Condemned, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Condemned is the latest action film from director Scott Wiper. It is also a noun describing those poor viewers who end up stuck in a theater showing this film. In principle, I'm all for balls-to-the-wall action films that serve up a fifth of graphic violence with an adrenaline chaser. There's an audience for them and they fill a niche. If well crafted, they can also be a lot of fun. "Well crafted," however, is not an accurate descriptor for The Condemned. Nor are "well written," "well acted," or (perhaps surprisingly) "well paced." In fact, while one might reasonably expect the script to be half-baked and the performances slathered in cheese, the thing that kills The Condemned is that there are stretches when it becomes tedious and insufferably self important. There's even a late scene in which the movie turns preachy.

Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) is an evil Internet genius. He has a can't-miss concept - strand ten death row inmates on an island, have them battle it out gladiator-style, and give the last man standing his walking papers. All of the action will be broadcast live on the Internet. For $50 a pop, anyone can have access to a reality show snuff film. The FBI doesn't like the idea but they can't stop it because they don't know where the island is. Some of Breckel's cohorts have attacks of conscience, but the lure of getting a share of the two billion dollar pot is too tempting too ignore.

Most of the killers are stock personalities and aren't supposed to be anything more. The exceptions are Jack Conrad (Steve Austin), a heroic ex-Special Services op, and Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones), a sadist who might even play the game if he didn't have to. Ultimately, when the other cookie-cutter characters have been eliminated in predictable fashion, it's these two against each other. The only thing preventing us from enjoying their climactic one-on-one conflict is the camera, which suffers an epileptic seizure any time there's an action sequence.

The Condemned is a porn film with the violence standing in for sex. There are two big problems, however - too much yakking in between fight scenes and a filmmaker who believes the best way to film action is to make it unwatchable. Nearly every violent conflict is lensed with a handheld camera that whips and pans back and forth. We see that people are pummeling each other and every once in a while we get a sense of who's who but, for the most part, we have to wait for the fight to end to figure out what happened. The editing exacerbates the problem by cutting every second or so.

Director Wiper isn't satisfied with making an exploitation film. To that end, he incorporates Drama and a Moral. So we find out that our man Jack has been hung out to dry by the U.S. military and he has a petty girlfriend waiting for him back on the farm. (She watches the contest in a bar where she smiles hopefully when he offs a bad guy, then tears up every tune he appears to have been killed.) Meanwhile, The Condemned comes armed with a Message: consumers love violence. People like the odious Breckel wouldn't be able to get filthy rich if viewers didn't flock to stuff like this in droves. The well has run dry on this theme. Years ago, it might have been considered thought-provoking; today, it's trite. Its inclusion, however, makes the film feel self-important, as if it's too good just to show a bunch of fight scenes. It also kills the pace, dragging out things to an unacceptable length.

I won't comment on the acting except to say that Stone Cold Steve Austin has screen presence. There's no doubt that he, like the Rock, has action hero potential - he just has to find a better vehicle. Based on the evidence in The Condemned, it's impossible to say whether or not he can deliver dialogue. Aside from the occasional one-liner, his character doesn't have much to say. He's the strong, silent type. The rest of the cast should be given some degree of credit for struggling with some of the lamest dialogue this side of a porn film.

It's tempting to argue that a re-edited version of The Condemned, featuring the removal of the tedious and time-wasting subplots (the bickering of Breckel's underlings, the love story, and the lame FBI hand-wringing), might make for mindless, testosterone-fueled entertainment, but there's still the problem of the camerawork. And that raises a key question: can an action movie be said to deliver if the fight scenes are so badly photographed that you can't follow them? From my perspective, the answer is a resounding "no" and that means there's no conceivable reason to see this movie even if you are a die-hard Six Million Dollar Man fan.

Condemned, The (United States, 2007)

Director: Scott Wiper
Cast: Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, Robert Mammone, Rick Hoffman, Tory Mussett, Masa Yamaguchi
Screenplay: Scott Wiper and Rob Hedden
Cinematography: Ross Emery
Music: Graeme Revell
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2007-04-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1