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A lost opportunity

Chance to make a social statement is lost in mindless ending

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How much would you pay to see 10 badass, condemned-to-death criminals fight to the death for their freedom on a deserted island?  What does the average pay-per-view boxing match cost?  Would you pay that much — or more? 

Those types of questions will likely cross your mind if you fork over the $9 or $10 it will cost you to see “The Condemned,” a new action thriller in which folks pay $49.99 for a 30-hour live Internet video stream of the aforementioned criminal death match. 

What happens in “The Condemned” is wrong on so many levels; it’s sick, twisted, bloody and brutal, and yet it’s compelling — until its preposterousness bursts at the seams.  The final 15 minutes or so ruins what could have been a searing commentary on 21st century ethics as they pertain to criminal justice, e-commerce and entertainment. 

Ian “Breck” Breckel (Robert Mammone), a super-successful reality TV show producer, “purchases” condemned prisoners from scuzzy prisons all over the globe.  This way everyone will have someone to root for.  “I want an Arab,” he demands when he realizes there’s a hole in his coverage area.  Breck heads to the island with his girlfriend and a dedicated team of techies who’ve hitched their wagons to his star (you can spot them by the dollar signs in their eyes).  Breck is confident they will help him achieve his goal of “Super Bowl numbers” — 40 million subscribers or more. 

Suspension of disbelief is a fairly easy task at first.  It’s an action film starring a professional wrestler.  You go in knowing there will be violence, bloodshed and a lot of he-man posturing.  But then director Scott Wiper skimps on the details.  We’re asked to believe that each prisoner, no matter where he or she is from, can understand the English-speaking guy explaining the rules, including how their ankle bracelets are explosive devices set to go off in 30 hours should no one emerge victorious.  This will leave you shaking your head, but then the action starts, and you’ll forget about it and become totally engaged for about an hour. 

Stone Cold Steve Austin is the wrestler-turned-action hero in “The Condemned,” and he does a fine job for what the film requires.  He plays Jack Conrad, who was wrongly imprisoned in El Salvador, of course.  Because he’s not a vicious criminal like the rest of the lot, we see Conrad’s sensitive side emerge through a facade of cynical sarcasm from time to time, such as when he helps one of the other prisoners instead of killing him, and when he breaks into the communications tower and calls his girl back home. 

There are some key plot elements blatantly ripped off from the 2000 Japanese film “Battle Royale,” in which teenage students wearing explosive collars are taken to an isolated island to fight to the death for survival.  The originality of “The Condemned” lies in the notion that a worldwide audience would be entertained by what amounts to a live snuff film. 

And whether they’re entertained, curious or appalled, they’re watching.  Every time a “player” bites the dust, the numbers go up.  We see Jack’s people back home fixated on a computer screen in a bar, rooting for him.  Here’s where another detail is ignored.  Where is television news — the same television news that broadcast OJ’s famous Bronco ride live?  Wouldn’t every news outlet in America  — and the world — be weighing in on such an event? 

The only protestations come from Breck’s girlfriend, who points out that what they’re doing is not only immoral, but also illegal.  (Q: Well, then why did she go along in the first place?  A: So she could play a key role in the end.)  Another crew member ultimately sides with her, but it’s too little, too late.  By this time, the action becomes so ridiculous you’ll be mad that you ever were engrossed at all. 

The Condemned ★★

Starring: Stone Cold Steve Austin, Robert Mammone and Vinnie Jones

Director: Scott Wiper

Rated: R for pervasive strong brutal violence, and for language

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