Co-produced by World Wrestling Entertainment, it’s no surprise this would-be satirical action movie features a gladiatorial theme. Megalomaniac media mogul Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) kidnaps ten death row prisoners from around the world and dumps them on a remote island. With explosive devices strapped to their ankles, set to detonate in thirty hours, these killers must battle it out to the last man, or woman, left standing while Breckel’s team of techno-geeks stream footage across the worldwide web as a reality game show. Hulking slap-head, Jack Conrad (WWE star, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin) is the wild card, pegged as a sensitive type because he keeps a pet rat, who clashes instantly with McStarley (“notorious hard-man” Vinnie Jones - as he’s called in the liner notes), a former SAS man who torched a village in Rwanda, murdered seventeen men, raped nine women and probably kicked a kitten on his way to work.
Amidst mucho macho shenanigans, a thrash-metal soundtrack, sub-Michael Bay visuals and relentless gurning from notorious hard-man Vinnie Jones (“I’m gonna blow your f***ing b***s off!”), co-writer/director Scott Wiper hammers home his message that reality TV, violent entertainment and media types are all Very Bad. Early on Breckel laments his contestants don’t include a “child-killing, Koran-ranting, suicide-bombing Arab!” When Helmut, the jolly German rapist gets offed by the inconsistently characterised Yasantwa (Emelia Burns), Wiper marks the cheering techno-geeks as repugnant, but conveniently forgets he’s asking his audience to do the same. He tags producers of reality TV as bloodsucking leeches, yet casts the mass-murdering psychos as anti-heroes being true to their nature, resulting in a misanthropic world view wholly repugnant in its pretension.
Far from being action packed, the film drags interminably and makes surprisingly little use of its Big Concept. Death-sport as reality TV is a fairly shop-worn idea thanks to Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1987), but has rarely been done as effectively as in The Tenth Victim (1965) or Battle Royale (2000). The Condemned certainly isn’t a contender. A nondescript supporting cast struggle with ill-conceived characters. Husband and wife team, Paco (Manu Bennett) and Rosa (Dasi Ruz) - cast as sympathetic, even though they went on a killing spree in Mexico - meet an abruptly, sticky end as they’re tortured, raped and burned alive by notorious hard-man Vinnie Jones (“That is one fit bird you’ve got there”). A Japanese karate expert (Masa Yamaguchi) becomes McStarley’s sidekick (“You’re a ballsy, little geezer, in’tcha?”), but seems present only to prove martial arts have nothing on Conrad’s good old, American brawn. Frequent cutaways to Conrad’s loving girlfriend, Sarah Cavanaugh (Madeleine West) and their friends watching the show in Midwestern bar, rob what momentum there is. His barroom buddies are appalled by the onscreen action because, as everyone knows, rednecks can’t stand gratuitous violence.
While Austin’s Elvis Presley/Foghorn Leghorn vocal mannerisms are almost endearing, his hero is all bad attitude and little else. A mid-film twist recasts him as a special forces agent betrayed by the government, but suffers from a case of Steven Seagal syndrome, wherein the script is always telling you he’s a badass instead of showing you. “He’s killed more people than anyone else on that island”, gushes an FBI agent. Yawn. Incidentally, Hollywood casting agents - your average commandos tend to be lean and wiry, since hulking pro-wrestlers are more likely stick out and get killed during covert ops.
Eventually, Breckel’s girlfriend (Tory Mussett) and right-hand man (Rick Hoffman) start having second thoughts, amidst much ham-fisted dialogue (“We have now crossed the line that is beyond the line I thought we were gonna cross!”), while an investigative reporter attacks the viewing public (and indirectly, this film’s audience): “Those of us who watch. Aren’t we the condemned?”). But not before notorious hard-man Vinnie Jones turns the tables on the reality TV techies (“This is my f***ing reality!”). Wiper rubs our noses in it as Jones makes sobbing nerds say sorry and takes great relish in machine-gunning a bespectacled girl (Sam Healy) drawn to TV violence (“Ugly bitch!”). The Condemned is nothing but hypocritical trash.