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Indie Snapshot: Raze

by Ethan Alter January 10, 2014 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Raze</i>

For his entrée into the world of cult filmmaking, Josh C. Waller revives two dormant forms of grindhouse fare: the '70s-era Women in Cages prison pictures from Roger Corman and the '80s-era Bloodsport beatdown brawls starring the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme. It's an irresistible exploitation-fusion that's guaranteed to make Raze a must-see amongst the sizeable audience of B-movie lovers, who will further be lured into Waller's web by his savvy choice of leading lady: New Zealand stuntwoman (and Quentin Tarantino muse) Zoë Bell. Too bad the film itself doesn't measure up to what must have been a killer pitch session.

Let's be clear: anyone watching Raze is first and foremost watching it for the fights, which are frequent, lengthy and, for the most part, enjoyably brutal. Bell plays Sabrina, one of fifty women who have been kidnapped by the married proprietors (played by Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn, because you can't accuse Waller of not knowing his audience) of a literally underground fight club and forced to battle each other in bare-knuckle cage matches to the death, for the amusement of the rich and idle. (Due to budget constraints, we pick up the narrative when the number of contestants has sunk from 50 to six or seven.) Apart from their very survival, what gives these women (all of whom, in true grindhouse fashion, have runway-ready hair and large, heaving bosoms) the impetus to beat each other to bloody pulps is the threat of harm to their loved ones in the outside world, all of whom this shadowy organization has targeted for termination should they refuse to enter the ring. Sabrina, for example, is fighting for the life of the child she gave away for adoption, a bit of backstory that makes explicit the film's already not-at-all subtle equation of maternal protection with a propensity for violence. That's why she's capable of repeatedly bashing in the face of a wide-eyed innocent like Jamie (Rachel Nichols), even though she feels really, really bad about it afterwards.

Seen today, what's striking about a movie like Bloodsport is how little… well, blood there actually is in it. Not only that, but the fights are almost comically over-directed, with lots of slow-motion and crowd reaction shots to distract from the fact that the fighters are barely touching each other. To his credit, Waller attempts to go the other way, staging bouts that are awash in human hemoglobin and getting his camera into the ring and up in the characters' faces and fists; and, of course, having an experienced fighter like Bell anchoring the big match-ups doesn't hurt either. (Too bad Waller couldn't tempt MMA fighter-turned-amateur actress Gina Carano into giving up Fast and Furious wages to fight for scale; unlike De Niro vs. Stallone, a Bell vs. Carano bout is a grudge match that actually needs to happen.)

So why aren't Raze's girl-on-girl brawls enough to make this the midnight movie staple it so clearly wants to be? Because everything that happens between them is a bore, both dramatically and aesthetically. Granted, Women in Cages and Bloodsport aren't exactly sterling examples of storytelling and technical craft, but the latter benefits from its picturesque setting (Hong Kong) and cheesy revenge plot, while the former's overt political and sexual meta-commentary is fascinating to contemplate, particularly in the context of its time. In contrast, Raze has a pronounced lack of substance and style; Waller is clearly a student of exploitation cinema, but unlike Tarantino (and, to a lesser extent, Robert Rodriguez) he lacks the flair for recreating and/or building upon its artistry. What should be a nightmarish scenario instead feels entirely bland, the only tedium-relieving kicks provided by the actresses themselves. A scrappy fighter to the bitter end, Raze throws plenty of punches, but very few of them land.

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