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"THE CONDEMNED"
(2007) (Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action: With only one winner possible and facing a thirty-hour deadline, a number of death row inmates fight to the death to be crowned champion of a reality TV show set on a remote island and broadcast over the Internet.
PLOT:
Ian Breckel (ROBERT MAMMONE) is an exploitative TV producer who thinks he's come up with the ultimate idea for reality TV and making a lot of money from that. Picking ten death row convicts from third world prisons around the world, he proposes a fight to the death where the last person standing is set free. And to make the most money, he plans to broadcast the event on the Internet. With the aide of his staff including Bella (SAMANTHA HEALY), Eddie (CHRISTOPHER BAKER), Baxter (LUKE PEGLER) and Goldman (RICK HOFFMAN), all while his girlfriend Julie (VICTORIA MUSSETT) looks on, the show begins.

Set on Papua New Guinea, the ten inmates are unceremoniously dropped onto a remote island. Wearing explosive-laden ankle bracelets that can be detonated by pulling a tab on them, if any attempt is made to remove them, or at the end of the 30-hour competition, the prisoners know what's in store. Among them are spouses Paco (MANU BENNETT) and Rosa Pacheco (DAZI RUZ), drug dealer Kreston Mackie (MARCUS JOHNSON), and tough loner Yasantwa Adei (EMELIA BURNS). Also on the island is the humongous Petr "The Russian" Raudsep (NATHAN JONES) and the more diminutive yet lethal Go Saiga (MASA YAMAGUCHI), while ex-British forces agent Ewan McStarley (VINNIE JONES) seems the most dangerous of the bunch.

And then there's Jack Conrad (STEVE AUSTIN), an American previously imprisoned for killing several people in an explosion, but who's really a military operative who was left high and dry by his government, all as his single mom girlfriend back home, Sarah (MADELEINE WEST), wondered what happened to him. With the clock ticking and millions signing up to watch the mayhem, the various contestants do what they can and must to survive, all as some of Breckel's inner-circle begin to have doubts about the violent program.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
Ever since Richard Connell wrote "The Most Dangerous Game" long ago, filmmakers have often returned to the haunting story of man hunting man for sport, pleasure, or both. From the film of the same name in 1932 through "A Game of Death," "Savages," "Hard Target" and "Surviving The Game," the tale might get new characters, plots and various sorts of window dressing, but it's still basically the same whenever it returns to the big screen.

Now, it's Vince McMahon and his WWE crew who take a crack (and punch, kick and brutal blow) at the story idea with "The Condemned." Taking a cue (or two) from "The Running Man" (as well as the little seen parody "Series 7: The Contenders" from 2001), the story revolves around an Internet broadcast of a fight to the death contest between death row inmates recruited from third world prisons by an exploitative TV producer looking for his next big hit.

By now, you've probably realized we're not dealing any sort of novelty or high artistry (the last WWE produced film, "The Marine" with John Cena wasn't good even just as violent escapism). Even so, there's always the remote possibility that someone might be able to put some sort of interesting spin on the familiar and predictable material.

Alas, although certainly not unexpectedly, writer/director Scott Wiper and co-writer Rob Hedden are not the right people for that task. Trying to have their cinematic cake and eat it too, they serve up huge dollops of brutal violence, and then pepper that with various little bits of social commentary about how bad all of it really is. Perhaps with more tact, having the proprietor's girlfriend and the show's director experiencing a change of heart might have had more impact, but that and a reporter stating that maybe we (the audience) are really "the condemned" feels sanctimonious at best considering everything else that's present.

The bigger issue is that despite the preponderance of violence-based action, little if any of it's terribly exciting and certainly is never engaging. Shot by Shaky the Cameraman (a.k.a. Ross Emery) and over-edited by Captain ADD (Derek G. Brechin), the film's big fight sequences don't have a chance of working simply because it's often hard to tell what we're seeing. All of which is surprising considering that WWE bouts (from which this film borrows, including some double-teaming and similar style moves) can be seen in all of their full view glory without any sort of overzealous "help."

Since it's a one man left standing, fight to the death sort of affair, we know any such pairings are tenuous at best. Nevertheless, the filmmakers could have had more fun with such teamwork, leaving both the characters and viewers unaware of which allegiances were true and which were just convenient.

Occasional segues to an FBI agent trying to track down the webcast's location as well as that of one character's girlfriend don't do anything to help in building dramatic momentum. I always hate going back to past films for comparisons, but one only need look at "Predator" as an example of an action film that knows what it is and thus delivers the goods with extreme efficiency.

When that's the case and everything clicks, lack of anything resembling moderate characterizations isn't that big of a deal. Yet, when that clicking is absent along with any sort of engaging characters, the result is a rather boring experience of watching a film go through its paces.

WWE wrestler Steve "Stone Cold" Austin gets his first starring role (after supporting work in the remake of "The Longest Yard" and TV's "Nash Bridges"), but while he's physically sufficient for the part (hulking, no-nonsense stoicism, with a few straight-faced quips, etc.) he brings nothing to the character to make us care. That is, beyond the default of him having been wronged in the past, although he certainly doesn't have the charisma of Schwarzenegger or The Rock here to lure us into his world.

Of the rest of those embodying the competitors, only Vinnie Jones will likely be familiar to some viewers, but his familiar crazed hooligan act is starting to get a little stale. Robert Mammone clearly isn't anywhere in the same league as Richard Dawson in "Running Man" regarding the main, behind-the-scenes sleaze-ball. The rest don't amount to much beyond being "voted" off the island in various violent fashions (many via explosive ankle bracelets featuring convenient pull tables, all the better to off your opponents with ease).

By combining the oft-tapped "Dangerous Game" story and mixing that with the "Survivor" angle and liberal heapings of WWE mentality, the film feels too predictable, worn, and fake to be taken seriously as an action pic and/or any sort of social commentary. "The Condemned" rates as a 2.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 24, 2007 / Posted April 27, 2007


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