- Steve Austin (left) reacts predictably to Manu Bennett's bad hair.
"Ten 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 Chairman Vince McMahon and starring self-professed "whup-ass machine" Stone Cold Steve Austin and oft-suspended former soccer star Vinnie Jones.
So can someone explain where this movie gets off lecturing its viewers about how awful they are for enjoying violence in entertainment? McMahon's no dummy; he has to know that the movie's main villain, a greedy entertainment promoter named Breckel (Robert Mammone), sounds awfully familiar when he defends his product by saying that it isn't marketed to children or that he's just giving the public what they want. 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 that it never features murder in its story lines -- which is technically true, although it has featured "attempted vehicular homicide," necrophilia, immersion in liquid concrete, "buried alive" matches, heart attacks during sex, grave desecration, and wrestler Al Snow supposedly 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 distinction: Here, Breckel has gathered 10 death-row inmates from around the world to kill one another on an island rigged with cameras. Just like in Battle Royale, all contestants are strapped with explosives that will detonate if they don't participate, and after 30 hours, only one will be left alive.
It's no surprise that in all the movie's moralizing about the dangers of violent entertainment, there isn't any commentary on the morality of the death penalty itself -- other than when Breckel says that at least his way, one of the 10 will get to live. (He has a point.) I guess director Scott Wiper opts out of the debate by having his inmates come from a foreign prison.
Meanwhile, before the movie hops up on its high horse, we do get several cool battles involving the likes of Texas redneck Jack Conrad (Austin), ex-SAS sadist McStarley (Jones), crazed martial artist Saiga (Masa Yamaguchi), and a seven-foot Russian (Nathan Jones, who briefly had his own WWE stint before realizing that big-screen henchman roles are more lucrative and less punishing). Unlike the Rock, who did his trademark eyebrow-raise in The Scorpion King, or Kane, who utilized the chokeslam in See No Evil, Austin doesn't wink at his audience with any signature moves. Granted, the Stone Cold Stunner wouldn't be the most effective jungle combat maneuver, but it's a shame Austin doesn't get to flip the bird at least once (although, free from basic cable restrictions, he's plenty good at verbalizing the gesture's equivalent).
Audiences are cued to cheer along with the corrupt promoters for the Mortal Kombat-style fatalities that ensue, but the line is apparently crossed when McStarley and Saiga kick the crap out of a woman -- and enjoy it. If you enjoy it too, well, you're a sick puppy, says The Condemned. Born-again Vince must have forgotten the time when the Dudley Boyz slammed 80-year-old Mae Young through a wooden table to the cheers of an adoring fan base.
But flaws, double standards, strange detours (cutaways to FBI headquarters or Conrad's girlfriend, who lives on a farm), and all, this is still the most entertaining WWE release to date. Hostel's Rick Hoffman, doing his fast-talking shtick, is great as a controller with a crisis of conscience. And we already know from TV and from his standout turn as a racist guard in The Longest Yard that Austin can act; in the second half of Wiper's film, when Austin finally loses his temper and gets down to the business of revenge, Stone Cold really heats up the screen. Don't feel guilty for enjoying the violence. Just thank Vince.