The movie poster says it all:
"Ten people will fight.
Nine people will die.
You get to watch."
With such meager intentions, it's tough to seriously critique 'The Condemned.' As the latest in a long series of action flicks that pride themselves on delivering unbelievable feats of splatterific violence, the film just might be immune to criticism. But do you really think that would stop me?
The film tells the story of Jack Conrad ("Stone Cold" Steve Austin), an ex-marine awaiting an illegal death sentence in a Central American prison. But his fate is postponed when he's purchased on the black market by a television producer named Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) and flown to a remote island rigged with dozens of cameras. It seems Breckel is an outcast media sensation who's used his fortune to collect nine other death-row inmates from around the world. The egomaniacal producer is determined to win back the attention of the world by pitting the ten prisoners against each other in a no-holds-barred competition to the death -- the prize for which is freedom.
To make the show more interesting, Breckel has scheduled regular supply drops that provide the convicts with an assortment of weapons and opportunities. He's also tagged each contestant with a plastic-explosive that will detonate if they break the game's rules (a rather blatant series of nods to 'Battle Royale'). Conrad reluctantly participates, defending himself against a pack of murderers and rapists that include the insanely volatile Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones). But as the playing field narrows with each successive kill, Conrad begins to ignore Breckel's regulations and turns his attention to his captors -- the production team on this new reality show.
Produced by WWE films (the good natured wrestling folks responsible for 'See No Evil' and 'The Scorpion King'), 'The Condemned' eagerly grabs the torch passed down from classic '80s actioners starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- except in this case, the WWE's involvement ensures that hard hits and blood will splash across across the screen with even greater abandon. Indeed, the beatdowns are frequent and intense -- sometimes occurring without any plot progression in between.
The WWE's involvement has another effect -- it inadvertently makes the emergence of the film's heavy-handed sermon all the more puzzling. As the bodies stack up, the filmmakers begin to preach about the dangers of violence and the ease with which it's embraced by our media-saturated culture. Director Scott Wiper (in his first theatrical film) even goes so far as to make blunt comparisons between modern American entertainment and the bloodsports of the Roman Empire. As a result, 'The Condemned' panders to its action audience, while lecturing them for their enjoyment of the on screen chaos.
'Crank', 'The Transporter 2,' and other entries in the R-rated action genre have split audiences with sheer, exaggerated pandemonium -- but to their credit, they've aspired to nothing more. 'The Condemned,' on the other hand, alienates its core audience by asking them to question the very thing they've paid to watch. This troubling disparity only serves to undermine the intended message and complicate the entertainment value of the film.
If 'The Condemned' was a clear-cut actioner, I might have shrugged my shoulders at its thin plot and bland characters and attempted to simply enjoy the ride. If it was a clever examination of society's reaction to violence, I might have been intrigued by its potentially poignant themes. However, as it stands, the film can't seem to settle on its own intentions or identity, lessening the strength of its action-packed audacity. The concept may be intriguing, but even fans of the genre and/or the WWE will likely find the overall film annoying and perplexing.
'The Condemned' was shot using high-end Genesis cameras from Panavision -- the same pricey HD cameras used for 'Apocalypto' and 'The Lookout.' As a result, the gorgeous source is in pristine condition and paves the way for a near-flawless transfer of the film.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'The Condemned' impresses with inky blacks, nicely-saturated fleshtones, and fine details that reveal every element of the image. Despite the film's limited, steel-toned palette, interior scenes look excellent -- colors pop when necessary, shadows are decently delineated, and textures are razor sharp. Just pause the movie during a scene in the control booth and note how easy it is to read the monitors and the paperwork scattered about the room. When the camera lingers one of the producers, take note of the clarity of their pores, the hair on their arms, and the tiny beads of sweat on their foreheads.
Exterior scenes have a lot to offer as well, but they're occasionally hindered by overblown contrast levels and consistently hot whites. The tonal consistency of the image makes it clear that this is an intentional stylistic decision, but it robs the image of detail. The dark areas of the screen are haunted by crush issues and the image lacks dimension from time to time. It also tends to ruin the naturalistic colors showcased in interior scenes by making each actor's skin flush to one extreme or the other.
Personal aesthetic preferences aside, the only true technical issue I noted was some faint posterization in scenes with severe contrasts in brightness (a light in a dark prison cell for example). On all other points, this transfer is technically sound and stacks up well with other top notch Blu-ray releases on the market. In short, fans of 'The Condemned' should be delighted to see how effortlessly this transfer replicates the theatrical experience.
