Review: Raze (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #765

Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 16, 2014
Sub-Genre: Exploitation
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 87 minutes
Director: Josh C. Waller
Producers: Kenny Gage, Andrew Pagana, Josh C. Waller
Screenplay: Robert Beaucage, Kenny Gage, Josh C. Waller
Special Effects: Thomas Floutz, Heather Grippaldi, Bart Mixon, Hanny Tjan
Cinematography: Dylan O’Brien
Score: Frank Riggio
Editing: Brett W. Bachman
Studios: Cinipix, Quincy Pictures
Distributors: XYZ Films, IFC Midnight
Stars: Zoë Bell, Rachel Nichols, Tracie Thoms, Bruce Thomas, Bailey Anne Borders, Rebecca Marshall, Allene Quincy, Adrienne Wilkinson, Doug Jones, Sherilyn Fenn, Amy Johnston, Tara Macken, Nicole Steinwedell, Jordan James Smith, Rosario Dawson

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] AC/DC “Spoilin’ For A Fight”

[2] Tigarah Girl “Fight”

[3] Frank Riggio “Raze”

Would you be able to kill a person with your bare hands if your life, or the life of someone you cared about, depended on it? It’s a huge ask when you think about it. Most of us would likely not think we’ve got it in us but, when dropped into a situation which is kill or be killed, it’s amazing what we humans can be capable of. Once that primal instinct kicks in, logic soon goes out of the window and it is then, and only then, that we find out what separates us from the also-rans. It’s all ultimately about endurance, how much emotional and physical punishment we can take before something inside us snaps. When it does, we truly find out how far we will go to survive.

Take former soldier and POW, Sabrina (Zoë Bell), for example. She’s evidently pretty tasty with her dukes and, barely five minutes into Josh C. Waller’s feature-length debut, Raze, it is made abundantly clear that this is not the woman to be messed with under any circumstances. Unlike her unfortunate opponent, Sabrina knows precisely what is expected of her as the pair are locked down together inside a stonewalled circular arena and requested to come to blows. It’s a bruising encounter and one that concludes with the last girl standing but, while Sabrina does what is expected of her without a great deal of fuss, she doesn’t look particularly thrilled to be placed in this unfavorable position.

Unfortunately for her, the blood sport is just getting started and there is plenty of other meat available for the grinding. You see, Sabrina is just one of fifty women who have been abducted and held captive in this grungy underground dungeon against their will and the rules really couldn’t be any more simple. It’s kill or be killed, with no second prizes for those who make it to the brink and fail gallantly. To add a little more spice to the dish, the sick fucks responsible for sponsoring these unlicensed death matches have the lives of each combatant’s loved ones in the palm of their hands and defeat will also mean snuffing them out unceremoniously.

This annual event has been organized by eccentric billionaire couple Joseph (Doug Jones) and Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn) and has apparently been running for thousands of years without a hitch. Joseph is incredibly proud of his family lineage and there are no shortage of high society types lining up to partake in his tournament in spectator fashion. Of the fifty alpha females being detained, only one will be crowned victorious, and while the ultimate prize for overcoming the odds is the promise of freedom, the girls only have his word to go on.

Still, whatcha gonna do right? You can refuse to fight but, needless to say, that benefits nobody in the long run, least of all those not willing to play ball. It’s do or die all the way and the emphasis is firmly on the latter, regardless of which you opt for. This suits some more than others and, while Sabrina’s quarantine neighbors Cody (Bailey Anne Borders) and Teresa (Tracie Thoms) are rallying amongst themselves like sisters, petulant piss-ant Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) is positively peppy at the prospect of pounding something pretty into patty.

Sabrina has nothing but snarls for Phoebe but each growl just makes Phoebe wetter. If battles are fought and won in the mind, then Phoebe is at a distinct advantage to her opponents as she’s not hampered by conscience, and instead, gets off on the thrill of the kill and every last spill she can lap up.

However, Sabrina can match her for tenacity and is simply chomping at the bit to get down and dirty with her number one adversary. All bets have been placed and the numbers are about to take one helluva battering as, two-by-two, our combatants are tossed into the viper pit and I’m sure we can all do the math.

