Sunday, December 29, 2013

RAZE (2013) movie review

Raze (2013) d. Josh C. Waller  (USA)

Two attractive women clad in white tank tops and gray sweatpants stand opposite one another inside a cylindrical brick room. The blinking red lights of surveillance cameras flicker in counterpoint to their panting as each sizes the other up. Then, without warning, they proceed to pound, punch, kick, pull, choke, slap, bite, and savage one another’s bodies until one lies dead and bleeding on the dirt floor. This scenario plays out over and over (and over) again in director Josh Waller’s feature debut, a film that resembles a live-action 90-minute Mortal Kombat video game session, only with more blood, tears, camera angles, and flash cuts (and only slightly more exposition).

Whether this translates into a worthwhile viewing experience will depend entirely on the individual’s reaction to the description above. The slim plot, as devised by Waller, Kenny Gage, and Robert Beaucage (who is credited with the final screenplay), has 50 women kidnapped from their daily lives and deposited in some undisclosed prison-like facility by some undisclosed secret society that serves up these battles royale as entertainment for a select clientele. Yes, it’s Hostel III crossed with the 2007 Steve Austin/Vinnie Jones fight-to-the-death prison flick The Condemmed, all done with a female slant.

Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn star as the power couple who arrange the mayhem, and both seem to be enjoying their cheerily malevolent turns. As for the combatants themselves, we get three of the stars of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and Rosario Dawson), P2’s Rachel Nichols, plus Rebecca Marshall, Bailey Anne Borders, and a slew of other hot chicks primed for slaughter. (The conceit is that if the ladies refuse to fight, one of their loved ones in the real world will be killed, and we are reminded of this via hidden camera footage showing that our baddies know where the husbands, parents, or children are at all times.)

The video game comparison is an apt one—we’re even given “title cards” before each death match (“Sabrina vs. Jamie,” “Cody vs. Phoebe”)—since the character development is next to nil. Sometimes we haven’t even been introduced to a main character’s opponent until the title card shows up; for any discerning viewer, it’s unlikely that our hero is going to lose to a complete unknown, so there’s even less suspense regarding the outcome. As the number of matches start to dwindle and some of our familiar faces are forced to square off against one another, things get slightly more interesting, but only slightly. Fair warning: surprises are few and far between. We can tell, almost without fail, how long someone is going to last based on their billing and onscreen backstory.

So, is Raze a good movie, even at an exploitation flick level? Hard to say. It’s a decent high-concept, but a difficult one to maintain for a feature-length outing. Personally, I found it difficult to invest in anyone’s fate, since we learn little about the characters outside of the ring and even less inside of it except how much punishment they are willing to take and/or dish out. There are also not a lot of finessed, wow-worthy martial arts or kickass choreography; we get a few spin kicks, but mostly it’s just down and dirty slugfests with eye-gouging and head-against-wall ending moves courtesy of stunt coordinator James Young.

That said, there’s an appreciable amount of practical gore and splatter, and Jones and Fenn’s buoyant dark charm works nicely against the overwhelming nihilism on display. No one is going to win any awards for acting here (a little of Marshall’s snarling villain antics go a long way, and Bell comes off as eternally surly), but there’s no doubt that all assembled are having the time of their lives pretending to kick the snot out of their gal pals, which has its own appeal.

Raze is available January 10 on VOD and in select theaters from IFC Midnight.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine 

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