Where’s Richard Dawson when you need him? The Condemned borrows from a number of sources, but its focus on the mass media ethics calls to mind the improbably campy Running Man, in which the game show host oversees a to-the-death contest featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger (in that famously astounding pink lycra bodysuit). In Scott Wiper’s version, the men wear manly clothes, the violence is more brutal and the dialogue less snappy. But the reductive point is the same: TV producers are scum.
Locked up in a Salvadorian prison, Jack (Stone Cold Steve Austin) catches the attention of realty TV producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone), scouting talent for his latest whiz-bang of an idea: 10 death row inmates dumped on Papua New Guinea. Here they will fight each other to the death, with the last one standing set free. Breck is especially pressed to find a replacement for his 10th slot, as he’s just lost one (“They shot my Arab,” he sputters, especially angry because that particular competitor was guaranteed to generate haters, also known as viewers). When he learns that Jack is U.S. on top of being a profoundly gifted killer, Breck is okay with that: “He’s perfect. With all the rampant anti-Americanism all over the globe, people are gonna love to hate this guy.” Yes, Breck is one proud and cocky American.
The set-up is excessively convenient. Not only has the production team established some 400 cameras on the island, in addition to live crews ready to chopper over to a location at a moment’s notice, they also have found a way to block surveillance by international surveillance operations. Looking over the preparations, Breck badgers his main tech Goldie (Rick Hoffman, the American client in Hostel) for more juice. “We are at war,” exaggerates Breck. Oh no, Goldie comes back. “This is not war. This is television. It’s much more complicated.” (Goldie has apparently not heard that TV and war are not separate at all anymore.)
The film offers occasional cutaways to the FBI on a feckless search for the operation they know is out there. Meantime, Breck’s team power up their generators and start live-streaming their 30-hour event. Breck’s goal: 40 million subscriber-viewers by the end, matching Super Bowl numbers and paying $50 a pop.
Dropped by helicopter into the water (mostly), the contestants are mindful that they also wear explosives on their ankles, set to detonate by the end of the “challenge” if they don’t win. Needless to say, Jack finds himself surrounded by meatheads and monsters, all experienced in mayhem and murder. Though he makes friends with Paco (Manu Bennett), whose wife is a contestant as well, for the most part, Jack has one aim, to find a way to contact his girlfriend back in Texas, Sarah (Madeleine West). This indicates that he’s not like the other convicts; in fact, Jack is a 14-year Special Forces veteran, abandoned by the U.S. government during a black ops mission gone wrong. (Breck and his team make up a bio for him: he “burned a clinic for the handicapped and mentally retarded”). Jack also appears to have a conscience, so that after he kills someone, he looks troubled. When he kills a lot of people, he looks extra troubled.
His adversaries include an especially loud-mouthed cretin named Nazi (Andy McPhee), a psycho martial artist (Masa Yamaguchi), and hardcore cheater Ewan (Vinnie Jones), who receives supplies and weapons from Breck, looking to goose the action. As their various fights go on and on and on, the moral lesson is also pounded home, articulated by assorted Breck employees who begin to wonder whether they’ve “crossed a line,” you know, when the contestants are blowing each other up, torturing each other, and in one grisly instance, raping each other. This assault is slightly removed from film viewers, indicated on background TV monitors—with whimpering and grunting on the soundtrack—as the TV crew members look variously interested and horrified. The framing makes the film’s point (mass mediated violence is bad) while underlining its complicity in such mass mediation: all manner of bloody batterings, mutilations, and executions are fine to see in close-up, hand-held pandemonium, but rape is set off, too troubling to show in detail. Better to let film viewers off that hook, so that the other carnage might be thoroughly consumed and appreciated.
Breck isn’t inclined to hear the complaints of his sorta girlfriend Julie (Tory Mussett) and Goldie, who suddenly realize that he’s a crass, greedy showman and now, murderer (somehow, they come to this idea only after the killing starts). Julies asserts, “This is not reality. You sent them there. Don’t tell me you can’t interfere. You already interfered.” This is true, but this is also reality TV. What was she thinking to go along with such a project in the first place?
In case you too are a little slow to understand the moral ramifications of the enterprise, The Condemned provides a TV “journalist,” Donna (Angie Milliken), to articulate the problem, more than once. She accuses Breck of producing a “live snuff film.” When he brushes her off—somehow thinking her interview before the show starts will be celebratory—Donna says flat out, “It’s immoral, it’s illegal. You’re a multimillionaire who may become a billionaire producing murder.” Breck looks briefly puzzled. Yeah, he smirks, so what?
He’ll get his, as you know. As will all his willfully ignorant, avaricious, and entirely craven employees. But even after Ewan and then Jack wreak all manner of vengeance on a range of villains, Donna shows up again, on TV, with a coda: “Those of us who watch,” she intones soberly, “We are the condemned.” Right. After delivering nearly two hours of bloody bedlam, now the movie blames you.