Bell a Violent Firebrand in Unsettling Raze
Sabrina (Zoë Bell) shouldn’t be here. The same could be said for the other 49 women in her situation, all of them trapped, maybe underground, maybe not, and each forced to fight one another in gladiatorial battles to death. Choose not to? A loved one close to them will die. Take your own life instead of that of someone else? A loved one close to them will die. Lose in the ring? A loved one close to them will, you guessed it, die.
What more in regards to the grindhouse shocker Raze do you need to know? The film is like some weird female-driven Jean-Claude Van Damme fight flick circa Bloodsport, only instead of being willingly dropped into the all-or-nothing game these women don’t have a choice in the matter. Writers Robert Beaucage, Kenny Gage and Josh C. Waller, who also directs, keep things deadly serious, and why the subject matter is sensationalistic that doesn’t mean they try to sensationalize the film itself as a whole. The filmmakers go out of their way to keep things grounded in a dissociative yet tactile reality thus allowing the resulting narrative to be far more upsetting and uncomfortable than I otherwise would have expected it to be.
I got the feeling Waller and company wanted to trick the viewer into thinking they are about to watch some ultra-violent, fist-flying fluff, everything amped up to stratospheric heights to make the more inherently risible qualities of the scenario not so noticeable. After they sucker you in, however, they actually play those aspects of the material up, putting the viewer right in the middle of the action and in the process manage to make this violence matter in ways that are ugly, disquieting and abhorrent. It felt like they were making a not-so-subtle statement about women and violence but doing so inside the confines of B-grade exploitation all of which helps make watching the film itself a rather emotionally discombobulating experience.
Why? Because the Roman gladiator aspects are exciting, and while the filmmaking behind these one-on-one bouts is hardly glossy, it’s still difficult not to be enamored with the action fireworks fueling each lethal encounter. But Waller lingers on each and every death, maximizing the pain and suffering for both the loser and winner. It made me wonder what it was I was supposed to be taking away from all of this. Do the larger encapsulating thematic points make the bloodletting okay? Are Waller and company trying to have their cake and eat it, too? Does it matter? With all these disparate elements working one against the other does the movie entertain? More importantly, should it?
Coming up with answers to these various questions is understandably difficult, and as nice as it to see Death Proof stars Bell and Tracie Thoms (as another of the ladies forced to fight against their will) back together the bad taste so much of this scenario left in my mouth canceled my elation over their reunion out somewhat. I was fidgeting in my seat for all 92-minutes of this grindhouse affair, the hair on my arms sitting up at attention as tension flooded every fiber of my being. I was aghast by how cravenly cruel a lot of this was, how matter-of-fact the bloodletting turned out to be, and because of that I can’t say I fully enjoyed all of my viewing experience.
Yet I am still impressed with what the filmmakers have accomplished. Waller controls the tempo nicely, building tension throughout with craven, intimidating ease. The fights are superbly staged and photographed, cinematographer Dylan O’Brien and editor Brett W. Bachman showcasing every punch and kick with impactful resonance. Veterans Doug Jones (the Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth chameleon sans prosthetics) and Sherilyn Fenn are allowed to craft two of the creepiest villains I’ve seen in ages, both hiding behind sinister smiles so unnerving I’m shuddering here now just thinking about them again.
Then there is Bell. How is this stuntwoman and actress not yet an action superstar? She’s incredible, lithely slinking her way through the film with a tenacious ferocity that slowly builds until it boils over in a fiery, bloodcurdling wrath that shook me senseless. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, pathos and pain mixing with the anger and vitriol to help transform Sabrina into a harbinger of revenge just waiting for the signal to unleash Hell upon those who have wronged her and the other gladiators.
I’m still not sure what my final opinion on this one is. I’m trying to collect my thoughts, put all of what I witnessed in some sort of perspective. Waller has talent, and I appreciate that the script he and his fellow scribes have come up with wants to be more than just another exploitative B-movie women-in-peril fright (or in this case “fight”) flick. But the juxtaposition between the deeper metaphorical ideas and the raw, visceral and sensationalist battles is noticeably uneasy, and as amazing as Bell is I’m not sure her work alone is enough for me to set my reservations about certain aspects of this productions completely aside. Raze packs quite a punch. I’m just not sure I’m entirely glad I sat there willingly taking them.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)