The Condemned
Reality TV Makes for New Fiction

The Condemned is the effort of WWE chairman Vince McMahon and WWE films producer Joel Simon to turn wrestling megastar Stone Cold Steve Austin into movie star Steve Austin. Austin has previously been effective in small roles in the remake of The Longest Yard and on television’s Nash Bridges. Here, Austin gets his first starring role as a death row inmate purchased by a reality television producer for his latest project.

The project involves the internet broadcast of a to-the-death melee. Producer Breckel has taken ten death row inmates from all over the world and thrown them together on a deserted, camera-filled island and told them that the last one standing after thirty hours will be set free with a wad of cash in hand. Strapped to the ankle of each inmate is a bomb that is set to go off in thirty hours, when the red pull tab is removed, or whenever it is tampered with. Meanwhile, the rest of the world needs only a credit card to watch the bloodbath on their personal computers.

Emelia Burns as Yasantwa in The Condemned

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it was already brought to the screen in Battle Royale, the Japanese film based on the novel of the same name. In that film, the stranded group is a class of ninth graders; friends are given weapons and told they must kill each other in order to survive. It isn’t reality programming, but a government project designed to punish the increasingly disobedient younger generation.

Changing it to a reality television program—broadcast over the internet because none of the networks would pick it up—allows director Scott Wiper to turn The Condemned into a condemnation of our modern voyeuristic society. After all, this is the same society that has watched the hanging of Saddam Hussein on Google Video more than 16 million times and counting. It’s a good argument to make, and Wiper makes it effectively, even before a scene in which he hammers it home a bit too bluntly.

Ironically, while this movie attempts to condemn our natural fascination with violence, it also relies upon it for its success. Minor political statements aside, it is an action movie that moves from one violent encounter to the other as the inmates fight for their survival. Unfortunately, though the film centers around its action scenes, they are only mediocre at best. The camera is so shaky that it’s nearly impossible to determine who just hit whom where, and there are no real “wow” moments.

The film also suffers from a lack of character development, a plague of many modern action films. Unlike Battle Royale, which develops its characters through Lost-like flashbacks, The Condemned attempts to give us character backgrounds in one brief exposition scene. The lone exception, of course, is Jack Conrad, the Steve Austin character. Unfortunately his back-story—as a member of the U.S. Special Forces with whom all ties were cut when he was captured—is an action movie cliché we’ve seen all too often.

We also learn that Jack had a woman back home, and the film leaves the island long enough to introduce us to her, as well as to an FBI agent intent on finding this island and putting an end to the illegal internet broadcast. At first, I was intrigued by the subplot of the FBI agent’s investigation, but unfortunately it turns out both he and the woman were only introduced in order to provide us with some audience reactions; they do little more than watch the program on their own computers.

So, the question remains: can The Condemned create a movie star out of Steve Austin? Not likely on its own, but it is a step in the right direction. Austin certainly has the physical presence to be an action star, but the film doesn’t give him much of an opportunity to demonstrate his personality. He could certainly succeed in roles that might have previously gone to guys like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but in order to reach Schwarzenegger status, he’ll need to expand his talents. Perhaps Austin should follow the career path of another pro wrestler turned actor, The Rock, who followed up the dull, action-heavy The Scorpion King with the exciting, adventure comedy romp The Rundown.

As for the entertainment value of The Condemned, action junkies and Austin fans will likely find enjoyment, but for the majority, it’s probably best to wait for Austin’s Rundown.

The Condemned is rated R for “pervasive strong brutal violence, and for language.” There’s not really anything I could add to that, although I must admit the violence wasn’t nearly as graphic as I expected.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Condemned.