comic has suggested the “overcrowded prison population” solution of making felons fight it out amongst themselves on pay-per-view, a sort of trial-by-combat, last-man-standing event. Even Stephen King hit on the idea, which was the basis for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man. With reality television already competing, grossing-out, and hooking up, isn’t a live-action death match the next logical step, a live pay-per-view snuff film?
While The Running Man was pure entertainment (a departure from the seriousness King novel) with Richard Dawson as the incomparable host of ceremonies, The Condemned starts off with and maintains a tone of seriousness that walks the line between dramatic and preachy throughout the film. Instead of the promised death match of 10 condemned warriors fighting for their freedom. Toward the end of the second act, the script even dares to suggest that anyone sick enough to pay to see this kind of spectacle are among “the condemned” themselves, but it is precisely the moments that follow that drive the point home and give paying audiences the senseless violence they came in to see to being with, but just a little and a little too late.
The beginning of the film appears to waste time introducing us to the technicians putting on the show, drawing out the appearance of the warriors we’ve come to see. In actuality, the tech crew is the in-film audience, the people we relate to, and when things inevitably turn sour, we’re right there with them. Sure, the entire setup is contrived and you can see it coming from a mile away. While a very good point is made about everything, it’s a great way to save a little on the budget that film is severely lacking the punch it promised.
Vinny Jones, unleashed from Bret Ratner’s muted directorial style, steps up to be a villain in the best (meaning worst) possible sense, giving our hero, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a reason to legitimately start busting heads. But the battle isn’t the story, and audiences showing up to see a high-tech, 21st century Running Man are going to be disappointed. Steve Austin fans will also notice how absent the guy actually is in the film, especially considering he’s pretty much the good guy. Note to Hollywood: screen heroes need more action and less exposition for it to be heroic, and that means more money. Remember Die Hard?
(a one and a half skull recommendation out of four)