"The Condemned" is the third movie solely produced by WWE Films, the movie production arm of World Wrestling Entertainment that was formed, according to their Web site, to "promote our Superstars and capitalize on our intellectual property."
Stop laughing - even large, bellowing men in tights can be trademarked. The movie bears all the hallmarks of that pedigree, with enough grappling, punching and outright smackdowns to keep wrestling fans happy.
While no one expected an E.M. Forster adaptation or a drama about the life of Jane Austen, WWE Films is aiming low, even for a company like WWE Films. Their first release, "See No Evil," was a dopey, ultra-sadistic slasher film about a giant brute (pro wrestler Glen Jacobs, aka "Kane") who enjoys gouging out people's eyes and killing them to win the approval of his crazy mom. The second, "The Marine," was a pure and simple revenge tale, with the emphasis on simple, that starred wrestler John Cena and a lot of explosions occurring near wrestler John Cena.
The third, "The Condemned," is mostly about muscle-bound people trying to kill each other, preferably with a minimum of chitchat. It's hard to say which of WWE's movie storylines are more (or less) complicated, and it's hard to imagine anyone setting the bar lower, although someone (probably WWE Films) is bound to try.
The plot of "The Condemned" is this: Ten people who have been sentenced to death are sprung from jails around the world and dropped on a remote island, where they're told to fight to the death. The last one standing will be granted his or her freedom. Cameras planted throughout the island record all the carnage so that, for a $49.99 subscription fee, online viewers can lay off the porn for a while and watch these poor slobs kill each other. A slimy producer (Robert Mammone) sits in a control booth tucked into a bunker nearby, gushing over how many hits the Web site is getting.
One of the "condemned" is Jack (pro wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin), a Special Forces soldier who was abandoned by the U.S. government during a top-secret operation and left to die in a Central American jail. A subplot involves an FBI agent pleading with stonewalling government officials to intervene and help Jack. They refuse, and this is probably to counter the logic-minded viewer in the audience who says "Why doesn't someone just send in the military and end the whole thing?" Also, no one can quite figure out where the broadcast signal is coming from (which seems unlikely), so no help will arrive. Take that, logic.
Left to fend for themselves, the convicts can then start finding ways to kill each other, meaning there's lots of fighting and different, sometimes graphic ways for characters to die.
"These people are condemned," the slimy producer says, arguing he's simply speeding up the judicial process by sending these convicts to their graves. But once we're two or three dead bodies in, the movie begins to affect a conscience. The producer's girlfriend, who has been standing around the whole time with a furrowed brow, finally tells him he's gone too far and exclaims "These people are human beings!" The show's director agrees. It only takes millions of dollars in pre-production and a couple of deaths to make these TV folks realize that the moral, ethical and legal ramifications of a snuff show are problematic.
After titillating action fans with on-screen beatings, knifings and bone-breakings, the movie suddenly implicates the audience as part of the sick, voyeuristic culture of the modern age. The movie's ads read "10 people will fight. Nine will die. You get to watch," luring people in with the promise of something lurid but leaving them instead with a lecture about the dubious value of human suffering as entertainment.
Of course, it's downright perverse for the filmmakers to scold audiences for liking exploitation movies. The great film critic Pauline Kael once asked "Is there anything more boring than a clean-minded pornographer?" in a scathing review of "A Clockwork Orange." By extension, one might ask if there's anything more boring, or hypocritical, than exploitation filmmakers who denounce the ideas behind the very product they're selling? If you're going to peddle trash, you shouldn't make people feel bad about buying it.
This makes "The Condemned" a movie you hate yourself for watching and a movie that reminds you that you should hate yourself for watching. If you know anyone who has too much self-esteem, take him or her to see "The Condemned." Once the movie starts, excuse yourself, go to the restroom and then simply leave the theater. The movie may not serve as entertainment, but maybe it can serve as a sort of equalizer.
Rated R for graphic violence that you should be ashamed of yourself for watching.
*** out of four stars. Painful.
The rating system:
* - Lousy ** - Horrible *** - Painful **** - Traumatic