Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Josh C. Waller
Writer: Robert Beaucage
Producer: Zoe Bell, Kenny Gage, Andrew Pagana, Josh C. Waller
Stars: Zoe Bell, Rachel Nichols, Tracie Thoms, Bruce Thomas, Bailey Anne Borders, Rebecca Marshall, Allene Quincy, Adrienne Wilkinson, Doug Jones, Sherilynn Fenn
Kidnapped women are imprisoned and forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of an elite underground club.
“Raze” is 90 minutes of women beating the sh*t out of each other, but it is not just 90 minutes of women beating the sh*t out of each other. Somewhere there is an overzealous student prepping what he thinks is a subversive treatise about “Raze” being sly commentary on female empowerment in a society dominated by traditional gender roles. Elsewhere, there is an angry editorialist lobbing insults at the filmmakers for glorifying misogyny in a different misguided haze of misperception. “Raze” playfully antagonizes both camps with just the right amount of subtext to allow mountains to be made from molehills when the real message is that the cast and crew want to deliver high-energy entertainment. And that they do.
The setting is an absurdist world where elite snooteratti sip champagne and golf clap at the closed-circuit carnage of 50 kidnapped and imprisoned women fighting each other to the death in a single-elimination battle royale. Each of the initially unwilling participants has a figurative gun to her head in the form of a literal one pointed at a loved one outside the underground pit-fighting club. Under penalty of death for herself and for her family, each lady is forced to engage in a bare-knuckle brawl of ultimate survival.
It is an impossible concept that any quasi-secret organization could orchestrate an endeavor this detailed and this massive in scope. Yet like so many of the needle eyes that “Raze” finely threads, the movie always knows which blocks of disbelief to slide without the entire Jenga tower toppling in disaster. A generous dollop of grindhouse fantasy sells the story with cinematic flair while somehow keeping a foot in the door of an almost plausible reality.
Everyone onboard in front of the lens understands what is necessary from their personalities to keep the boat from listing portside into stylized camp or starboard towards tiresome fight sequences. Rebecca Marshall relishes her conniving villainess combatant role a little too much. Had her character been male, it would not have been out of the question for a mustache to be twirled while muah-ha-ha’ing at her adversaries. Fight club ringleader Doug Jones nearly leans too far in a similarly over-the-top direction, but director Josh C. Waller rebalances the tone with a steadier hand on the more leveled performances of centerpiece star Zoe Bell and her supporting brawlers.
As plentiful as the violence is, “Raze” takes time to put story and emotion into each kick and behind every punch. These female fighters do much more than grit teeth, grunt, and force knuckles into teeth. They also hold hands to their mouths in horror, wet their eyes over unthinkable actions, and tighten their faces while contemplating what they have become.
Although the guards are male, “Raze” does not take the typically expected route of making men into an opposing force of sexual dominance. The dichotomy in any confrontation between the sexes is about power from physicality, ability, and position. Gender is only on the table during occasions when the dialogue almost accidentally mentions it. Otherwise, it is a non-issue.
Rivaling the onscreen fight-to-win attitudes are the A-game efforts coming from the other end of the lens. The behind-the-scenes technical talent is as impressive as the actors and actresses are. Frank Riggio’s score nestles perfectly into cinematographer Dylan S. O’Brien’s robust visuals. The arena and cellblock are clearly fabricated, but Rob Howeth’s production design still captures a look that makes sense for the movie’s blend of imaginative fiction and blood-scratched grime.
Splicing everything together is smart editing from Brett W. Bachman. “Raze” refrains from going overboard on flashy techniques of whip pans or overemphasized choreography. The action comes from well-timed quick cuts rather than blurry shots where fighting figures are indiscernible whirlwinds of who knows what.
“Raze” is an intelligent action movie deliberately dipping its toe in only enough depth to prevent it from being empty girl on girl violence. Inflating it into a grand statement on gender issues or searching for a hidden feminist agenda frames the mind to expect a movie that “Raze” is not. Dial back any desire to overthink the movie’s intentions and watch how a well-produced film can captivate with visible passion from both sides of the screen.