The new World Wrestling Entertainment-engineered B-movie The Condemned boasts an elegantly simple premise that a tough-guy auteur like Walter Hill could really sink his teeth into. Ten condemned badasses are forced to fight to the death on a remote island for the amusement of a deranged television producer and millions of Internet voyeurs. But the film keeps adding layers of superfluous nonsense to its plot until all that's left is glowering ultra-violence and a whole lot of missed opportunities. For starters, only nine of the film's condemned badasses are genuine bad guys and gals. The tenth is simply a stand-up dude, unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It will shock no one to learn that he's also the guy with his name above the title and millions of kids cheering his every wrestling match.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin plays that wrongly convicted tough guy, a mysterious killing machine pitted against nine other condemned convicts, including former soccer bruiser turned popular cinematic heavy Vinnie Jones. While Austin literally fights for his life, Robert Mammone, the scheming television psycho masterminding the whole scheme, grapples with a possible mutiny from collaborators worried that their scrappy little online super-snuff film is devolving into a truly unsavory cesspool of sexual violence, torture, and murder. (For all his faults, Mammone's snuff-video magnate is still classier than Girls Gone Wild guru Joe Francis, whom he sometimes resembles.)
In the great pantheon of recent WWE vehicles, The Condemned ranks somewhere above the Kane vehicle See No Evil and below the John Cena-starrer The Marine. Austin has a winningly terse way with a one-liner, and the film initially mines considerable black humor and surprises from its dark premise. But the cheap kicks and nasty fun dissipate once the filmmakers begin cutting regularly to Austin's concerned wife and to the snuff-porn proprietors' fevered debates about the morality of selling violence to the masses. All the hand-wringing about the soul-coarsening effects of violent entertainment can't help but feel wildly hypocritical coming from the WWE, an organization single-mindedly devoted to satiating our nation's rapacious bloodlust.