Zoe Bell plays a kidnapped woman who has to fight for her life in "Raze." Credit: IFC Midnight
'Raze' Director: Josh C. Waller Stars: Zoe Bell, Rachel Nicols Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
For an exploitation movie about girls beating each other to death, “Raze” doesn’t want you to have a lot of fun. Stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoe Bell plays Sabrina, one of the 50 women kidnapped and placed in a literally underground fighting circuit. No one — save an excitable psycho (Rebecca Marshall) — wants to be there, yet each has to learn to murder, in the most gruesome way possible (that is, with their hands), to survive. If self-preservation isn’t motivation enough, the chipper organizers (Sherilyn Fenn and Doug Jones) have arranged a loved one to be held at gunpoint.
Each tussle features skilled choreography married to first-rate sound design, where every bone crunch blows out a subwoofer. But there’s no one to root for — that is, we're rooting for everyone. We know Sabrina will survive because she’s the biggest name. (Though two of Bell’s “Death Proof” co-stars, Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson, fill smaller roles.) But if we’re human, we’re left merely wishing for the doomed one to perish quickly and as painlessly as possible. Escape doesn’t seem an option, given that they seem stuck in a moneyed and impregnable fortress.
“Raze” is, as they say, on the side of the angels. It’s a critique of fanboy action, giving us bloody one-on-ones where we can't take sides. (Even so, it’s obviously building to Sabrina and the token aforementioned bad girl finally having at it.) And it’s proudly feminist, asking why we take so much delight in what are in effect catfights by removing all that’s allegedly pleasurable about them.
It’s still monotonous. “Raze” opens smartly and effectively, starting with a random woman being drugged and whisked away to the lair. There, this innocent woman, who has boasted of some kickboxing training, is shocked to find herself being wailed on by Sabrina, the person who will become our nominal “hero,” until she lacks a face. It’s a shocking way to start — but it also gives the game away right away. It’s brilliant and foolish, because after it there’s nowhere to go.
“Raze” tries to gradually parcel out its world, but it still feels small, and the business about blackmailing the contestants by threatening others never really gets properly explained. But that’s nothing compared to the ending, which is little more than fanboy service. You know the film has to go the direction that it does, but you wish it thought of a better out.
It’s too bad, not only because “Raze” is still a smart film, but because Bell is more than an fierce fighter. So open and appealing as herself in “Death Proof” — and a terrific double from “Xena: Warrior Princess,” where she got her start, to Quentin Tarantino's films — she gets to play angry and hurt, barely able to contain herself as she pummels fellow innocents to various forms of pulp. May she live to hurt more people, even in films far less enlightened than “Raze.”