YOU WANT CATFIGHTS? WELL, YOU'RE GOING TO GET CATFIGHTS...
A varied group of 50 women are kidnapped by a secret society, imprisoned, and forced to fight to the death, tournament style, in a dungeon-like arena for the amusement of the rich members of the quasi-cult. If they choose not to fight, or if they lose, a loved one will be killed while they watch on closed-circuit television. Alliances are forged and rivalries are carved as the women's numbers lower by one with each subsequent fight, until a single champion comes out on top.
The women in prison films of the 70s and early 80s were some of the most formulaically sleazy, yet entertaining of all of the exploitation genre. Inevitably, about 2 - 3 times per film, the filmmakers would find a flimsy excuse to get a brawl going amongst the prisoners (often in the vicinity of a shower). The transition into the scraps were always a bit clumsy, but it didn't matter - they were the reason we watched. With Raze, director Josh C. Waller and his co-writers have done away with the need to find legitimacy and made the moneymaking fights what the movie is all about.
First and foremost, the fights are some of the most unflinchingly brutal since Toy Story 3 (the fight to the death aspect here is taken very seriously - there is no other outcome to the fights) and, at times, are even heartbreaking. That's probably one of the film's biggest strengths - we are given a good idea of what the women are going through as they become close friends, but remaining well aware of the fact that, eventually, they will be forced to fight their newfound besties to the death. The film also gets some good mileage out of knowing that the time between battles for particular participants will have a huge impact on their ability to fight. Unfortunately, the fight scenes often fall into the all-too-common trappings of close-ups, quick cuts, and low lighting that seem to plague modern action movies. On the plus side, it does mean that the camera never lingers on the carnage at hand, making it easier for non-genre fans to stomach.
As far as the cast goes, we are given a very charismatic lead in stuntwoman/turned actress Zoë Bell. She is given most of the film's actorly heavy lifting as Sabrina, a particularly adept fighter with a military past, and proves to be more than up to the task. As her backstory is revealed gradually through the film, she elicits sympathy, while still delivering where it counts - the action. She is perhaps let down a bit by the shooting style, as the rather impressive fact that she is her own stuntwoman here will be lost on many.
Exploitation flicks also require a colorful group of bad guys, and Raze certainly has it's share. Doug Jones (in a rare non-prosthetics-heavy role) and Sherilyn Fenn have a blast channeling Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov as the married couple who run the whole show. They are matched in their villainy by Bruce Thomas as a sadistic guard who seems to have a particular hatred for Sabrina and Rebecca Marshall as one of the prisoners, gleefully reveling in the opportunity to inflict pain and intimidation upon her fellow captors; her taunts serving, perhaps as an act of overcompensation for her own fears.
Besides Bell, the aforementioned Marshall, and Tracie Thoms as a particularly sympathetic character, the remainder of the fighters don't make much of an impact (pun intended). The actresses all do as well as they can, but their roles are written strictly as typical stereotypes of the subgenre. Because of this, we get quite a few fights that serve the action quite well, but don't have an emotional payoff for the audience, despite our knowledge of the stakes for the participants. Also, the subject matter here is ripe for a bit of social/political commentary, but that aspect is never fully explored, as the secret society and their innerworkings remain mostly a mystery (not a bad thing in and of itself, but a small missed opportunity).
There are a few additional touches that help elevate the material. A stylish, opening-scene misdirect will keep viewers on edge regarding their alliances. Title cards announcing the participants of each of the fights are a nice grindhouse touch that culminates in a pretty hearty late-film laugh in a movie mostly devoid of humor. The production design gives us a good sense of the isolation felt by the prisoners, especially the illuminated elevator and hallway leading into the dank fight arena, providing a few particularly exciting moments. Also, be on the lookout for a fun cameo that provides a bit of a reunion for a couple of this film's stars.
If you come into this film expecting a statement of female empowerment or political commentary, you might just leave disappointed. If, however, you're in the mood for a nice throwback to 70s exploitation, particularly women in prison flicks, that focuses more on the action (the grindhouse genre of the past is not as action packed as your memories and the amazing, dense trailers would have you believe) and mostly interesting characters, then you will have a lot of fun with Raze. Zoë Bell, in particular, gives a strong performance, both emotionally and physically, and I, for one, am glad to see her step more and more into the spotlight.