It's not exactly an age-old question, but it has come up before: Do professional wrestlers have to be good actors to succeed in the ring? Truth is, it doesn't hurt them to be able to control a crowd. Then there's the other side of the issue: Do professional wrestlers make good actors -- as in when they try the transition to the big screen?

The jury's still out, but Roddy Piper held his own in They Live, Jesse Ventura was pretty good in the ensemble cast of Predator, Hulk Hogan has been pretty awful in every film he's made (there was simply no excuse for Mr. Nanny), and Andre the Giant was, if not quite understandable, at least effective in The Princess Bride.

After "Stone Cold" Steve Austin had been dropped on his head one too many times, resulting in every doctor he consulted telling him that his in-ring wrestling career was over, he recalled that he'd had some fun a few years back doing a half-dozen guest appearances on Don Johnson's TV show Nash Bridges.

But with no real acting cred, feature film folks weren't exactly knocking down his door. Until The Condemned came along.

The fast-paced, ultra-violent (but not especially bloody) action film comes across as Survivor on steroids. It's about a very special kind of reality show. Take one very wealthy, totally remorseless producer; give him the (absurd) ability to "purchase" 10 convicted killers (men and women) on Death Row; have them transported to a remote island; outfit each of them with 20 ounces of plastic explosive strapped to their legs (so they won't escape); shackle them, then drop them from choppers, each with a key to free themselves in their mouth; tell them the last one alive after 30 hours will be given freedom and a pile of cash.

One other thing: Broadcast it -- not on television, but on the Internet, at $50 a pop. Now there's a nice touch for today's bloodlust-crazy, money-to-burn society.

But let's get back to questions. Can Steve Austin (the "Stone Cold" part has been removed on the credits) act? Well, he's not exactly the star of the film, since this is an ensemble piece. Given that, and given the charisma that he easily exudes, the answer is: hell, yeah!

At the film's opening, the show is about to go live. Mobile cameras and microphones are everywhere on the island -- on the ground, in trees, along wires, carried by camouflaged guys running around. Austin, bald pate shining, arm muscles bulging, sneer on his face, gets an opening line of dialogue that he only wishes he could have uttered on Monday Night Raw. Here's a cleverly edited version of it: "Tell the warden to go body-slam himself."

From there, though, he takes on something of a compassionate role. He doesn't really want to fight, but he will if he must. In other words, if another contestant comes at him with the idea of pulling the release pin out of the explosive patch on his ankle, he will do what he can to dispatch said person with -- as Martin Sheen's character in Apocalypse Now was told -- "extreme prejudice."

From the film's first death -- and it's a doozy -- the relentless action doesn't let up. From the first report of the broadcast's audience size (5 million), the producer wants more and more. The experience of watching this is heightened by the pounding, driving, percussive soundtrack (which, happily, does not include the repulsive hip-hop heard on the trailer). It's easy to get wrapped up in the thrill of the hunt, even though -- and this is the surprising part -- the message of the film is that there's really something wrong with a society that will not only put up with this show, but will pay good money to see it in the comfort of their homes. (They don't address how you should feel having paid to see this film, however.)

Nice touches include the introduction of the FBI as they try to locate the source of the illegal broadcast, tension in the control room when some of the crew starts to get queasy about what they're doing, a superb acting job from British soccer star Vinnie Jones (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as another contestant, and a backstory for Austin's Jack Conrad, who has a lot more going on than his stolid surface reveals.

The Condemned doesn't exactly cover a lot of new ground, but the filmmakers sure have created an exciting and diverting run through the jungle.

Wild and Scenic Film Festival

Sat., Jan. 30, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
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