Raze may be a term most often associated with buildings, but in Josh C. Waller's debut feature, it's something done to bodies and minds. The film takes the power dynamics and the gladiatorial spectacle of the Hunger Games — the powerful forcing the unsuspecting to fight to the death, mostly for the sick entertainment of the rich — and crosses it with the lurid exploitation of '60s women-in-prison cinema, only without the sex.
The film starts like a cautionary tale for online daters: Jaime (Rachel Nichols) reveals an interest in kickboxing to a charming man across the table, only to wake up not long afterward in an underground cell, bathed in red light and dressed in a tank top and workout pants, about to enter a small, stone-walled ring for a fight to the death.
Soon enough, we'll learn that she's just one of 50 women kidnapped under similar circumstances, all of them with fighting skills of one sort or another. Many have backgrounds that include abuse and/or foster care; all are being forced to confront one another in one-on-one combat. And the loser? She forfeits not only her own life, but also that of her most cherished loved one on the outside.
At the center of it all is Sabrina (Zoe Bell), a former soldier and POW, one of the "initiates." It's safe to assume early on, as she glowers at her captors and scans for escape possibilities, that she's not just going to be in contention to win this battle royale. She'll challenge its organizers.
Those captors are an oddball couple, Joseph and Elizabeth (Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn), who claim this is all part of a secret rite dating back centuries — a ritual honoring the "first empowered women," the Dionysian disciples known as the maenads in ancient Greece. They seem blissfully unbothered by the irony of celebrating female empowerment by throwing women in cages, corralling them with barking militaristic men, and forcing them to fight to save both themselves and their loved ones.
Raze pays lip service to notions of exploring female power and the motivating force of maternal protectiveness. But it gets lost in the same contradiction as Joseph and Elizabeth do: The entertainment value of the violence trumps most of the larger meaning, and the film exploits its characters just as they do their prisoners.
That wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the movie didn't take itself quite so seriously; exploitation thrives on not just violence, but also on the trashy fun of its sensationalized aesthetics. It's hard not to compare Raze to Quentin Tarantino's 2007 Death Proof, a film that understands that aesthetic much more completely: both are female-centric revenge pictures, both feature Bell in the lead, and Raze also casts Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson (blink and you'll miss the latter), who formed, with Bell, three-fourths of Death Proof's lead quartet.
But where Tarantino's film tempers its violence with clever conversations and the spectacle of some truly masterful car-chase sequences (which use Bell's talents as a career stuntwoman to thrilling effect), Waller's film is mainly a delivery mechanism for the violence itself, most of which is shot with a grim, bludgeoning style. By the third or fourth fight, things start to get dull; once the number of bouts reaches the teens, the proceedings are so tiresome that it's not only those onscreen who are begging for mercy.
Various thin characters are established: the timid one, Cody (Bailey Anne Borders); the crazy one, Brenda (Allene Quincy); the sadistic one, Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall). But with a few exceptions, those differences don't mean much in the ring. It's all brutal punching, choke-holds, and heads getting rammed into those stone walls. Waller desperately needs the artful fight choreography of a movie like Steven Soderbergh's Haywire if he's going to hang his film's fortunes on the fights.
Sabrina is the only character who seems sufficiently fleshed out; her back story requires Bell to hit some fairly complicated emotional notes, and for her part she carries it off convincingly. In a film committed to being either more thoughtful or more creative with its violence, her performance wouldn't seem quite so wasted. But her emotional subtlety largely gets lost in Raze, which is mostly concerned with the various sounds made by skulls and bodies hitting hard surfaces.