Stunt woman turned leading lady Zoë Bell fronts the midnight movie Raze, which was reason enough for me to anticipate its release. Directed by Josh C. Waller, this women-in-prison thriller does its genre proud when it comes to girl-on-girl violence, but sadly, it has little virtue beyond that. The beguiling Bell charmed this reviewer as the wild muscle-car enthusiast in Death Proof, and as herself in the stunt woman documentary Double Dare. This could have been a game changer for this generally derided genre. Unfortunately, Waller wastes Bell's quirky appeal in favor of making her a grim executioner.
Raze's setup is reminiscent of Saw and The Hunger Games. Fifty women (of whom we meet six) have been drugged and abducted from their lives, thrown into cells and made to fight in kill-or-be-killed brawls for the enjoyment of untouched and presumably wealthy watchers. In case their own survival is not enough to spur these kidnapped women to murder their peers, the smiling and otherwise mysterious married couple who runs these "games" offers a greater threat. The penalty for not fighting or losing/dying is the knowledge that a loved one will be murdered. Video feed of unsuspecting husbands, children, mothers, and fiancés torment these women as they tend to their wounds and ready for battle.
Bell stars as Sabrina, who fights for the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago. While all the women are slender and seemingly fit, Sabrina is the one who burns with a quiet threat, her muscles thick and dangerous. The promise of violence explodes throughout Raze as Sabrina reluctantly but determinedly takes on anyone unlucky enough to be hurled into the circular cell with her. As I expected, Bell handles these fight scenes with an unmatched moxie, throwing herself into stone walls, and delivering jaw-cracking blows with a chilling believability. Sadly, Sabrina is so devotedly stoic in her suffering--aside from a scattering of screaming outbursts--that Bell's natural charisma is wasted.
I almost wish Bell had been cast in the smaller but livelier role of this prison's resident psycho, who fights not to save the mother she loathes but because she loves killing, plain and simple. Rebecca Marshall shoulders that role, and makes nice work of it with a wild, rangy physicality and a demented giggle-and-whistle routine. With more quirks to her character and no heavy bangs covering her face, she outshines Bell... which is a crime of casting, if nothing else.
Still, she's a welcome presence as the script pours forth barely formed characters that get little lift from the cast, who offer eager but shallow portrayals for the most part. To her credit, Tracie Thoms, who once co-starred with Bell in Death Proof, brings some actual depth and gravity to the film in her final scene, brief though it may be. But by and large, broad sketches of weeping victims and grinning maniacs in a barely defined world are what this flick has to offer. Well, that and violence. Slick and sloppy, bone-crunching violence is where Raze really delivers.
Sure, its world building is lazy and its performances are largely lackluster. But the pop and punch of the movie's fight scenes is pretty spectacular. Even barefoot in sweatpants, Bell is a force of nature as she rockets into her opponents, hammering them with blows with her lightening-fast legs and bloody-knuckled fists. And Marshall brings a maniacal glee to her matches, selling moves that are ludicrous yet perfectly horrifying. Eventually the uniformity of these scenes becomes tedious, though. It's the same ring, the same circle of slim-limbed fighters in matching white tanks and grey sweatpants. The same fatal face-smashing blows. Even at 87 minutes, this repetitiveness makes Raze feel overlong.
Watching the way Bell throws herself into every one of her many, many fight scenes, it's clear she gave her all for starring role here. As a confessed fan of her, I am frankly disappointed the film isn't worthy of her talents and completely squanders her screen presence with a dull heroine and a bleak and poorly plotted tale. True devotees of the women-in-prison genre may find the doggedly brutal violence and high impact action scenes reason enough to praise Raze, but for me I couldn't get over how ill-fitting and suffocating it was to its dynamic star.