Dir: Scott Wiper. US. 2007. 113mins.
Criticising the dumbing-down of entertainment culture while shamelessly catering to the lowest-common denominator, The Condemned gets points for chutzpah but little else. The result, an action film about a hyper-violent reality contest, quickly devolves into a series of hand-to-hand combat scenes that become monotonous since there's no one on screen worth liking, let alone rooting for.

Produced by WWE Films, the cinema arm of the popular wresting franchise, The Condemned will try to build on the minor success it enjoyed with last May's See No Evil, a horror film that made just under $17m worldwide, and the October action-drama The Marine, which grossed just under $21m worldwide. (Both movies starred WWE wrestlers.)

The Condemned features wrestler Steve Austin, in his first leading role, and Vinnie Jones, neither of whom are major box-office figures. Opening on April 27 in the States, this R-rated Lionsgate release will try to lure hardcore action fans away from two other new releases: Paramount's Nicolas Cage vehicle Next and Buena Vista's teen thriller The Invisible. But once the May behemoths, such as Spider-Man 3, begin to emerge, The Condemned will quickly be banished to the rental market.

Because the film was overseen by the WWE, it's difficult not to think of The Condemned as a more exotic and expensive variation of the company's Smackdown television series where cartoonishly heroic and evil characters square off in fabricated fights.

Though it's trying to court those very same fans for its new film, the WWE may discover that its followers prefer their action without any halfhearted attempts at moral hand-wringing.

Overseas, where wrestlers have less profile, The Condemned will lean heavily on Jones' notoriety and the simple battle-to-the-death plotline. Whether in the States or abroad, though, it seems destined to be a bigger player in ancillary than on the big screen.

The Condemned focuses on a group of 10 murderous convicts from across the globe who are gathered to participate, against their will, in a reality show that will air on the Internet.

The convicts, including innocent US government operative Conrad (Austin), land on a remote tropical island and are told that they must fight one another to the death, with the survivor winning his or her freedom. Conrad does not want to kill anyone, but nonetheless he's drawn into a battle for his life against lunatic British Special Forces soldier McStarley (Vinnie Jones).

Directed by Scott Wiper, The Condemned touches upon several hot-button cultural issues: the prevalence of reality programming, the allure of violent spectacles in our society, and the question of moral responsibility in the entertainment industry.

Unfortunately, these topics quickly become glib talking points, a way for the film-makers to try to justify their movie's rampant brutality and unbelievable premise.

A megalomaniacal TV producer named Breckel (Mammone) has created this lethal reality program (also called The Condemned) under the cynical belief that audiences will be enraptured by the drama inherent in men and women killing each other in order to save themselves.

Because the producer character is meant to be a despicable individual, Wiper lingers on some of the more gruesome kills so as to illustrate how disgusting his program truly is. But because The Condemned gets such fetishistic pleasure out of its multiple kills and fight scenes, the filmmakers exhibit enormous hypocrisy when later they try to denounce the home audience (and, by extension, the film's patrons) for their desire to watch such brutality.

Furthermore, in attempting to position the film's violence as an indictment on the current trend of sensationalistic reality programs, The Condemned concocts a scenario that's ludicrous.

While the idea of breaking murderous convicts out of third-world prisons and placing them into a reality game is meant to illustrate how extreme modern entertainment has become, the inability to explain how Breckel could accomplish such a mammoth task reduces The Condemned to the level of escapist drivel.

But considering that Wiper tries to pass his film off as something more thoughtful than escapist drivel, it makes the movie all the more offensive and ridiculous.

The acting is predictably pedestrian. Steve Austin does not embarrass himself and is a passable action-hero type, but his innocent-man character has little to do other than punch and kick. Vinnie Jones is, as always, a formidable presence, but his few moments of humour are lost on a film that wants to lecture on the problems of violence when it's not doling out more violence.

Especially irritating (or perhaps just unfortunate) are the actresses, who seem to have been chosen mostly because they look like models and have, in the parlance of the film, 'a great rack.'

On a technical level, the action scenes aren't particularly exciting. Since most of them involve two (or three) characters battling in close quarters with knives or fists, the fights run out of originality pretty quickly since the chorography emphasizes punishing blows as opposed to the graceful moves exhibited in martial-arts movies.

Production companies/backers
WWE Films
New Wave Entertainment

US distribution

International sales

Joel Simon

Executive producers
Vince McMahon
Michael Lake
Jed Blaugrund
Michael Gruber
Graham Ludlow
George Vrabeck

Scott Wiper
Rob Hedden
from a story by
Rob Hedden
Andy Hedden
Scott Wiper

Ross Emery

Derek Brechin

Production design
Graham Walker

Graeme Revell

Main cast
Steve Austin
Vinnie Jones
Robert Mammone
Victoria Mussett
Rick Hoffman