“Raze” is one of those films that I feel like I’ve been hearing about for a long time now. Since its world premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Festival, a quiet anticipation for “Raze” has been slowly gestating in the dark crevices of my brain. Unfortunately, I had forgotten all about it until an email notified me that “Raze” was premiering in theaters on January 10th. It was time to see if this festival favorite would live up to the buzz.
Directed by Josh C. Waller from a script he wrote with Robert Beaucage and Kenny Gage, “Raze” tells the story of a group of women who are kidnapped and forced to fight each other in death matches. If they refuse to fight or lose then someone they love will be murdered. Zoe Bell stars as Sabrina, the protagonist of the film, who forms an uneasy bond with fellow captives Teressa (Tracie Thoms) and Cody (Bailey Anne Borders).
In, what I can only assume is, an attempt to confuse and disorient the audience the movie forgoes your standard introduction and instead presents the world of “Raze” through the eyes of a character who is as ignorant about her situation as the audience is. There was a brief moment where I felt like I missing a piece of the puzzle, but once the fighting begins the veil is removed and all becomes clear.
As we come to learn, the women in “Raze” are being abducted by a crazed cult run by Joseph (Doug Jones) and Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn) who believe that by having the women compete in death matches, they will find a strong warrior worthy of joining their organization. Yes, it’s an insane agenda, but cults aren’t really known for their level headed decision making.
While Joseph and Elizabeth live in a beautiful estate, Sabrina and the rest are kept prisoner below the property in an underground prison system run by the malicious Kurtz (Bruce Thomas) who revels in the blood sport competition. The real threat, though, is a fellow prisoner named Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) who is delighted to partake in the pageantry of murder.
The antagonists in “Raze” are enjoyable caricatures and run of the gamut of your typical movie villains. Joseph and Elizabeth are whimsical high society deviants who would just as happily invite you over to brunch as they would slit your throat. Then there’s Kurtz who represents the militaristic hardass who sees some noble duty in his work. Bruce Thomas does an excellent job of being an evil bastard, though the character is pretty two dimensional. And finally we have Phoebe and, man, I loved Phoebe.
There’s a certain type of villain that is so over the top with their antics, that no matter how despicable and vile they are, you love to see them on screen. That’s what you get with Phoebe and Rebecca Marshall does a fantastic job of being an insane psychological bully. When she isn’t viciously cracking skulls, she loves pull at the strings of the frayed psyches of those around her. Phoebe isn’t even the main antagonist, but the inevitable confrontation between her and Sabrina is something you’ll be craving throughout the movie.
But what would a good villain be without an equally interesting hero? Sabrina is a dark character with moments of vulnerability that would be a challenge for most actors to convey. While Zoe Bell got her start as a stunt actor, she has blossomed into a capable and strong actress. She has a powerful presence on screen that gives her the air of a genuine action star. This is the kind of actress that should be portraying Wonder Woman. She has enough range to handle some of the nuances displayed by Sabrina while also being a complete beast in every fight she is in.
And let us talk about those confrontations because, while “Raze” is about people trapped in a hellish prison, they are anything but helpless. “Raze” features some of the most visceral and intense action scenes I’ve seen in an American production. These are the kind of bloody unforgiving battles that you’d expect from the world of Asian cinema. Faces are crushed with bare hands, limbs are shattered, and people are bludgeoned to death with medieval weapons!
“Raze” holds nothing back and leaves you feeling worn out by the end of it all. The violence in this film isn’t glamorized or made to be stylish; it’s brutal and at times heartbreaking. There are some deaths that you’ll root for, but keep in mind that these people are killing each other because their loved ones are in danger. It’s a fact that the fighters are constantly reminded of via a television in their cells that provides them with a voyeuristic view of their friends and family.
I wish that I could say that every fight in “Raze” carried the same amount of emotional weight, but unfortunately not all of the characters are fully fleshed out. We know that each woman is fighting for something important, but that isn’t enough to get me invested in every single fight. Even when the result is a spectacular display, I’m not going to care who the winner is if I all I know about a fighter is their first name. The abundance of fodder is probably the movies biggest drawback in terms of story, but it allows for plenty of sickening deaths.
From beginning to end, “Raze” is an intense and unrelenting showcase of bloody horror. I think it’s a film that’ll resonate well with the horror crowd and action enthusiasts. There are times that I felt there might have been too much action and not enough character development, but that might not be a concern for others. Whether you’re starved for a film with a strong female lead, dying for a cutthroat action film, or simply in the mood for depressing cinema I think that “Raze” has a little something for everyone.
“Raze” is in theaters now in limited release and on VOD. Check your local listings.