By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore
Pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s first turn as a leading man, “The Condemned,” sank like a stone at the box office this past weekend, netting out a paltry $1,732 per theater. Could it be that, so soon after the terrible events at Virginia Tech, audiences weren’t ready for a film whose unfortunate tagline of choice is “10 people will fight. 9 people will die. You get to watch”? Or maybe people were just hip to the fact that “The Condemned”‘s premise of people fighting to the death for entertainment purposes (that of the audiences both within and watching the film) is hardly new. Movies have used the contrivance of the death-tournament as a vehicle for commentary on our violence- and voyeurism-obsessed culture, as its own excuse for copious violence and voyeurism, or, sometimes, both. Here’s a look at some notable entries in the genre.
Judging from films on the subject, high school in Japan can be the eighth circle of social hell “All About Lily Chou-Chou,” “Suicide Circle,” and “Blue Spring” paint portraits of breathtaking nastiness and overwhelming pressure to conform. Kinji Fukasaku’s cult favorite “Battle Royale” takes the idea of high school as social Darwinism to a literal level, plopping an alternate-universe ninth-grade class onto an island for an annual government-sponsored free-for-all that’s intended to leave only one student standing. The prolific Fukasaku’s been a longtime national chronicler of violence spawned by social ills, and “Battle Royale” is no different it combines operatically heightened high school dramas (crushes, rivalries, grudges) with graphic violence and a pervasive theme of youth alienation. Given its content, it’s no surprise that “Battle Royale” met with controversy both in Japan and in the US, where it never received a theatrical release a planned American remake is still listed as in development.
“Enter the Dragon”
Though this 1973 chop socky classic is the prototype for so many other fight to the death movies set in illicit martial arts tournaments, “Enter the Dragon” isn’t a fight to the death movie, per se. Han (Shih Kien), the evil drug kingpin, private island warlord and dude with a bear paw for a fist who invites Lee (Bruce Lee) to participate in his kung fu invitational, doesn’t lay out any specific rules for the battles. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to kill your opponents to be victorious, but pretty much everyone does anyway: even our hero, who RSVPed for this little game of death to avenge his sister’s murder, offs his opponent after he comes after him with a couple of broken bottle necks. We remember the movie more for those intense moments when Lee snaps his victim’s neck in close up, his eyes bulging and his face quivering with power, than the occasional moments when he shows a little mercy.
An unusually thoughtful take on sweaty men slaughtering each other, “Gladiator” dares to question the morality of drawing entertainment from the suffering of others. Russell Crowe’s Roman general-turned-slave Maximus is initially reluctant to participate in barbaric sports for the appeasement of bloodthirsty audiences. In the most famous sequence, he single-handedly slaughters a half-dozen armed men without any pretense of showmanship or suspense, and then bellows to the disappointed crowd, “Are you not ENTERTAINED?” Unfortunately, director Ridley Scott’s moral posturing is somewhat undone by his glossy staging of the gladiatorial action: the Romans may not be entertained, but modern audiences certainly were by the spectacular sequences that included tigers and Amazonian women on horseback. Maximus’ owner and fight promoter tells him, “Thrust this into another man’s flesh, and they will applaud and love you for that.” And they certainly did: “Gladiator” won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 2000.
When you’re an immortal who will live forever and can’t conceive children, there’s apparently very little else to do but wander the earth killing other immortals. So in “Highlander,” men chop each other’s heads off and absorb their bioelectric energy in a slightly goofy looking special effects sequence called “The Quickening.” They are fighting each other because they are told they must and because the last immortal standing will receive “The Prize” a vague reward whose parameters are not entirely explained but which includes the ability to die, a pretty crappy compensation for a guy who’s tried his damndest not to die for centuries. On the DVD commentary, director Russell Mulcahy says, “When this film came out it was viewed by certain people [as] a little out there,” as if it all makes perfect sense. But no one’s yet come up with a reasonable explanation as to why the Scottish Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) sounds French and the Egyptian Spaniard Ramirez (Sean Connery) sounds Scottish, or how there could then be three movie sequels, two television series, and an animated cartoon after Macleod becomes the last immortal and receives his sucky Prize. “There can be only one,” except when it comes to movies. Then there can be lots, especially if revenue streams from the after-market stay strong.
You may not be familiar with the recent career moves of the Muscles from Brussels Jean-Claude Van Damme’s last few films, including his two most recent collaborations with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, have gone straight to DVD. Which is where, admittedly, they belong “In Hell” has Van Damme playing an American sentenced to life in a corrupt Russian prison in which the inmates are forced to battle for the amusement and profit of the cruel warden. These shocking developments are overshadowed by the fact that Van Damme is playing a regular schmo not, like, a regular schmo who happened to study kickboxing during his hardcore military years in Thailand and so spends the first half of the movie resisting violence and getting pummeled until a stint in solitary and a visit from a CG butterfly symbolizing his murdered wife give him a new desire to live…and kill! With his teeth, even! Lam ankled his follow-up film with the actor (2004’s “Wake of Death”), possibly due to lingering trauma from making a Van Damme film that relied more on the action star’s emoting abilities than his martial arts ones.
