The Condemned takes place on a deserted island where a cheesy Web program/producer has planted remote-controlled surveillance cameras to transmit a live feed of 10 death row prisoners killing one another after being put on the island with mini-bombs attached to their ankles. The conceit of the "reality" show is that whoever of the prisoners survives 30 hours on the island will be awarded freedom and a pile of money. Camp humor invigorates early scenes before the film begins taking itself too seriously with the debatable moral that "we who watch are the condemned."
"Ten people will fight, nine people will die," is the stolid tagline that announces the aspirations of a movie tailor-made for wrestling fans familiar with the likes of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Austin plays Joe Conrad, an American prisoner "purchased" from a Central American prison along with his handpicked rivals. It's a pity that the filmmakers didn't play against type in choosing their protagonist, given the effort they put into creating 10 surly terrorists. Of the nine other murderous captives, there's a Brit (Vinnie Jones, Snatch), a Mexican husband-and-wife duo, a badboy from Japan, a murderess from Ghana, a drug-dealer from California, a German rapist, an Italian militant and a Russian ravager. Conrad was sentenced to death in El Salvador for blowing up a building that killed three men, but his thick neck and instinct for mayhem conceal the fact that he's a family man who wants only to return to his wife and kids back in Texas. The unintended inside joke seems to be that Texas is the new cinematic cradle for trashy B-movies, given that Rodriguez and Tarantino's Grindhouse was also made there.
The crux of the satire lies in the set-up. When production manager Goldman (Rick Hoffman) tells his demented boss Breckel (Robert Mammone) that, "Television is more complicated than war," we get a sense of the film's priorities. One of the doomed warriors is referred to as an Islamic fundamentalist, "as if anyone in the audience will know what that means." The self-directed humor works here, and it gets pushed to the hilt in the film's money line, "She's a killer and she's a whore," used to incite a bruiser to violence. The ridiculous non sequitur gloriously deflates the scorn behind the idea of a "whore," and brings into question the logic of the prejudice.
For his part, the ever-watchable Rick Hoffman (Hostel) runs away with the movie with his trademark twitchy gestures and snide delivery of dialogue. Goldman becomes a moral barometer for the audience as the snuff-movie-within-a-movie attracts tens of millions of viewers at 50 bucks a pop. We watch Goldman gradually become sickened by the death he deals in, and discover secondhand that the same murders we view as entertainment in the context of The Condemned are traumatizing to the people seeing it firsthand.
It's a foregone conclusion that eventually some producer with enough money will figure out a way to create a live-feed snuff presentation that will simultaneously disgust and attract viewers. Any question of blame assigned to the people who watch such atrocities will be washed away in the same court of public opinion that tacitly allows bogus wars to take the lives of countless victims. A symptom of exploitation movies is that they incite public dialogue about social issues from a gut level of articulation. The Condemned might just be the first in a new line of exploitation movies to revive the genre. Either way, it does pose a question about why the word "whore" is considered equal to or greater than "murderer." Something has to give.
Opens Friday at Edwards 21.