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Tribeca Review: Grisly ‘Raze’ Wastes The Surprising Presence Of Zoe Bell

Tribeca Review: Grisly 'Raze' Wastes The Surprising Presence Of Zoe Bell

The women-in-prison genre gets a
contemporary reworking in the grisly slugfest “Raze.” There’s no sex or nudity
in this film, which pairs off a large ensemble of actresses in a series of
increasingly violent fistfights to the death, and some audiences might find
this a cause for celebration — Bechdel Test enthusiasts especially should
take note of how insignificant men are in these womens’ lives. But perhaps it’s
how we find titillation in the modern world – the cast takes turns getting
brutalized by each other while under the rule of sadistic prison guards, and
these women respond to bloodshed with more and more nastiness. Is it empowering
when one prisoner flings feces at a brutish male guard if sex is never once put
on the table?

The start of the film allows the
assumption that Rachel Nichols, the biggest name in the cast and also a
producer, will be our heroine Jamie. Waking in a dark room, she flashes back to
a quiet date earlier that night, having disclosed to her male companion that
she always wanted to be a professional kickboxer. She begins to put the pieces
together, remembering her kidnapping at the end of the night, landing her in a
pit with Sabrina (Zoe Bell). The two engage in fisticuffs, each one giving as
hard as they can take, and it’s thrilling to see these two equal combatants
match skills.

And then Sabrina wins quite
decisively, but the blinking camera suggests it’s not enough. One punch.
Another punch. The sound effects go from slapping the outside of a watermelon
to puncturing the insides. With Bell’s sizable Hollywood-trained fists, we see
Jamie turn into a broken cherry pie, no longer a face as much as a puddle of
gristle and hair. You have to admire “Raze” for its audacity: this thing is
gonna do exactly what it says on the tin.

The setup is casually familiar,
harkening back less to the Roger Corman prison cheapies and more to “Saw” and
its ilk, the highly fatalistic idea of an omnipotent force watching over us,
forcing us into unwinnable situations. Don’t think it was lost on the industry
that the demographic for the “Saw” films was roughly half-female: the sense of
powerlessness and acceptance of defeat in a patriarchal society clearly
resonates. You wonder if so much thought went into “Raze” however, with its
prison cells for captive women an attempt to allow a “survival of the fittest”
competition to allow for the eventual rise of female Amazons to the top of
society’s food chain.

The gatekeepers of this
particular competition are actually a mousy couple played by a grandstanding
Doug Jones and a motherly Sherilyn Fenn, and while it’s clear they’re also
staging these battles for an audience, we have no idea who that is supposed to
be. Is there a pay-per-view deal like the dunderheaded “Death Race” remake? Is
this streaming online? Is this sanctioned by everyone or no one? The idea of
the subjugation of women in private in rural areas is a sharp idea, as is the
possibility of the same occurring in a wide open public environment for the
masses. Would be nice if “Raze” had a point to make about this sort of thing.

Instead, the emphasis is on
endless one-on-one battles. Director Josh Waller keeps the fights within the
same narrow pit, but the camera moves around well enough that the setting never
becomes too tiresome. In fact, he is addicted to these clashes, which feature
women taking turns delivering kicks and punches at grueling paces beyond any
level of reasonable enjoyment. If you’re an MMA watcher and a “Mortal Kombat
enthusiast, you may get a kick out of this endless carnage, though you wonder
what purpose it serves. There’s a brief excitement late in the film at spotting
Rosario Dawson in a cameo as one of the brawlers, until she meets her vicious
end. Great, you got Rosario Dawson to show up in your film to get beaten up.

This mostly feels like a waste as
far as Zoe Bell’s Sabrina, given that with very little writing, her character
is smart, tough and resourceful. She triumphs over the violence perpetrated on
her by giving a real star performance, emotionally vulnerable but mean as hell,
and you get the feeling that if there were less fighting and more character
work, not only would Bell knock it out of the park, but “Raze” would be a
better, more interesting movie. Were this more of an action film, it would be a
thrill to see Sabrina rise up the ranks, demolishing her competition. But
because the movie seems determined to remind you the whole system is
jerry-rigged and the oppressors will always have the power, it feels like a
cheat. Like “Foxy Brown,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Kill Bill” before her,
Sabrina deserves to transcend the challenges thrown her way, to emerge
victorious over a corrupt system. However, it does seem as if Waller and writer
Robert Beaucage, are too busy coming up with new ways to keep
her under the story’s thumb. [C]

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