Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Heavy Action: The Marine / The Condemned
Since the popularity of professional wrestling exploded in the 1980s, wrestlers have been trying to make the leap to action star status on the big screen. It makes sense; these are guys who make their living fighting for entertainment, so why not put a couple fake guns in their hands and turn them into action heroes?
That's how we get Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown or Jesse Ventura in Predator or Hulk Hogan in Thunder in Paradise or Bill Goldberg in Universal Solider: The Return or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in Walking Tall or Kevin Nash in The Punisher. Given the fact that both John Cena and Stone Cold Steve Austin were among the most popular and beloved wrestlers in WWE's stable for much of the 2000s, it makes sense that head honcho Vince McMahon would try to make them into movie stars with The Marine and The Condemned, both action films released under the WWE Studios label. Neither movie made much of a dent in the genre but make for an interesting study in opposites.
The Marine (2006)
John Cena is, in many ways, the total opposite of Stone Cold Steve Austin. From what I have seen (in my very limited exposure to pro wrestling this decade), Cena occasionally tries to come off like a bad boy tough guy, but there's no denying he's square as can be. Steve Austin is a guy who will knock you out and have sex with your wife. John Cena calls her "M'am." Steve Austin chugs beer by the pitcherful. John Cena orders juice. That's ok. Action movies need juice drinkers, too.
Why is this movie called The Marine? He starts the movie as a marine so that he can disobey orders, kick some ass and save some lives just so he can be discharged. But why? Why is that a part of his character? So that he can be looking for work for the next 20 minutes? Why is THAT a part of his character? It really seems like either a) someone realized they only had 60 minutes worth of movie once the actual plot starts and went back in to add a whole bunch of business up front or b) the original script was something very different before getting a major rewrite and no one bothered to change the title.
What's especially fascinating is that the film was originally written for Steve Austin, as he was clearly the guy WWE wanted to launch to movie stardom following the success of The Rock. He left the WWE around the time this movie was shot (2004, though it wouldn't be released until 2006), meaning the two parties weren't too interested in making a movie together. That's for the best, as Austin would have been completely miscast in this role. Or, at the very least, would have completely changed the vibe of it, getting rid of much of its squareness so that the entirety of the movie had the shitty beer commercial tone instead of just half of it.
Even more fascinating is that the villain role was first offered to Al Pacino, who reportedly turned it down because of money. Part of me thinks that's true -- that it was money and not quality control -- as Pacino was just really entering the "total shit" phase of his career and might have gladly appeared in a WWE movie if the price was right. Ray Liotta also turned it down, which is too bad because he would have CRUSHED it. The role ultimately went to Robert Patrick, who still manages to be the best thing about the movie by underplaying the role. While his contemporaries all try to out-evil one another by either a) acting psychotic by being manic and enjoying him or herself too much or b) acting psychotic by being icy. Patrick goes a third route -- one part icy, one part enjoying himself but mostly just adopting a detached bemusement. He gets laughs without mugging for them and, perhaps recognizing that he's in a WWE movie with a first -time director and a pro wrestler in the lead, gives the movie some legitimacy. I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion that action movies are only as good as their villains, but if I did it would make The Marine a pretty good one.
The Condemned (2007)
The Marine did well enough at the box office to embolden WWE Studios to take another crack at the action genre, this time with an even bigger and more beloved wrestler. Though they had failed to make with worth with him in The Marine, Stone Cold Steve Austin would be given his first starring role in an action film.
The Condemned comes close to giving him the right part, casting him as Jack Conrad, a prisoner on death row who is purchased by a TV producer to compete on an illegal webcast that pits 10 prisoners against one another in a fight to the death. Each has an explosive device strapped to his or her ankle set to detonate in 30 hours; they are then dropped onto an island and expected to kill one another. The last person standing is granted his or her freedom and a large cash reward.
The Running Man and Battle Royale (with convicts in place of schoolchildren), The Condemned was Austin's real shot at mainstream stardom; aside from a supporting role as a henchman in the first Expendables, his other movies were all released straight to DVD. The best among those is The Package, which pits him against Dolph Lundgren and is actually pretty awesome (I have a soft spot for Tactical Force, too, but mostly for Michael Jai White's performance). He also manages to be the best thing in Maximum Conviction, a team up with him and Steven Seagal that sounds great on paper but is less great in practice. He's one of the best things about The Condemned (I liked him more rewatching it this time), but even that is not enough.
The Condemned feels in many ways to be a direct reaction to box office disappointment of The Marine (despite that fact that The Marine was the highest-grossing WWE production until the 2013 release of The Call, starring Intercontinental Champion Halle Berry). Whereas that film feels square and old-fashioned (and by "old-fashioned" I don't mean 1940s, I mean 1980s), The Condemned throws up backwards trying to seem "edgy" and "current." Reality TV is a thing! People shake the cameras in action movies now! The internet! It's more violent, it's more mean spirited and it's way more ugly than The Marine. It's also not as good a movie.
Breckel is also a shitty villain, lacking the hateful smarm of Richard Dawson's Killian but not really compensating with anything else. So The Condemned creates a "villain on the ground" and adds in Vinnie Jones as the baddest of the convicts, attempting to give Stone Cold a more formidable foe on a physical level. Jones -- who has become omnipresent in the DTV action genre in the last few years -- is an actor best used in small doses (making this the first and last time I can say "Guy Ritchie was on to something, guys"), and though there's nothing really wrong with his performance in The Condemned there's nothing special about it either. He's British and he seems authentically tough because he's Vinnie Jones, but the "fun" he's having being the bad guy feels manufactured, like he knows that there's some unspoken rule that action movie villains have to be over the top because they enjoy being crazy and evil. At least Robert Patrick in The Marine finds a way to do it with a different kind of energy.