Written by: Robert Beaucage (story & screenplay), Kenny Gage (story), Josh C. Waller (story)
Directed by: Josh C. Waller
Starring: Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and Rebecca Marshall
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
May the best woman win.
If Tarantino were to ever make a sequel to Death Proof, the most logical and obvious direction would be to toss his surviving femme fatales into a Women in Prison flick, and it seems like the folks behind Raze latched onto that idea, as they’ve reunited two of Stuntman Mike’s tormentors (Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms) and done just that—sort of. While the cast of Raze is imprisoned, these women find themselves held captive in a demented game of life-and-death; it’s less a tribute to the schlocky grindhouse era WIP films and more another modern exercise in emotional and physical torture—and it’s fittingly an endurance tests for audiences as a result.
Bell is Sabrina, one of several women who are held captive in a grungy torture dungeon, freed only when they’re summoned to battle each other to the death. The opening scene is actually kind of staggering, as Sabrina ruthlessly pummels her opponent’s face into unrecognizable mincemeat before appealing to her unseen captors, asking how many more she must kill. As it turns out, there’s plenty of meat left for the grinder because Sabrina is one of fifty women who have been rounded up for these death-matches, which come with a horrifying twist: the losers’ loved ones will die along with them, and any refusal to fight will bring the same consequence.
Cast out of the same dystopian mold as The Running Man, Battle Royale, and The Hunger Games, Raze is content to be an especially savage, gritty riff on the theme, delivered without much ambition beyond its brutal fight choreography. With the brawls serving as the main draw, it’s important that they register, and they do. Each encounter is positively cringe-worthy and impacts on a visceral level, with some also managing to impact emotionally when girls who have bonded over shared tragedy are suddenly expected to kill each other. Such moments are fleeting, however, and feel like forced, sentimental intrusions into an otherwise deranged film that’s more preoccupied with blunt force trauma.
And for what? Violence doesn’t always demand an explanation or a justification, but Raze often hints at some great point behind its bludgeoning, particularly whenever it pulls back the curtain to reveal the plot behind this battle to the death. Apparently, it’s being put on by a cabal of high society types headed by an eccentric billionaire (Doug Jones, who practically demands to get his smarmy ass kicked whenever he speaks), and they’re enjoying the proceedings via closed circuit television. Occasionally, Jones’s character will drudge up some vague blather about the need to crown a female warrior (it seems as though these death-matches are an ancient ritual or something), but it mostly just comes off as an excuse to watch fifty women kick the shit out of each other.
To a certain extent, director Josh Waller makes the audience complicit in this sick voyeurism by indulging the competition. An early exchange between the handful of surviving girls telegraphs exactly where Raze is going: Sabrina is the laconic but reluctant badass whose tenacity is matched only by Phoebe (a cartoonishly catty Rebecca Marshall), a loudmouthed, wannabe alpha female. As the tournament rolls on, it’s obvious the two are on a collision course, and the film invites its viewers to delight in it when Sabrina’s set to kick Phoebe’s teeth in. She's the Van Damme to Marshall's Bolo Yeung. It’s an interesting dynamic—you get the feeling that Waller is attempting to somehow make a statement about the male gaze by refusing to resort to the eroticism and icky sexual politics of previous WIP films (the women here are shot to accentuate their ferocity, not their curves), but he’s still preying on a different sort of voyeurism that seeks to find pleasure in pain.
I can’t help but think the film would have been better off channeling the sheer delight of the last ten to fifteen minutes (let’s just say it’s titled “Sabrina vs. Everyone”) into the entire film. Rather than exploiting the bond between the girls for mawkish sentimentality, why not have them unite and scheme their way out of the prison in the grand tradition of WIP films? When Bell, who doubled Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, gets her own opportunity to rampage, Raze briefly sparks to life. One wishes she had more company for the occasion, but she’s spent the majority of the film obliterating them. It’s a shame because Bell has a fantastic presence and energy that’s best served when we can enjoy watching her rearrange faces; instead, Raze is often a joyless, repetitive, nihilistic bummer looking to pound viewers into submission.
Waller’s commitment to unflinching brutality would be more commendable if it were channeled in another direction or if some greater meaning arose from it. He and the rest of the cast and crew are prominently featured on IFC Midnight’s forthcoming DVD, which is loaded with special features: the headliner is the audio commentary joining Waller, Bell, Andrew Pagana, and Kenny Gage, most of whom return for the various interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes as well. Thirty-five minutes of deleted scenes provide a glimpse at a lot of cutting-room-floor material, while further features provide extended looks at the film’s fights. Additionally, the disc provides a gag reel, the original short film that inspired Raze, a poster gallery, and a trailer. There’s no shortage of special features for what turns out to be a pretty anemic film whose laudable intentions are bashed away over the course of 90 minutes. Rent it!
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