Combine “Survivor” with “The Most Dangerous Game” and you get this latest B-movie extravaganza from Lionsgate and Vince McMahon’s World Wresting Entertainment, yet another vehicle for yet another of the WWE’s star grunt-and-groan grapplers. The impassive hulk this time around is Steve Austin, known affectionately as “Stone Cold,” who plays Jack Conrad, one of ten death-row inmates unwillingly plucked from Third World prisons by greedy, amoral entrepreneur Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) to be transported to a remote island in the South Pacific. There they’ll be pitted against one another in mortal combat, and the last one standing will be given his freedom and a wad of cash. The murderous Battle Royale will be photographed by a battery of fixed cameras (as well as some heavily camouflaged cameraman) and broadcast over the web at $49.99 per “subscriber.” And as an incentive to participants to get at one another, if at the end of thirty hours the number of combatants hasn’t been reduced to one, the remainder will be blown up via explosive devices locked to their ankles.
What “The Condemned” amounts to is nearly two hours of fights, chases, brutality and death, punctuated by scenes of the program producers, ensconced in their production facilities at the other end of the island, keeping watch over the mayhem, counting the increase in subscriptions, and occasionally debating the morality of what they’re up to, a few scenes of FBI personnel (with whom, it turns out, Conrad—real name Riley—was once associated) searching for the source of the appalling broadcast, and reaction shots of Conrad/Riley’s bar buddies and his erstwhile girlfriend, single mom Sarah (Madeleine West), watching in horror as he struggles to survive against his most vicious opponents, sadistic Brit McStarley (Vinnie Jones) and the Japanese martial-arts expert Saiga (Masa Yamaguchi), who’ve joined forces against the other competitors. The ending, of course, is never in doubt, though there are some minor surprises along the way in terms of the order in which the others get offed.
The result is no better than the kind of low-budget action potboilers that studios like Cannon used to churn out in the 1980s with he-men like Michael Dudikoff (“American Ninja”), Arnold Schwartzenegger (“Commando”) and Dolph Lundgren. In several ways it’s even worse. Those guys at least had some personality to them. Austin doesn’t; to use the nickname of one of his fellow ring idols, he’s like a beefy rock, unable to do much more than stare menacingly into the camera and deliver dismissive monosyllabic insults and adolescent threats at his foes. And the others in the cast aren’t any better. Jones goes the histrionic over-the-top route, and winds up seeming simply ridiculous. Mammone is your standard-issue yuppie villain. And Rick Hoffman—who’s making a career out of playing sleazy klutzes (“Cellular,” “Hostel”)—doesn’t get many laughs as the black-comedy relief figure of Breckel’s program director.
Still, one might get a charge out of the physical action (especially by somebody as agile as Yamaguchi)—performed without CGI trickery, we’re informed—if the sequences weren’t photographed in such jerky, blurred style by Ross Emery, who also chooses a bleak, washed-out color palette that makes everything look dreary and gray. (The only good thing you can say about them is that they eschew the graphic gore and bloodletting that might have dominated. There’s lots of bone-crushing, but not much blood-spurting, and less in-your-face ugliness than one might expect, with most of the most disreputable moments like rape and torture shown at some distance, and usually in shadow.) But the combination of drab settings and equally drab action in front of them makes for a pretty dull experience.
But the worst moment in “The Condemned” comes toward the close, when, in an interview with Breckel, a piously pontificating interviewer castigates both providers of programming who offer luridly violent material and the consumers who feed on it. Given the source of the movie and the target audience, you might think the segment is intended as self-satire, but apparently we’re supposed to take it seriously. This is a near-lunatic combination of a movie that’s basically wall-to-wall violence—not especially well-executed, at that—with a warning about the horrible effects of violent entertainment.