Perhaps not quite the platonic ideal of the movie about women being enslaved and forced to fight to the death you were looking for, but close enough. (Extra points for being essentially the same as a movie about men being enslaved and forced to fight to the death, which you might not expect, but it is, in the 21st century, what you should want, so there you go.)
Directed by Josh C. Waller
Written by Robert Beaucage, Kenny Gage, and Josh C. Waller
With Zoe Bell (Sabrina), Tracie Thoms (Teresa), Bailey Anne Borders (Cody), Rebecca Marshall (Phoebe), Doug Jones (Joseph), Bruce Thomas (Kurtz) and Rachel Nichols (Jamie)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Here I am, two days after having praised the very fine torture-Gothic-horror-class war picture Would You Rather to the heavens—I gave it a B+, anyway—and, just as explicitly, its distributor, IFC Midnight. And now what have they done? Gone ahead and proved me right. It's good to be right.
You can call Raze exploitation and, of course, it is. But ever since they outlawed fights to the death back in the 1990s, the obvious thing to do was for enterprising filmmakers to step into that entertainment void. Sometimes that impulse has paid off spectacularly (Battle Royale, for example, and I'm sure Arena and Condemned are better than the alternative) and sometimes it's produced hateful dadaist anti-art (The Hunger Games, Battle Royale II: Requiem). Raze is regular art, and can be commended as such.
Like Would You Rather, once again premise and picture are practically coextensive. Young women with violent pasts are kidnapped by a secret society and imprisoned. They must do as they are told, or their families will die; this cuts down upon but does eliminate the obvious response to the situation, which of course is suicide.
The society's goal is amusement, and to this end they force their captives into a fighting tournament that will leave only one champion standing at the end, whom they say they will release. Knowing that they are battling for the survival of their loved ones even if this promise is a lie, the women do fight, with varying degrees of gusto, and they damned well do it to the death. Their battles are filmed before a live audience, and presumably for later rebroadcast on Videodrome.
The signal's coming from America... probably Pittsburgh.
So, here's the thing: Raze is less sexually anything than you'd expect; this is, happily, a rape-free zone. Indeed, the only time gender is even made an overt issue is during the deranged declamations of the genteel boss villains—bizarrely, a married couple. Showing off their half-remembered classical educations, they refer to the victims as Maenads. In other words, the most explicitly sexually exploitative aspect of the film is a campy monologue about the extremely faint similarities between the prisoner-fighters and Dionysos' drunken, murderous female cultists. Alan Moore would be very proud (well, if only it had any rape).
By contrast, the working-class prison guards, while just as cruel as you'd want them to be, make little if any hay of the fact that their charges are all female. Thus all of the characters are to a large degree genderless in any way that especially matters; a time-tested women-versus-patriarchy theme is all we get in that department.
This is very simple, and it is exactly enough. The draw is "women fighting to the death," and the fact that the victims are indeed of the fairer sex certainly gives the movie that transgressive grindhouse frisson it's after, and perhaps results in an ineffable aesthetic difference which one may prefer, or not, but in almost all of its essentials Raze is a movie about humans fighting to the death. One would hardly be surprised if the shadowy organization that runs these fights has a men's league too.
And it is probably more popular and gets all the sponsorship money, even though the same athleticism is clearly on display here.
It is, of course, one woman in particular who makes Raze such an important event, for this is the first starring vehicle for stuntwoman, actress, and my personal superhero, Zoe Bell. You will remember her as Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill, and from her jaw-dropping performance as herself/a ship's mast in Death Proof, and (regrettably) from the unforgivable waste that's been made of her talents since then, in her roles as not even a glorified extra in Django Unchained and Oblivion.
But now she's back! Now she speaks! And she plays Sabrina, an ex-soldier, former POW, and mother to a daughter that she gave up for adoption years ago, but whom she now watches helplessly over via hidden camera footage on the CCTV that her captors have thoughtfully provided for her cell.
Character details being only marginally important—not to spoil anything, but they do become far more important than they ever should have been—it is the case that her character role is to beat the shit out of all the other characters. While Bell's surprisingly good at pathos given her limited experience—between this and the devil-may-care goofball in Death Proof, I'm suspicious that she may be a for-real good actress—in the narrower regard of narrative function, no casting could be more perfect.
Of course, one definition of perfection is a full 1970 Dodge Challenger reunion, and maybe they come closer to that than you think. But, perhaps, I say too much.
They did have the good sense to bring in Tracie Thoms, Death Proof's most loquacious heroine, as Teresa, one of our principals. Also on hand is Bailey Anne Borders, who does just fine as Cody, the brittlest of our protagonists, who can nonetheless twist your head just about right off.
