Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Heavy Action: The Marine / The Condemned

It's a Tale of Two Wrestlers.

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.
Having become a superstar in the WWE, Cena was one of the company's first attempts to create their own in-house action star with The Marine, a vehicle perfectly suited to Cena's strengths and limited range as an actor. He plays John Triton (HIS NAME IS JOHN TRITON), a U.S. Marine who is honorably discharged after disobeying orders to rescue American hostages from an Al-Qaeda hideout. Back in the States, Triton flounders a little. Anxious to remain busy and not seem useless to his wife Kate (Kelly Carlson), he gets a job working security. After an altercation with a spoiled douchebag, Trition is fired on his first day of work. So he and the wife take a vacation, but during a routine stop for gas, Kate is kidnapped by some on-the-run thieves, led by the villainous Rome (Robert Patrick). Triton has to chase the bad guys through the swamp to get his wife back. He can do it. He's THE MARINE.

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.
Not that it matters. While it's a stretch as a title, there's something charming and goofy about it -- calling the film The Marine does more to sketch out Cena's character than anything that happens on screen. He's a good man, a rule follower. He's straight laced. He's milk and cookies and American cheese. HE IS THE MARINE. Cena is serviceable in the part because the limitations of his acting abilities can be read as "simple decency." He lacks the movie star charisma of a Dwayne Johnson, but so does most of Hollywood. I can't hold it against John Cena that he lives in the shadow of The Rock. We all do.

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 Marine's biggest flaw -- besides being goofy and mostly forgettable to anyone but diehard #HeavyAction fans -- is that it's two movies. The hero is all buttoned up decency, but the tone of the movie is often a little sleazy and a lot mean spirited. There are too many gay panic jokes. There are stupid moments where characters break the fourth wall, usually in response to a gay panic joke. It's pretty misogynistic and probably a little racist. It's a lot like the WWE in those days. Director John Bonito tries to approximate the humor and general attitude of the pro wrestling organization at the time, so a lot of The Marine actually feels like the non-wrestling scenes from mid-2000s episode of Raw. That's not really a compliment. Had The Marine ditched a lot of the jokes and played it more straight, I might be able to recommend it without all of the "you just have to look past this and this" reservations. It would be a better, more consistent movie. Either that or it would be 12 Rounds.

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.
I don't know what it is, but I've never been a huge fan of Stone Cold Steve Austin as an actor. As a guy in interviews or as the host of his own podcast (The Steve Austin Show), he's terrific -- engaging, funny, honest. Maybe it's because he has yet to make a really great action movie (though one is very solid; more on that soon). Maybe he just hasn't found the right part yet, because he seems more like a character action star than a lead. Austin needs to find something best suited to his strengths.

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.
A combination of 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.
Co-writer and director Scott Wiper tries to have it both ways. There is a half-hearted attempt at "messaging" about violence in the media, represented by evil producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone). He's the soulless corporate douche who would willfully get people to murder one another and put it on TV because IT'S WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT. And gradually his underlings get more and more disgusted by him as they grow consciences and we're supposed to root for Stone Cold to kill him for being such a slimeball who only cares about RATINGS and MONEY. That the movie is released by WWE Studios and is produced by WWE owner Vince McMahon is not an easy irony to reconcile. But it's also hypocritical in the way that every action movie with the same message is hypocritical, attempting to entertain us with violence and brutality for two hours and then turn around and indict us for enjoying it. Some filmmakers are able to pull that off. Scott Wiper, you are not Michael Haneke.

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.
Maybe I'm resistant to the faux-edge of The Condemned, or maybe I just prefer John Cena, Action Star to Steve Austin, Action Star, but I'll revisit The Marine any day of the week before I feel like watching The Condemned again. I appreciate that even in what was basically its infancy, WWE Studios was experimenting with what kinds of action movies they were going to make even though both efforts feel very much like WWE Movies, but only one of the approaches works. The disparity can't be blamed totally on the actors but on the movies themselves. The Marine's embraces an '80s throwback vibe that makes it hold up. The Condemned felt like a relic the day it was released in theaters.