The young realm of video game movie adaptations has so far run the gamut from bad to really, really bad, but this 1995 film from Paul W.S. Anderson (who went on to make grander, gooier game adaptation “Resident Evil”) achieves a kind of B-movie bliss that can mostly be chalked up to Christopher Lambert’s hammy appearance as a thunderbolt-hurling, straw hat-sporting godling. A movie star, a Shaolin monk and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras are but a few of the contestants who convene on a mysterious island to fight in a mysterious tournament in which Earth’s fate mysteriously lies in the balance. When you’re working with source material best known for its inclusion of the ability to rip your opponent’s head and spinal cord out and hold them, dripping, aloft, you’re not jostling with Shakespeare for a place on the cultural pantheon. Fortunately, “Mortal Kombat” has no such delusions, and the film takes campy pleasure in less-than-spectacular special effects, Wilson-Sampras’ dreadful line-readings and the occasional addition of a phrase directly out of the game which means that when evil sorcerer Shang Tsung kills someone, he intones, for the enlightenment of audience: “Fatality.”
“The Running Man”
Loosely based on a Stephen King novel, this Arnold Schwarzenegger adventure of his post-“Terminator” period plays the “Gladiator” idea a fascist society maintains control over the populace with blood-drenched entertainment in a dystopic future. And Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards, like Crowe’s Maximus, is a prisoner of the state forced to fight for his own life in the middle of a game he can’t possibly win (and, naturally, does anyway). Of course, in “Gladiator,” Crowe fights legitimately dangerous threats. In “The Running Man,” Schwarzenegger battles a serious of super-powered “Stalkers,” each more laughably dumpy than the last. Professor Sub-Zero is a big fat guy with a knife-edged hockey stick; Dynamo is a bigger, fatter guy with a Lite-Brite vest and a fiber-optic mohawk. And so on. It’s an incredibly dumb treatment of a seemingly serious topic; any similarity to actual social commentary (like the collusion of corporations and government) or prescient thinking (like the digital manipulation of imagery) is purely coincidental. After all, as Richards himself says, “I’m not into politics, I’m into survival.” And, of course, making witty remarks while you kill people (“Here’s Sub-Zero! Now: plain zero!”).
“Series 7: The Contenders”
While its satirical point is nothing new (see “The Running Man,” above, or “The Tenth Victim,” below), Daniel Minahan’s low-budget, Sundance-favored indie about six randomly chosen Americans duking it out in a televised kill-or-be-killed competition gains some sharpness from its “Survivor”-on-crack angle. While similar films pick a near-future setting and imply that such institutionalized awfulness could only be the product of a dystopia, “Series 7” skips overt sci-fi references, choosing instead to mimic the conventions of current reality TV the interviews, quick-cut backstories, clumsy reenactments of scenes that weren’t caught on camera and an awesomely hackneyed narration by “Arrested Development”‘s Will Arnett. Dawn Lagarto, “Series 7″‘s memorable heroine, is the show’s gruff reigning champion who’s also, in a vicious turn, eight months pregnant and fighting not just for her own survival but for that of her child. When Melanie Lynskey showed up as a recent mother and abused spouse competing for a new life in Fox’s toothless (and quickly canceled) series “Drive,” it wasn’t hard to find the character’s inspiration.
“The Tenth Victim”
Before “Battle Royale,” before “Survivor,” even, there was Elio Petri’s loopy and seriously 60s “The Tenth Victim,” which stars Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress as competitors in The Big Hunt, a government-sponsored game intended as an outlet for those with violent or suicidal tendencies. (“A killing a day keeps the doctor away,” an announcement proclaims.) If Andress’ Caroline Meredith can take out Mastroianni’s Marcello Polletti, she’ll will a million bucks but Marcello’s well aware that someone’s coming for him. On top of this, both have complicated things for themselves by picking up corporate sponsors who’d like their kills to happen in front of the camera and then, they have to go and fall in love. The most revealing thing about Petri’s overpacked film (beyond Andress’ outfits) is that it ventures into screwball comedy none of the films that followed took such a light tone for what’s become such a pointed subject.
In 2005’s “13 (Tzameti),” Sébastien (Georges Babluani) stumbles into an underground fight club where the players stand in a circle and aim a pistol (first with a single bullet, then progressively more as the game progresses) at the back of the head of the person in front of them. When a light is switched, they pull the trigger until their target is dead or they are. This perverse sort of Russian Roulette is performed for the delight and gambling potential of the very wealthy (in fight to the death pictures, rich old people have nothing to do but delight in the death of poor young people). What separates “13” from other fights to the death is also what makes it especially chilling. In most instances of cinematic mortal combat, the participants control their own destiny; their fate is determined by their own skills and fighting ability. In “13,” Sébastien wins or loses by a simple twist of cruel, laughable fate and victory isn’t as glorious as most fight to the death movies make it seem. If he survives, how will Sébastien live with what he’s done?
[Photos: The Condemned,” Lionsgate, 2007; “Battle Royale,” Toei, 2000; “Enter the Dragon,” Warner Bros., 1973; “Gladiator,” DreamWorks, 2000; “Highlander,” 20th Century Fox, 1986; “In Hell,” Sony Pictures, 2003; “Mortal Kombat,” New Line Cinema, 1995; “The Running Man,” TriStar Pictures, 1987; “Series 7: The Contenders,” USA Films, 2001; “The Tenth Victim,” Embassy Pictures Corporation, 1965; “13 (Tzameti),” Palm Pictures, 2006]