I watched The Condemned the other day.
When I first started to see its previews, the film seemed simple enough. It’s Battle Royale (a.k.a. Batoru rowaiaru) with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Soccer thug Vinnie Jones in lieu of Japanese schoolgirls. A bunch of people are put on an island, they are all supposed to kill each other, the winner goes free and gets a bunch of money. The main difference being that The Condemned has death row inmates put on the island by a Reality TV rich guy, whereas Battle Royal has disrespectful school kids put on the island by their government.
The only question provoked by the preview was, “Why isn’t Ice-T in this flick?” Certainly, it would seem like something that should feature Ice-T.
That other Mr. T has already starred in 1997’s Mean Guns, a film whose tagline was: 100 Assassins. 1,000 Weapons. 10,000,000 Dollars. Only One Can Survive. Mean Guns boasts such other stars as Highlander‘s Christopher Lambert, and Thom Mathews, professional friend of George Clooney. The premise of the flick is that big time gangster Ice-T locks a bunch of criminals and losers together in an empty prison, leaves a bunch of weapons around, and promises to give money to the survivor(s).
Previously, Ice-T had starred in Surviving the Game. In that flick he played a homeless guy hunted for sport in the wilderness by the likes of Rutger Howell, F. Murray Abraham, Gary Busey, John “Dr. Cox” McGinley, and some other scary white folk. It’s a b-movie to be sure, but is one of the better “Most Dangerous Game” ripoffs. Although, when the competition includes unwatchable John Leguizamo vehicle The Pest, MST3K fodder like Bloodlust!, and The Woman Hunt, perhaps that isn’t saying too much.
Shit, I’d be afraid if Gary Busey were hunting me.
Anyway, Marcus Johnson is playing Ice-T’s role in The Condemned.
The Condemned is an entertaining enough popcorn flick. It’s easily the best made and least cheesy of the WWE-produced LionsGate films.
BUT what’s interesting about The Condemned is it’s ambivalence towards violence. It seems to send the somewhat mixed message that “violence is awesome, and you are a bad person for watching it.” It overtly condemns reality television, and the exploitation of people even if they are “bad” or “deserve it”.
At one point in the film Vinnie Jones and his martial arts sidekick are raping the female half of a homicidal married couple, while making her husband watch. The TV crew nearly unanimously feels that they’ve crossed the line, what they are doing is awful, etc. etc. The Evil Producer is the only one unaffected, stating that the woman is a murderer and a whore and deserves no sympathy.
This reasoning holds little water with his peers.
The movie is clear that this is wrong and something which should be hard to watch. The problem is we are only told that this husband and wife are deeply disturbed murderous psychopaths. Exposition paints them as a Hispanic Mickie and Mallory, but the scenes we see of them in action reveal few of these tendencies. The couple we are shown is not the same one we are told about. We are only shown that the husband is humble, generous and deeply in love with his wife. We don’t see them do anything morally questionable.
When the wife is brutally killed, the movie says we should feel awful. When the husband is brutally killed, the movie says we should feel awful. But in the very same film, we are supposed to feel good when Stone Cold kills somebody, even when he shoots a subdued, unarmed opponent. Where there should be ambiguity, things are Manichaean. It’s morally reprehensible when Vinnie Jones kills. It’s perfectly okay when Stone Cold blows up the helicopter that contains the “evil” TV producer.
It is also okay when the Marcus Johnson character is exploded for comedic value.
The exposition of The Condemned wants to tell us that violence is unfortunate, and that even bad people should be afforded basic human dignities. It wants to say that violence is bad whether the victim is just or wicked. But the movie itself doesn’t send that same message. What the movie shows us is that when determining the rightness or wrongness of an action the victim doesn’t matter, nor does the action itself. In The Condemned, the morality of an action is based solely upon the intrinsic morality of the one committing the action. In this sense the film can be seen as Aristotlean, as Stone Cold’s essence precedes his existence. He is not condemned to be responsible for his free choices in that Sartrean sense. Stone Cold’s actions are good because he is good.
In this matter the film can be a bit unsettling. Why does the movie portray Stone Cold’s character as good? Well, he is patriotic, a military man who has given his life to serving his country. He is also the de-facto patriarch of his girlfriend’s family, a blonde family with some strapping young boys. Mr. Cold is staunchly heterosexual, stoic and unemotional in the traditional ’80s action hero mold. He is the red state’s version of the GOOD AMERICAN.
Naturally, he is also white. Aryan even.
His key rival is British and also very white.
People of color don’t really seem to matter much in the film. Most are killed off rather unceremoniously, the main exception being the Asian fella exploited by Vinnie Jones for his Kung Fu prowess. Did I also mention that the black guy’s death was brought upon by his raging libido?
Like I said, the movie can be very troubling. You have the Good American whose only real competition is the other white military man on the island. You have a Hispanic couple who is helpless without the aid of the Good American. You got the Kung Fu Asian who seems to find his own level as the British guy’s manservant. You’ve got the black American who can’t stay out of trouble due to his love of pussy and drugs.
Calculating all this, I’m drawn to the conclusion that The Condemned is “White Man’s Burden” the movie. It’s about the “good” murdering imperialist Stone Cold vs. the “evil” murdering imperialist Vinnie Jones.
And that is very troubling.
Although it may be more troubling that by renting the film, I did help support the career of a wife-beater.