  1. I haven't seen The Condemned yet, but based on an offhand remark you made about it on the wrestler movies podcast I blind-bought a double-feature DVD of The Marine & 12 Rounds and watched them both a couple weeks ago. Maybe it's just that I was in the right mood for it, but I loved The Marine, and the sillier it got the more I was on board with it. When Cena's car was being blown to shit while he remained completely unscathed it rivaled the bomb under the car in Transporter 2 for dopiest scene that ever made me want to stand up and cheer. I totally agree about Robert Patrick, his performance was so much fun it helped me overlook that awful running "joke" about rock candy and a lot of the other...let's just say problematic dialogue.

    As for 12 Rounds, I already barely remember anything about it other than I spent most of it thinking "where's Robert Patrick when we need him?" I like Cena as an action hero, there's something engagingly square-jawed (actually, fully square-headed) about him, and I hope to see him do some more fun action movies.

    Question for you: I watched the unrated "extreme cut" (man, I hate that terminology) of both movies but they were still solidly PG-13 affairs, do you think that helps or hinders Cena's viability as an action star? Both movies felt a bit too "safe" to me, like they were afraid to embrace what they wanted to be. What do you think?

    1. Sounds like our feelings on both The Marine and 12 Rounds are pretty much the same.

      Having not seen the theatrical cuts of either movie, I don't know how different those unrated EXTREME cuts are, but totally agree that they still felt pretty safe. I think the rating helped Cena's chances, as I have to believe much of the audience for his movies would be kid wrestling fans. And I'm not even sure I would like them more if they were more R-rated, since (as you mention) the squareness is part of the charm of The Marine at least. I don't know what would have helped 12 Rounds. Any kind of personality, I guess.

  2. WWE Studios is becoming kind-of interesting. "No One Lives" was a pretty good throw back horror film and "Dead Man Down" was an enjoyable, dark, crime flick with an insane action ending. Now they are doing the upcoming "Oculus" which looks really promising. My friend and I were just discussing this and wondering who is picking these films? It certainly isn't Vince McMahon!

    1. I didn't love Dead Man Down, but like you I appreciate that WWE Studios seems to be trying to make different kinds of movies and not just starring vehicles for their wrestlers. I have no idea what that will mean in the future -- what will a "WWE Studios movie" look like?

      I didn't realize they had Oculus, but I'm super excited about that one. Starbuck and Amy Pond in the same movie? ONE PLEASE.

    2. WWE does usually manage to find ways to include wrestlers in the movies they produce though. I believe Dead Man Down was almost finished, and just needed a distributor, so WWE picked it up. Then they cast Wade Barrett in a role as one of the henchmen in the movie. Brodus Clay played a bigger part in No One Lives, even though he's the first one that was dispatched. David Otunga another WWE performer played a small role in The Call.

      Now WWE studios has picked up the right for many series. They are filming the next Leprechaun: Origins movie, which is starring Hornswoggle. The next Scooby-Doo movie is going to feature voices of a bunch of performers in the WWE (including Vince McMahon himself). Then there is Jingle All the Way 2 with Santino Marella in a major role (too bad Sinbad was busy). They are also making a bunch of sequels including Marine 4, See No Evil 2, and are expected to do a Flintstones movie as well. Maybe John Cena can play Bam Bam's older self?

      So while these movies don't always feature WWE Superstars in starring roles, quite often they are mainly used as a vehicle to push one or two superstars into mainstream attention. Look no further than Triple H who I still can't believe acted opposite Bruce Dern in Inside Out, and also starred in that piece of garbage Chaperone movie.

      Occasionally like with Dead Man Down, The Call, The Day, and Oculus they pick up the rights to movies that are already near completion, so they don't have an opportunity to place wrestlers in major roles. That's pretty much the only time they aren't vehicles to push their own performers as actors.

      I am happy that they've had a couple hits recently though, as they struggled initially, and many insiders expected WWE Studios to follow the same path the XFL went down. They had a few box office bombs with The Chaperone, Knucklehead, and Legendary; they really needed a hit, which The Call was for them.

      They've managed to find a niche, and should continue to do well going forward if they maintain limited production budgets, and with proper casting.