'The Condemned' features a rumbling DTS-HD 7.1 surround track (downgraded to its 1.5 Mbps DTS core since players are currently unable to decode DTS-HD) and a lighter Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround mix (640 kbps). The audio is bombastic and loud, shoving every sound element through the subwoofer to add resonance. The end result may not be the most realistic soundfield I've evaluated, but it does add palpable weight to each impact, gunshot, and explosion. The dynamics ultimately steal the show -- the treble tones are stable and the bass isn't throaty or thin.
With so much going on, you might expect voices to take a back set all of the other sonic insantity, but the track is carefully layered so that each element of the soundfield gets its due. Channel movement is swift and believeable -- there were even a few weapon effects where I could clearly track the source of a sound slicing across my home theater. Environmental ambiance is a bit stagey, but still takes advantage of the surround channels to create a suitably immersive soundfield. On the flipside, interior acoustics are merely average and the control room sounds a bit too much like a sound stage. Still, these minor design flaws aren't overly distracting.
The larger problem with this bombastic badboy is its directionality. Even though each scene is pumped full of sound, the result is mildly unfocused. Effects like gunshots and splintering wood (especially when they occur outdoors) are unnaturally loud and tend to originate in several speakers at once, regardless of the element's positioning in the soundscape. More distracting is an infrequent but bizarre phenomenon where voices will appear in the left channel instead of the right (or vice versa). It usually happens when characters talk mid-fight, but I caught it at least three times throughout the movie.
All in all, it should be stressed that each of the these will likely go unnoticed by a majority of listeners. Fans of 'The Condemned' will find everything they want in this track -- chilling screams, ear-splitting rat-a-tats, and room-shaking 'splosions.
This Blu-ray edition of 'The Condemned' includes all of the special features available on the concurrently-released standard-def DVD, and it's a surprisingly robust package.
The first (and most satisfying) feature is a commentary track with Steve Austin and director Scott Wiper. Both men are candid, engaging, and spend their time talking about the film's entertainment value rather than its meaning. While they do discuss the themes and morals of the story, most of the discussion focuses on the cast, the location shoots, the on-set atmosphere, shooting in HD, and the grueling stuntwork and fight scenes. (Note that although the commentary isn't listed with the other supplemental material, it can be accessed through the audio menu.)
Take a breath and dig in -- this disc includes 48 minutes of Deleted and Extended Scenes, each with optional director's commentary. While the 19 additional scenes flesh out the characters quite a bit, the writing isn't strong enough to recommend this one to anyone other than those who loved the film. Still, I was surprised to find a few scenes that I felt should have been retained.
Next up is "The Making of The Condemned" (38 minutes), a documentary that's divided into five segments, of which I enjoyed two. "Pain Club" (16 minutes) explores the fight choreography and the knocks and bruises the cast received nearly every day on set. This low key featurette had an enjoyable tone and I found myself wishing it was even longer. "Inside the Control Room" (6 minutes) examines the photography of the show-within-the-movie. Each scene had to be filmed using the HD cameras and cheaper handheld cameras -- one shot for film footage and the other for the footage used on the control room monitors. I wish it went into more detail, but it was an intriguing look at dual-stock filming that didn't feel like promotional fluff.
The other three segments range from pointless to aimless. "Game On" (6 minutes) is an extended trailer where the cast and crew explain the plot, "Island Mischief" (5 minutes) is an amusing look at Austin's on-set trailer, while "Are We the Condemned?" (5 minutes) is a quick look at Wiper's directorial style and the themes of the film.
The disc's last two movie-specific supplements feel a bit like filler. The "Capital Carnage Reunion" (4 minutes) will mostly appeal to wrestling fans, including footage of Austin and actor Vinnie Jones watching a video of Jones' appearance in a WWE match. Likewise, "Stone Cold at Movie World" (2 minutes) is a flighty addition -- it simply covers Austin's trip to Gold Coast in Australia to sign autographs.
(Note that with the exception of the four high-def trailers, all of the video-based supplements listed above are presented in widescreen 480i/p video only).
I'm certainly not the first critic to declare 'The Condemned' an awful movie, and I probably won't be the last. However, as a Blu-ray release, this one's surprisingly strong, boasting a near demo-quality video transfer, a solid audio package, and a lengthy series of supplements. If you already enjoyed the film in theaters, this one's an easy purchase. Otherwise, well, use your best judgment.