Starring Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, and Robert Mammone. Rated 18A.
In most action movies, Steve Austin would be the bad guy's silent, vicious enforcer. Bald, scarred, and jug-eared, Austin is a thickly muscled gargoyle whose signature expression, honed over 15 years of professional wrestling, is a hostile glower that would send most pretty-boy heroes running for their Midol. He might not get much casting consideration for the next Drew Barrymore rom-com, but when it comes to portraying a stone-cold antihero, Austin's the man.
In The Condemned, Austin's character is one of 10 convicted murderers purchased or otherwise sprung from death rows of various Third World jails and brought to a mysterious island in the South Pacific. A ruthless TV producer (Robert Mammone, an intense Australian actor with an eerie resemblance to CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos) has honed the premise of Survivor to its sadistic essence: winner takes all, including the lives of the other contestants.
There is no law on the island; no escape or reprieve; no way of safely removing the devices that track them and that will detonate in 30 hours if they refuse to fight. There is only the instinct to live, the opportunity to create mayhem, and the presence of cameras–lots and lots of cameras, to broadcast the event live to subscribers over the Internet.
Originality isn't much of an issue here. Director-cowriter Scott Wiper is going down a path that many have travelled before: men have hunted men for sport from "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924 short story) to Battle Royale (1999 manga) to Manhunt (2003 video game). The only question is whether or not it's any good.
The Condemned certainly goes full-tilt on action scenes. When you've got opponents who can overwhelm with size (Nathan Jones), acrobatics (Masa Yamaguchi), or sheer obnoxiousness (Vinnie Jones), the possibility is there for a modern gladiatorial classic like Jean-Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport. The thing is, Wiper is not trying to make this a fun experience. The Condemned is pitch-black satire that quickly descends into Lord of the Flies–like psychological and physical brutality.
Indeed, the movie is almost too good. There is no camp in Austin's performance, only a palpable and growing sense of weariness and disgust. Some of his opponents try to defy the unfair scenario, but the more successful contestants actually revel in the carnage, leading to rape and torture scenes of appalling realism. The floor director finds the product to be so hideously cruel as to be unwatchable. I'm tempted to agree.