Every Man for Himself, and God Against All
-- Original title, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

And that, in a nutshell, is the pitch for The Condemned -- except, in this case, God's an illegal entertainment start-up. Broadcast wildman and snake-oil salesman Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) has an idea for the ultimate in pay-per-view: Spring 10 death row prisoners from various Third World hellhole jails, strap them with explosive ankle-cuffs, give them 30 hours to kill each other. Last person standing wins and earns their freedom, and the whole thing gets broadcast on the internet -- at $49.95 a viewer, and Breckel's shooting for Super Bowl ratings, with all the profit for him. The 10 include a monstrous British ex-army man (Vinnie Jones), a husband-and-wife desperado team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz), a swift-and-slippery martial artist (Masa Yamaguchi) ... and a late addition to the roster, Jack Conrad (Steve Austin), an American pulled from a jail in El Salvador. Conrad won't say what he was doing in El Salvador, and he won't say what his life was like before he was there ... but Breckel likes the big palooka, and enters him into the competition.

Having explosive devices strapped to you might be the ultimate action-film expression of the terrors of existence -- don't we all feel, even a little bit, like God or whomever could flick the switch at any moment? Connoisseurs of the explosive body-jewelry-fight-to-the-death genre will have noted the similarities between The Condemned and 2000's Battle Royale, the cult Japanese film with a similar pitch -- only in Battle Royale, it's 30 school kids sent off to play kill-or-be-killed, and not 10 criminals. Also, in Battle Royale, the contestants are sacrificed in the name of social order and imposed conformity; in The Condemned, it's all about ratings and money. As I've noted before, if you really want to understand a culture, watch their bad entertainment; you can learn a lot more about Shakespeare's times from Titus Andronicus than A Winter's Tale.

Still, the whole idea of "last man standing" is an old one; the colossal, choke-on-it irony is that an action film about the ethics of showmanship and violent entertainment is produced by Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment. Early on, when some of his underlings voice quiet objections to the morality of televised slaughter, Breckel's sanguine. "The drama? I want it up there, not in here." And even without moral qualms, it's gonna be a tough show to pull off. Breckel's motor-mouthed production guy Goldman (Rick Hoffman) explains the challenges: "This isn't war, Breck, it's television. This is more complicated." But the show must, of course, go on, even with a ringer in the mix. ...

Above and beyond his shaved head and superior ass-whupping skills, Austin's Conrad is the contestant who most obviously has the Sesame Street "One of these thing does not belong here ..." music playing over him. It's not spoiling much to explain that Conrad is a good man in a bad place for a good reason, or that he's more interested in taking on the league officials than the other contestants. Still, try explaining that to 9 other people who think that killing you will keep them alive. ... And sure, it's a skimpy and old plot -- all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game -- but even the worst hack, you'd think, could be able to pluck some tension and action out of it. And, for a while, director Scott Wiper does exactly that; the fight scenes are full of grunting and grappling and sleeper holds, the Australian settings mixing the tropical and the tense to nice effect as our dwindling "stars" clobber, slash and bruise each other across the island.

The first time The Condemned bogs down is when it stops brawling and starts blathering -- about responsibility in entertainment, about watching violence, about the question of how far is too far? Goldman (played by Hoffman with the squirrely brio he brought to a bit part in Hostel) sums it up when one of the contestants decides to beat and sexually assault another: "We have now crossed a line beyond the line I thought we were gonna cross." It's a brief nice point, but The Condemned drones on and on about it, including a sermon from reporter Donna Sereno (Angie Milliken) that suggests the real people responsible for the carnage and depravity aren't Breckel and his crew, but the people watching it and paying for it: " ... perhaps we are ... the condemned." At which point I looked at my watch and thought what every other action film-fan in the audience was thinking: Yeah, that's nice, but can I see the bald guy kill the British scumbag now? As I noted before, The Condemned is made of ironies and coincidences and curious philosophies folded around itself like a strudel twist filled with fistfights.

And that brings us to the second place The Condemned bogs down: Namely, when the guns come out. Recent events make watching any large-scale action film feel a little weird, and have inspired the usual loud cultural conversation about the role of violent entertainment in violent action, but let's be honest: Movies are a global commodity, and yet, oddly, murder rates and incidences of mass homicide are not equivalent per capita between America and Germany, or American and Canada, or America and Japan. (Indeed, as I've often joked, if violent entertainment truly led to violent actions, Japan wouldn't have a single soul alive.) In fact, anyone who suggests violent movies/music/video games are responsible for mass murders in America is either a stone-cold idiot or working some immensely cynical angle. But The Condemned illustrates that if there's any reason to not have guns in movies, it's aesthetic: Most of the time, guns are boring. Fistfights? Those are cool -- full of possibility and surprises, tricks and feints and last-minute desperation moves. But once Steve Austin's Conrad goes from wrasslin' and grapplin' and suplexin' -- which he excels at -- to popping some caps -- which any weak fool can do -- a lot of the grit and grim glee of The Condemned goes out the window in a cloud of gunpowder.

And you may have noticed that this review is less about The Condemned than the abstract ideas around it, but frankly, there's not much film to write about: A whole lot of killing, and some of it mildly thrilling. As for leading man Austin, well, he's ... large. And not uncharismatic. A lot of his go-to-hell line deliveries had the sort of all-American tough guy spin on it you'd associate with classic movie faces like Steve McQueen or John Wayne; that kind of self-reliance, that kind of swagger. But at a certain point, the movie backs Austin into things he just can't do -- soliloquies, emotional connection, a romantic conversation -- and he looks like a plus-sized mammal asked to do something he can't, like that look your dog gets when you ask him to help with your taxes, or your cat when you ask her about relationship advice. If you really want to see The Condemned, you will -- that's what Lionsgate and WWE are banking on, and it's a pretty safe investment on their part. If you're on the fence -- and in the mood for a little existential angst in the form of explosive accessories -- rent Battle Royale or No Escape or even Sorcerer or The Wages of Fear. It's money better spent, and if you're gonna enjoy trash, it might as well be the good stuff.