Fret not if you don’t have an abacus handy as you can’t hold fifty women in prison without a male screw on hand to keep the estrogen flowing and Joseph’s man on the ground, Kurtz (Bruce Thomas), appears to glean rather a lot of sick pleasure from his business. Should one of these bludgeoning battle cats get ideas above her station or consider herself the cock of the walk, then this sneering assassin is only too happy to supply a swift and demeaning reality check. Like they need any more “reality” right now.

It doesn’t take a genius to suss that Waller takes his cue from the old women in chains grindhouse flicks doing the drive-in rounds during the seventies. However, it’s what he does with the formula that elevates Raze above mere carbon copy. You see, while firmly entrenched in exploitation territory, Waller’s focus is unerringly muscle, not curves. In that respect, it’s more of a reinvention than duplication and backed up by back to the wall performances from all its sluggers, a streamlined script that doesn’t overly concern itself with unnecessary exposition, and of course, a veritable smorgasbord of bone-crunching action complete with videogame style versus title cards.

Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Aussie stunt gal, Zoë Bell, is reunited with two of her fellow Death Proof alumni, Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson (the latter of whom was sprung on her as a surprise by Waller), but here there is never any question of her top dog status as she wears the part of Sabrina like second skin. The role of anti-hero is a decidedly tough one to nail as, while she’s generally a good egg and super protective of those in her cell block, we’re left under no illusion of what Sabrina’s capable off every time she’s forced to square up to her next challenger.

Not only does Bell succeed without a solitary flinch, but a number of the bloody brawls hold emotional resonance as well as a result of her skills in team bonding. On this evidence, Tarantino may wish to think long and hard about casting her in a leading role further down the line. Bell’s performance here provides bona fide proof that she’s more than up to the challenge.

Another of the film’s greatest strengths is the choreography of the fights themselves. Here it becomes blunt-force trauma all the way and the sight of two femme fatales in blood-drenched vests and joggers circling each other as they square one another up is followed by numerous bruising exchanges, each of which is captured dynamically and with suitable intimacy.

The fact that weapons of any kind are not permitted makes it even more shuddering to entertain as we know the conclusion to each skirmish will entail one party going feral and Waller ensures it is seldom pretty. If there’s a chink to be found in the armor here, then it certainly wouldn’t be on a technical level as this is every bit as slick as it is punchy. The limitations of the story alone leave the director precious little room for manoeuvre and that’s fine with Waller as he knows precisely how to populate close quarters. 

Deeper meaning? Well, I guess the key word here would be endurance. What exactly are we capable of once survival instinct kicks in? How much blood are we prepared to spill to protect those we love? On the flip side, how many thrills do we elicit from playing the role of spectator? Is Raze the work of a misogynist or is its purpose to empower women? I would argue vehemently for neither and, should you have dissected Waller’s film to that degree, then you’ve missed the point of the entire exercise.

I just so happen to have grown up in the eighties and my favorite character from James Cameron’s Aliens was Vasquez, whom I crushed on pretty badly, truth be known. Did I objectify her? Nope, I just dug the way she kicked ass and left it for her surrounding alphas to take names. Watching dozens of testosterone-pumped Amazonians knocking seven bells of shit out of one another in close quarters is what it is; a shot in the arm and a fully loaded one at that. I’ll tell you one thing – if I were Stuntman Mike right now, I’d be trading that purty 1970 Chevy Nova for a damn good life insurance plan.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Encounters in Raze are never anything less than damaging and stunt coordinator James Young lays it on nice and thick. We choke under each hold, feel every blow land, each collar-bone snap, arm break, face smash, skull crack and eyeball squelch. More brutally violent than outright gory, it’s true impact lies in watching our combatants’ knuckles growing ever more bloody, while imagining the messy pulp being fashioned just shy of view. Anyone hoping that Waller will shoehorn in a strip search, shower scene, or some lesbian sex for good measure are in the wrong reform school entirely and may wish to get their women in prison kicks some place else.

Read Death Proof Appraisal
Read Planet Terror Appraisal
Read Fight Club Appraisal
Read The Descent Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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