Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Condemned

Involuntary Fight Club

At first glance, the storyline looks like a distant cousin to the Japanese movie Battle Royale. Instead of having sent unruly students to an island and see them finish off one another, The Condemned follows the same lines of having 10 death row prisoners from around the world being brought to an island, and given a simple rule to kill everyone else in order to earn their survival, and freedom. They are similarly rigged with an explosive device which if tampered, or if they choose not to participate, they too will be blown to bits.

But there's where the similarity stops. There's no PA system to tell the scattered involuntary participants just how many survivors there are (thus leading to a loophole), and there are multiple camera rigs installed on the island, for the purpose of entertainment. The Condemned plays on some of our intrinsic nature of wanting to watch gladiatorial styled violence, and given that such content will probably never get on the TV networks, the fairly sci-fi turned reality TV over IP concept gets its airtime here. What networks refuse to screen and produce, you can, given the right equipment and personnel, and plenty of computing power.

Pay-per-view IPTV using credit cards is the road to riches for the game producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone), who champions the thought of producing content that audiences around the world want to watch. His argument was that these handpicked participants are going to die anyway, and here, he's giving one of them the chance to live, a noble gesture to him. The Condemned mocks today's reality TV format, in that sometimes, the game can be manipulated to satisfy the producers' objectives, and we see that in abundance here.

Violence it seems is high on the agenda here - how much can an audience stomach, especially if say hypothetically, Big Brother type of series allow violence to be met out live, unedited and raw. Or are you going to play to those who pay, and give in to the demand? There's a constant argument being played out early in the movie about dignity and decency, but that gets forgotten fairly easily in a film like this one, falling victim to its own preachy statements.

Especially so when Sports Entertainment companies like WWE are involved in this one. WWE had its fair share of stars lending their "acting talent" to Hollywood, and I can go as far back as the late Andre the Giant lending his physical presence in The Princess Bride. Then you have Hulk Hogan in various forgettable flicks, The Rock in some charismatic roles (though some are as cheesy as that in Be Cool), and Kane in the horrid See No Evil. Here, Stone Cold Steve Austin plays the lead role of Jack Conrad, an inmate with an unspecified past, who becomes someone more than anyone had bargained for.

But the star unfortunately is not Austin, as much as he plays the anti-hero. Vinny Jones, as British prisoner Ewan McStarley, clearly stole his thunder, and injected more personality into his maniacal character. While the format of the game had the prisoners from different parts of the world to allow everyone a chance to root for their home players, it was at times ironic that USA had to battle UK so prominently in the movie, and that the "with me or against me" line just brings to mind the many scenarios as played out ever so often. It's ra-ra for the USA in an in-your-face fashion, with eye-for-an-eye violence dished out for avenging the weak and wounded, and the showing of compassion to those who needs it.

The make up of the team of players too is interesting on purpose, with female players up against male ones (and what happens is such an easy guess), and Survivor styled formation of alliances, outwitting, outlasting, outplaying all being key to survival, but the story, with so many characters, dictate that you cannot go beyond what is superficially shown. Of course the leads got a little more background to show for, but you find that these happen to be just cosmetics, unnecessarily inflating the screening duration.

The Condemned tried to be a little deep, but ended up tossing its attempts aside to settle for an all out action movie towards the end, and what I thought was bordering on the ridiculous at Austin's ability. For action junkies, the sequences here might be a little repetitive with its usual big explosions, and the extreme closeups of violence using the shaky handheld camera technique just irritates. If the premise still excites you after all the mentioned flaws, then The Condemned managed to appeal to you with its in-movie concept - I think you'll pay US$49.95 should there be a channel like this on the internet.

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