Rounding out the female cast is its demi-villain, a psychotic bitch archetype from super-hell; she's the only prisoner who outright enjoys the fights. This is Phoebe, and she is played by Rebecca Marshall. Marshall takes on the role in a manner that suggests that if you opened a dictionary and showed her the definition of restraint, she would eat the dictionary. The performance is, initially, highly annoying, but I have to admit that by the end it becomes kind of deliriously compelling in its sheer, hyperbolic vileness, and I cannot imagine the movie being half as good without her.
A significant portion if not the majority of Raze is the dynamic thus established between these three women and our lead, and if it is not uninteresting, which it is thankfully not, then Raze must be credited as being highly successful within the confines of its own limited ambitions.
On the side of evil, we have Doug Jones, equally vile, who gets the most loquacious part of this film. His unimportant name is Joseph, and he's the one who trots out the Greek references. You will remember Doug Jones, I imagine, from absolutely nothing; indeed, for the entire running time I was convinced that he was James Frain from Tron: Legacy because he looks and sounds exactly like an undigitzed version of CLU's head henchman, Jarvis. This is, to be sure, no criticism at all, but praise of the highest order; and Jones plays his goofy part with the exact same kind of no holds barred high camp that I find so adorable.
In an off-putting turn, however, the movie does not actually open with Zoe Bell's Sabrina. Note the other headliner on the poster—yes, note it well, for all the good it does you.
You will certainly remember Psycho. Surprisingly, this movie is not as well-made as Psycho! This is especially the case, given that it's barely even attempting to hide its obvious twist, can't wait ten full minutes to untwist it into our patiently waiting faces, and also when it's The Year of Our Lord 2014 and we know what movie this is, probably because we specifically rented it for six bucks.
Perhaps in fifty years, and Raze is an obscure curio alongside Open Grave, Antisocial, Here Comes the Devil, and American Hustle, this kind of narrative fuckery will come off as far more clever to the film historian who rediscovers it, unaware of who the Kiwi is or why she was important to cinema. But here, today, what are we supposed to expect when your very first fight is Zoe Bell vs. Rachel Nichols?
However, this opening sequence does do one thing right, and that is to introduce us to the actual structure of Raze: it is broken into chapters by the important fights, each one's participants helpfully announced by title cards. (There is, after all, a lot of dead meat to keep track of.) In fact, the best line of the movie, if you consider it a line, is on a title card.
Come on. That's no spoiler.
As said, Joseph is filming his fights for his shadow organization, but I'll note that he's doing so entirely inadequately, with a single-camera set-up, in an overhead shot of a singularly unassuming pit. We can thank God, then, that this isn't a found footage film, though I get a chill down my spine upon realizing that it easily could have been.
Luckily, then, we do get to see all the action. That action, almost always well-choreographed and performed by actresses well-trained in and enthusiastic about stage fighting, is appropriately shot. It is also—with one serious misstep notwithstanding (you'll know it)—rather wonderfully edited, somewhat to my surprise. Though kinetic as hell, Raze avoids becoming a chopped-up abomination, and it is delightfully unfraid to show more than merely suggest the above-par makeup effects used to depict the film's many broken and battered bodies. Visually speaking, as long as you push through those shitty, SyFy Original opening credits, you'll be okay.
Raze comes together as a mostly-convincing, very handsome and largely deliberately-unstylized depiction of violence, and since—as I'm sure we all agree—violence for its own sake is pretty cool, so is Raze. Despite the single location (varied only once), and even the single costume shared between the women (tank top, sweats—sexy? no, see above), the fights are staged with enough variation that, as long as they're a going concern, they are never once dull or even repetitive before the climax comes and gives us something altogether different. Indeed, sometimes the fights are intense enough and feature characters we care about enough that they're not even enjoyable! Which is, however paradoxically, enjoyable in its own right.
Also enjoyable in their own right: the production design and the blocking, a superlative achievement of color on one hand and an excelsior use of the space so constructed on the other, all on a clearly limited budget.
The only thing to sully the grand guignol experience for me was the ending—the very last few shots—which deflates the tone thus established to such a crushing degree that I experienced it as almost a betrayal of trust. I am sure that is exactly what the creators were going for. Well, authorial intent ain't how we grade around here, so fuck you, creators. Stop being so creative and give me more Zoe Bell punching, beating, cleavering, and shooting people to death. It may have been the reason I cared in the first place.
But nevermind those last few shots: Raze remains a recommended film for all those with a well-developed taste for fine violence. We've started off 2014 right.