Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Condemned / zero stars (2007)

Ten convicts. One game. Nine must die. The victor walks free. This isn’t an inherently flawed plot description if viewed through the lens of a well-intentioned eye, but the offense that is “The Condemned” exploits it for nothing more than lurid, gut-crushing violence – and in the process becomes one of the most deplorable moviegoing experiences of my life. The very idea of describing these scenes fills me with a dread I rarely recognize – you know, the sort that comes rising from the pit of your stomach when you’re in the throes of danger, or about to witness something causing agony or pain to another? If that’s just a taste of what is possible, then imagine what the poor suckers involved in the movie were thinking. Did they connect with this idea in any substantial way beyond their monetary greed? Was it sold to them as a sincere attempt at understanding our perverse voyeurism? Or were they all part of an elaborate joke being played on the victims known as the audience? I mourned their innocence just as much as they must have wept over the decimation of their careers. Towards the end, a single character stares angrily in the direction of the source of chaos, and he asks scornfully, “are you really trying to save them?” “No,” she retorts, “I was trying to save you.” How strangely comical it must have been for anyone to utter those words in the same room as a director and writer who ought to have seen them as self-reflective.

This is an action picture – if we must describe it as one – that embodies all that is wrong and corrupt with modern action movies. It fetishizes its own cynicism. It shamelessly gets off on mayhem while attempting to frame it in a pseudo-political context. In some time and space, others would have referred to it as a snuff film, which is ironic: as we are given minute-by-minute updates on viewership numbers by a video programmer on screen, it dawns on us just how much of that would translate to truth if replicated in a tangible reality. We live in a time, after all, where people feast on the rotting flesh of the dead, and vile intentions are routinely on full view in viral internet videos. What occurs in “The Condemned” seems, I must concede, almost subconsciously prophetic. But those are incidental insights that we attach only as anecdotes. Nothing occurring on screen is that far-sighted. What it is good at, at least, is highlighting the need of millions of people to watch on while ten men and women previously sentenced to death must slaughter one another until only one is left standing. In that regard, it may be accurate. It just gets everything else wrong – and quite elaborately, too.

The most painful of these issues is the lead character played by Robert Mammone, a wealthy television investor who has abandoned his life with broadcast media and plunged head-first into the ice-cold possibilities of Internet streaming. His plan: if he can set up and document the results of a killing spree by ten of the most nefarious death row criminals in the world, he can acquire the sort of subscription numbers that would blow major networks out of the water. Ok, here is an idea worth formulating for the sake of a compelling essay; on screen, the result is a shoddy and inept geek show with nothing underneath, be it for discussion or escapist entertainment. Moreover, the producer is such a smarmy and loathsome individual that he slips beyond plausible and becomes a destructive cartoon. In the same scene where he berates his girlfriend for being uncomfortable with the idea of watching others get murdered, he also chastises her cruelly in front of others, slaps her across the face, guilts his editor/best friend into stifling any part of his emotional conscience, and even plots an escape while secretly planning for everyone else to fall to slaughter. Of course, this is all facilitated by one of the inmates going ballistic and veering off script, thus putting everyone behind the scenes in mortal danger, but who cares? There is no soul in any of the material, and the supporting players are just magnets for bullet wounds.

The star of the film is wrestler Steve Austin, who plays a mysterious inmate named Conrad, plucked from the depths of a central American prison, who is serving time for a crime that belies his true identity: that of a covert military agent who has been working in obscurity. That reality is not yet known to the executives, but obvious to the audience very early on: while foreboding and fearless in all facets, there is a conscience lurking behind that gruff exterior that contradicts the stigma of his sentence. Actually, that proves to be true with several of the producer’s acquisitions – including a murderous couple from South America, who seem more like distraught Bonnie and Clyde types who have been worn down from a life in inhumane servitude. This only goes to undercut the broader motive of the material, which is to celebrate the ensuing massacre. That might be ok if everyone involved was, truthfully, guilty of loathsome crimes. But the director, Scott Wiper, is never able to convince us of the evil of his eventual casualties, save for the madman McStarley (Vinnie Jones), who plays up the gratuity as if merely showboating for screen time. What he does to the husband and wife, however, is worth no psychological merit: after brutally raping and slaying the woman while she screams relentlessly into a distant camera, the husband is found later, crying and injured, and them impaled on a bridge before being burned alive. The more sincere horror films will usually go to such lengths as a way of reaching insight with something honest; Wiper plays like he is getting off on the terror rather than trying to say something substantial about it.

The movie is a long, painful lapse in basic principle. The characters are broadly drawn and empty, distinguished mostly by physique or ethnicity rather than name or personality. The villain, so over-the-top and self-important, speaks to his captives as if harboring racist undercurrents in his motives (does the movie, therefore, project his hatred or support it?). Then, just as the narrative forks in order to provide a subplot for the Conrad character, a greater offense is viewed: an audience of onlookers at a bar in the States watching a deathly exchange between McStarley and Conrad while cheering on in support for the inevitable. However honest this may be viewed by some in the audience, it’s a display that highlights the ugliness of the screenplay’s intentions. It cares nothing of subtext. There are no profound discussion points, no worthy perspectives to shoehorn anything into. Like the most nihilistic of some recent genre vehicles drunk on the blood of their victims, “The Condemned” invents its morality from some alien dimension that only serves to inspire our resentment.

I despised this movie. Every single moment, every line of dialogue, is a moment made to specifically aggravate me to the point of exhaustion. After it was finally over, I walked outside into the sunlight and sat there, perplexed, at how so many people could associate themselves with it. Perhaps they believed in the potential of the premise, however futile their attempts might have been to marry performance to meaning. Not a single person on screen is phoning in performance, yet they pitch them as if shooting into a vacuum. For the sake of contrast, one wonders what they might have come up with if they had waited a few years, well after “The Hunger Games” series – also about people slaughtering one another for survival – had provided them with a more tangible groundwork to use. The difference between both, needless to say, is almost too glaring to even bother with a comparison. “The Hunger Game” was an Orwellian warning against a political paradigm. “The Condemned” submits to it like a bloody casualty uninterested in the reasoning.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Crime/Thriller (US); 2007; Rated R; Running Time: 113 Minutes

Steve Austin: Conrad
Vinnie Jones: McStarley
Nathan Jones: Petr
Robert Mammone: Breckel
Tory Musset: Julie
Manu Bennett: Paco

Produced by
Jed Blaugrund, Peter Block, John Bonneau, Jason Constantine, Michael Gruber, Mara Jacobs, Michael Lake, Richard Lowell, Graham Ludlow, Vince McMahon, Julian Parry, John Sacchi, Joel Simon, Goerge Vrabeck and Matt WaldenDirected by Scott Wiper; Written by Rob Hedden and Scott Wiper

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