DVD Review: Raze (2013)

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An underground female-centric hybrid of Gladiator, Fight Club and Battle Royale that’s literally set underground finds everyday women abducted and forced to compete in an appalling test of survival of the fittest while doing deadly battle in co-writer/director Josh C. Waller’s adrenaline-charged feature filmmaking debut of Darwinism at its worst.

With their loved ones held hostage back home in order to force them to fight, the women who have been deposited into veritable prison-cells are only let out when it’s their turn to compete in the next match to the death.

A fierce lioness doing whatever it takes to protect her cub, Kill Bill stunt-woman turned action star Zoe Bell is compelling from first line to last brawl in her most impressive and demanding role to date as a former P.O.W. soldier who is fighting for the life of her estranged daughter.

Deceptively simple and at times knowingly campy, Raze breaks up its emotionally exhausting scenes of grueling, graphic bone-breaking and blood-letting battle with a bizarre introduction to the maniacal cultish husband and wife team who’ve kept this underground dungeon-like bloodsport operating as a family business handed down throughout the generations.

As brutal as it is, Waller’s work is thought-provoking nonetheless the more time that passes following your immediate visceral reaction to the concept as you’re able to let your heart-rate stabilize and take the opportunity to reflect.

Raising valid questions about the gender double standard when it comes to extreme fight films, Waller steers clear of any opportunities to indulge in a fetishistic catfight-heavy, clichéd women in prison subgenre approach that a lesser director might have employed by opting for a matter-of-fact representation of the characters in such extraordinary situations regardless of gender.

Admirably staying true to his experiment, Waller avoids any and all opportunities to titillate or relish in the male gaze by staying away from nudity and filming everything with the same docudrama level of intensity he would’ve utilized had Bell headed up a cast of men.

The absolute opposite of glamorous, the film employs a largely gloomy, muddied color palette to heighten the emotional undercurrent of the work, save for a few bursts of passionate red that help punctuate their desire to rage against the machine holding them down.

Augmented by the strong turns of Bell along with her Death Proof co-star Tracie Thoms, while the women are joined by their Proof co-star Rosario Dawson for a perfunctory, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it cameo as another fighter, it’s Bell’s film overall and she grabs us in a choke-hold that doesn’t let up for its roughly ninety minute running time.

Although it illustrates Bell’s ever-evolving range as a talented actress in her own right, because the film is so overwhelmingly bleak, it’s a hard one to imagine watching a second time.

Yet even if we know that the last act’s Die Hard style ‘80s heroics will be short-lived, it’s easy to lose yourself in this ‘70s era exploitation picture complete with a nihilistic air and world-weary flawed antihero determined to redeem herself under dire circumstances.

A fast-moving fight film that proves time and time again that hell hath no fury like a powerful female scorned and pushed to her limits, Waller’s film that nobody would’ve blinked twice about had it only starred men makes us question that double standard on a humanistic level.

Yet as its heroines prove that when push comes to shove, they won’t think twice about pushing back, Waller’s film illustrates a deeper, philosophical counterpoint that for women, the fight for survival is nothing compared to the fierce protective instinct that gets awakened in them when someone threatens a member of their tribe (whether lover, mother, husband or daughter).

Ultimately making us realize who the leader of the pack really is when they’re forced to play this most dangerous (and manmade) game, Raze reminds us of the primal power of #YesAllWomen indeed.

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