Austin's Powers

"10 People will fight. Nine people will die. You get to watch." So proclaims the poster for The Condemned, a movie executive-produced by World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon and starring self-professed "whup-ass machine" Stone Cold Steve Austin and rowdy former soccer star Vinnie Jones.

So can someone explain where this movie gets off lecturing its audience about how awful they are for enjoying violence in entertainment? As Stone Cold himself might say: "What?" McMahon's no dummy—he has to know the movie's main villain, a greedy entertainment promoter named Breckel (Robert Mammone), sounds familiar when he defends his product by saying it isn't marketed to children, or that he's just giving the public what they want. In the movie, we're supposed to find such sentiments hollow, but in real life, Vince has used the very same arguments while expecting to be taken seriously. You don't have to agree that onscreen violence is inherently bad to be offended by the hypocrisy.

One of WWE's real-life defenses is they never feature murder in their story lines, which is technically true, although they have featured "attempted vehicular homicide," necrophilia, immersion in liquid concrete, "buried alive" matches, heart attacks during sex, grave desecration and wrestler Al Snow secretly being fed the cooked remains of his kidnapped pet chihuahua. But no actual killing, save the accidental death of Owen Hart a few years ago. So that's the key distinction here—Breckel has gathered 10 death-row inmates from around the world to kill one another on an island that has been rigged with cameras. Just like in Battle Royale, all contestants are rigged with explosives that will detonate if they don't participate; and after 30 hours, only one must be left alive.

Lost in all the movie's moralizing about the dangers of violent entertainment is any commentary on the morality of the death penalty itself—the implication here is that it's strictly a third-world problem. Every contestant seems to be from a foreign country's prison, with no mention of China or the U.S., the biggest practitioners of capital punishment. When Brecken says that at least his way, one of the 10 will get to live, he has a point, though his villainy in other areas negates any sense of sincerity.

Meanwhile, before the movie gets on its high horse, we do get to watch several cool battles involving the likes of Texan redneck Jack Conrad (Austin), ex-SAS sadist McStarley (Jones), crazed martial artist Saiga (Masa Yamaguchi), and a 7-foot Soviet (Nathan Jones, who briefly had his own WWE stint before realizing that big-screen henchman roles were more lucrative and less punishing). Unlike The Rock, who did his trademark eyebrow-raise in The Scorpion King, or Kane, who utilized the choke slam in See No Evil, Austin doesn't wink at his audience with any signature mannerisms. Granted, the Stone Cold Stunner wouldn't be the most effective jungle-combat move, but it's a shame he doesn't get to at least flip the bird one time (although, free from basic cable's language restrictions, he's plenty good at verbalizing the gesture's equivalent). Instead, just to throw us off, he uses Bill Goldberg's "spear" and Roddy Piper's sleeper hold.

Audiences are cued to cheer for the Mortal Kombat-style fatalities that ensue, much as the corrupt promoters cheer and cue inappropriate rock music, but the turning point seems to come when McStarley and Saiga start to excessively enjoy kicking the crap out of a woman. Again, though, McMahon has no room to preach here—anyone else remember the Dudley Boyz slamming 80-year-old Mae Young through a wooden table to the cheers of an adoring fan base?

Austin as an actor is fine, but it feels at times like he's being held back from showing his true capability. Only in the second half of the film, when he finally loses his temper and gets down to the business of revenge, does Stone Cold truly heat up the screen. For the rest of it, villainous Jones gets all the best scenes—ironically, Austin was originally up for that role, and one wonders how much more he could have shown us, given his standout turn as a racist prison guard in The Longest Yard.

And then there are some really strange detours: cut-aways to FBI headquarters in Washington or Conrad's old girlfriend, who lives on a farm. The acting in these tangent scenes is atrocious, and their contributions to the story are relatively minor, though they factor in to the faux morality when the movie takes its preachy turn at the end.

Flaws and all, though, this is still the most entertaining release from WWE films to date, and that's mainly due to Austin, Jones and Hostel's Rick Hoffman, doing that fast-talking shtick of his as a controller with a crisis of conscience. If you feel bad for enjoying it, it shouldn't be because of the violence; rather it should be because director Scott Wiper felt the need to spoil his escapist thrills with phony pontifications.



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