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Originality is loser in WWE's death-match

Two friends of mine fell into a deep discussion about wrestling recently, and their level of knowledge stunned me. I remembered many of these names from the past well -- the Junkyard Dog, the Iron Sheik -- because, like many adolescent American males, I had a brief dalliance with what was then the WWF. Happily, that only lasted a few months.

But I think I'm the exception. The WWE remains jaw-droppingly popular. Just look at the heavy media coverage of bug-eyed mastermind Vince McMahon's head-shaving by one Donald Trump. Wrestling itself is now just a small part of the overall empire, with "stories" and "characters" taking up most of the screen time.

So it makes complete sense that the WWE's muscled hand has now reached into the multiplex. The latest test of brand loyalty is called "The Condemned" and stars an old favorite: Steve Austin -- Stone Cold no more, apparently.

This is the WWE's third big-screen endeavor, following a horror film, "See No Evil," and a military-themed action yarn, "The Marine." "Evil" was a flop, and "Marine" a minor success, so the formula this time around is an action-thriller tag-team affair, with McMahon as executive producer.
The result is a film that feels sub-basic cable; the USA Network would likely consider the plot and acting too hackneyed. Yet in the wrestling realm, maybe it's a perfect fit -- it should be noted that the preview audience erupted into non-ironic applause as the credits rolled.

"The Condemned" takes several standard plot threads -- a faraway island, a wealthy television producer, 10 condemned killers -- and that most tired of premises, the reality TV show in which, gasp, participants actually die. (This one will be broadcast online. How current.) There's even a Mark Burnett-meets-Richard Greico producer pulling the strings.

Hasn't this plot been mashed into a fine paste by now? An ugly, boring paste? Perhaps, although Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku's crazed-classic "Battle Royale" found a way to breathe new life into the concept by making its contestants ninth-graders.

"The Condemned" is no "Battle Royale." In fact, the film holds the distinction of featuring the worst scene I've witnessed in American cinema in several years, probably since Susan Sarandon's stand-up routine in the otherwise so-so "Elizabethtown."

It comes near the end, as a Diane Sawyer-esque news anchor speaks in horror about the bloody show. Perhaps those watching, she theorizes, are the real monsters. "Perhaps we are the condemned." I shiver just thinking about this moment. It will go down as the worst acted, written and directed scene this year, and maybe of the decade. Take a bow, writer-director Scott Wiper!

The film does include a few moments of humor, but I can't escape the feeling that the whole affair is far too grim. There is an attempted rape, an implied rape, several male-on-female slaps, countless massacres, and one unlucky chap gets burned alive. There is a way to make such a film work, but this is not it. Even the fight scenes feel truncated and choppy, as if edited by a caffeine-addled 9-year-old.

What about Stone Cold -- oops, Steve Austin's -- acting abilities? He lacks the charm and enthusiasm of The Rock, but he is appropriately macho on screen. He could be the next Randall "Tex" Cobb, as long as he keeps the dialogue to a minimum. In the main supporting role, "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" star and ex-footballer Vinnie Jones seems to be enjoying himself more than Austin.

"The Condemned's" greatest failing is that it is utterly forgettable and mostly boring. Shouldn't it be as crazy-fun as an episode of "Monday Night Raw"? Interestingly, it only comes alive when Austin pulls out some wrestling moves; at least these moments show some semblance of wit.

The WWE can be accused of many things, but it's certainly not run by idiots. Regardless of quality, a WWE-produced film is guaranteed television time on multiple networks, and even if the film makes little impact in theaters, DVD sales will surely be huge. It's another way to pile-drive its consumers and keep those dollars flowing. And no one knows how to pluck a buck better than Vince McMahon.

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>The Condemned

Review: 1 1/2 stars (out of four)
Rated: R for strong violence and language
Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, Robert Mammone and Rick Hoffman star in director Scott Wiper's tale of 10 condemned killers fighting to the death on a desolate island. 113 minutes. Opens Friday in area theaters.

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