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Tribeca Review: Raze

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Zoë Bell is a stone cold badass. For years she’s been one of the best stunt performers in the world, doubling Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and even appearing as herself in Death Proof. With female versions of The Expendables in the works, Bell seems like she’d be perfect for one of the groups. Hell, she could easily hang with the guys. We even had her at the top of our list of female action movie badasses.

Raze allows her to showcase her abilities as a tough, slobber-knocking bone-cruncher, but she also gets a chance to display some capable acting chops as well.

It’s just too bad that Raze is a movie far, far beneath the talents of Bell and her co-stars.

[For the next few weeks, Flixist will be covering the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 17-28 in New York City. Check with us daily for reviews, interviews, features, and news from the festival. For all of our coverage, go here.]

Raze
Director: Josh Waller
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

Raze is like a cross between a sub-standard Hostel clone and a sub-standard tournament fighting game. A bunch of kidnapped women are kept in cells and forced to fight to the death for the amusement of a wealthy clientele. If they don’t fight, their loved ones die. If they die, their loved ones die. Whoever wins becomes “transformed” in some way.

And, well, that’s pretty much it. The only extra bit to the story involves Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn as the couple (presumably two vintners of some kind) in charge of this centuries-long ritual of Misogynist Kombat. The duo believe that these women who are forced to fight embody the spirit of the Maenads, those female worshippers of Dionysus who were known to rip up animals and people in drunken, orgiastic frenzies.

Oh, and a high-profile actress makes a cameo as one of the female combatants who gets brutally, brutally, brutally beaten to death. She has maybe one line that’s squeaked out as part of her death knell.

Bell plays Sabrina, whose daughter is in danger. Around Sabrina are a bunch of unfortunate fodder characters who you suspect will die at some point because they’re not the main villain combatant. That person, Phoebe, is played by Rebecca Marshall, who’s really good at being a total nutcase. Much of the film is spent waiting for the moment when Sabrina and Phoebe eventually duke it out, and their clash and their antagonism is one of the few bright spots in this mostly dismal affair. It just makes me wish they were both in a much better movie.

I mentioned tone earlier as the film’s main problem, and once everything gets going, it becomes clear that this is not going to be shot like a tournament fighting movie a la Bloodsport. Instead, all of the fights are treated like they’re straight out of a Saw movie, and by that I mean there’s a little too much delight in sadism and fucked-upness. There are brutal fights in a lot of other movies, yeah, and I like brutal fights in those films, but here in Raze the brutality is basically like the stuff out of torture porn movie, and I just can’t stand torture porn. The film’s so off-putting, and probably not in the way that first-time director Josh Waller intended.

There’s a weird line between brutality and sadism, and when Raze strays into the sadistic side of things, it just becomes impossible for the movie to feel anything but misogynistic. I started wondering how I’d feel if the women in Raze were all replaced with men, and I realized I would’ve responded the same way (though it wouldn’t feel misogynist, obviously). Even women-in-prison movies present a greater sense of empowerment than Raze. At least in those kinds of exploitation films there’s the possibility of more than just getting your head caved in for a lecherous camera that loves it when you bleed real good. Not so much in Raze, which at its core this is just a women-murdering-women movie.

And yet, there’s a sort of comedic wink before each of these deaths takes place. As two combatants are about to clash, up comes a title card: “_____ vs. _____.” I can see these cards as an attempt at ironic subversion of violence in a different film. A flippant gag like this can call attention to how violence is perceived in different contexts and venues, but this isn’t a movie concerned with satire or commentary of any kind. The main focus in Raze is crushing windpipes and smearing a face into the dirt for a minute until a mandible collapses or someone’s suffocated.

Somewhere between all the strangulations and bashings of faces into stonewalls, I wondered if the movie itself was misogynist or if it was just a reflection of the misogyny of the observers. Was the movie sadistic, or were the oppressors merely affecting the film’s tone? Maybe Raze was secretly attempting to be feminist in a severely misguided way (aka Sucker Punch feminism). Maybe I was just overthinking everything because I was waiting for more to happen. The film is so one-note about its concerns and its plot that my mind wandered a bit even though the cast were trying their best to float the material.

It’s really not until the last couple minutes of Raze that a more intriguing possibility for the film emerged. This shift in trajectory was a welcome reprieve from torture porn. Suddenly an actual sense of adventure and derring-do that would be great for Bell and her co-stars. It gets away from being a sub-Saw-clone and instead aspires to Enter the Dragon (aka greatness). But then it gets flushed.

Too bad, because I think if this moment toward end had been shifted to the middle of the film, Raze could have been something much cooler than it turned out. These women would have got the hell out of the torture porn genre and moved into much cooler territory. But alas, they had to remain in the clink in this clunker.

[For more info on Raze, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.