A group of ten convicts are taken from their death row cells to a remote island where they’re set against each other in a fight to the finish. The last person standing will regain their freedom (and some phat cash). The contest is the brainchild of entertainment pioneer Ian “Breck” Breckel (Robert Mammone), who hopes to make the webcast event “bigger than Live Aid meets ‘We Are the World.’” He’s aided by a typical crew of morally ambiguous geeks including his director Goldy (Rick Hoffman).
A co-production of Lion’s Gate Entertainment and WWE Films, THE CONDEMNED stars retired wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and former soccer player Vinnie Jones. Written and directed by Scott Wiper, the film plays like BATTLE ROYALE (2000) meets CON AIR (1997) by way of NO ESCAPE (1994). As Jack Riley, Steve Austin is the Nicolas Cage character from CON AIR. Riley is a Delta Force soldier who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and Sarah Cavanaugh (Madeleine West) is his long-suffering girlfriend back in the Texas, working with an intrepid F.B.I. agent. As agent Wilkins, Sullivan Stapleton is notable for being the most slovenly government employee ever—he’s unshaven and doesn’t seem to know how to tuck in his shirt. The Cavanaugh and Wilkins parts of the film feel like they’ve been shoehorned in to add emotional resonance and overbearing morality. That these characters aren’t seen until thirty-six minutes into the film adds to this tacked-on feeling.
Sarah and her coworkers watch Riley’s progress at the Blue Boots bar where she works. That Sarah continues to go to work while she’s worried about her boyfriend seems disingenuous. And that her coworkers scream and cheer for the action is particularly rude to Sarah. As soon as the webcast of “The Condemned” ends, the bar’s television sets cut to a reporter who rallies against Ian Breckel’s brand of exploitive entertainment and harshes everyone’s good time. What a downer, man. The Blue Boots bar crowd is probably meant to be a microcosm of society, showing how far reaching Breckel’s webcast can reach. However, it feels that—despite the millions of subscribers—only Wilkins and the Blue Boots patrons are watching. There isn’t even an obligatory evening news teaser segment (“Millions of people are logging in to see people dying off! Story at eleven.”)—in these kinds of films that always telegraphs what’s on the nation’s mind.
Back on the island, a few of the convicts form alliances with Riley showing his nice side by helping out a pair of lovebird murderers. On the other side of the coin, government mercenary Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones) teams up with Saiga (Masa Yamaguchi). They cut a swatch of rape and murder across the island, making some of Breck’s team squeamish (and increasing click-thru rates on www.the_condemned.com* astronomically). One has to hand it to Breckel; he’s got one heck of a server environment that can handle so many hits and live streaming video.
Too much of THE CONDEMNED is shown via too-slick cinematography (there’s always an extra zoom or pan at the end of each shot) rather than via the webcast conceit. If Wiper had wanted the audience to identify as a voyeur rather than an active participant, he would have presented more of the film through the “television” lens rather than the film lens. That said, the few snatches of webcast seen (usually via shots of monitors rather than direct feed) display a lack of production values. “The Condemned” webcast (and film) should have had a countdown clock and an up-to-the-moment death toll à la BATTLE ROYALE.
As to be expected, everyone but Riley and McStarley survive and the fight is taken to Breckel. With the resolution not being televised, I would be writing to Breck’s website for a refund. Austin makes a pretty good “speak softly and pack a wallop” protagonist and THE CONDEMNED proves entertaining, albeit scattered, though it’s nowhere near as subversive or disturbing as BATTLE ROYALE.
For more on "people hunting people" films, read "The Prize is Your Life."
*In THE CONDEMNED, the website for Breck’s site is www.the_condemned.com. This is a missed marketing opportunity and an invalid URL—underscores are illegal characters. A visit to www.the-condemned.com redirects to www.wwe.com. Meanwhile, www.watchthemdielive.com is the film’s website.