If you're the type of person who ever thought, "Man, I wish there was a movie filled with attractive women beating the shit out of each other," well, Raze has come along to answer your prayers. A brutal, relentless machine of neo-exploitation, Josh Waller's debut feature has been described as a take on the women-in-prison movie, but this is one without an ounce of prurience or campy winking at the audience. This is a film which takes itself utterly seriously, and a few of the performers give some surprisingly emotional heft to their portrayals. That is, when their characters aren't bashing each other to a bloody pulp. Raze makes no bones about what it sets out to do - to offer an exceedingly violent spectacle - and if nothing else, it certainly succeeds at meeting that goal.
After a title card with an unsourced statistic citing 35,000 files of missing women, most to be never seen again, Raze begins with an interesting bit of protagonist misdirection. We first follow Jamie (Rachel Nichols), whom we assume to be the film's heroine, waking up in a dark room underground, where she has apparently been taken to after being abducted. This opening sequence is peppered with flashbacks showing her flirting with a guy in a bar, chatting with a girlfriend over the phone, and most pertinently for this story, talking about training to be a kickboxer. Bewildered, she wanders the corridors of this underground lair, where she meets another woman, Sabrina (Zoe Bell), apparently another fellow prisoner. Before Jamie can even begin to make sense of her predicament, suddenly she is in a brutal, bloody fight with this woman who she has just met. During the fight, Jamie asks Sabrina, "Why are you doing this?" Sabrina says, sadly, apologetically, "Because I have to." This nasty battle ends with Sabrina beating Jamie to a bloody, lifeless pulp. She then cries out to those who have her under surveillance, "How many more do I have to kill?"
The answer to that question is quite a few more, as it turns out. And thereafter, Sabrina is the central character that is focused on for the rest of the movie, as we soon learn that this is all part of an underground operation run by a shadowy organization. The business of this organization is to set up battles between captive women, all fights to the death, for the benefit of a group of well-heeled spectators, whom we see in brief scenes between the battles sipping cocktails and watching the fights on closed-circuit monitors. All the battles are introduced on screen with title cards (e.g. "Sabrina vs. Jamie"), which lends a somewhat cheeky video-game quality to the action. The women are held captive underground not only by their physical enslavement, but also by their loved ones being put under surveillance. If a women either loses her fight, or refuses to fight, their loved ones will be put to death. Sabrina, unlike the other women, is fighting to save the life of someone she has never met, her daughter who she gave up for adoption many years before.
The organization is run, oddly enough, by a married couple, Joseph (Doug Jones) and Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn), whose cheery demeanor belies their barbaric practices. However, there is a demented, cult-like quality to their personalities, especially Joseph, who waxes poetic about Greek female warriors, and who sees what he does as a way of bringing this to the modern world.
The women Sabrina battles, and who battle each other, all while wearing identical sporting outfits, are drawn quickly and efficiently in terms of character. For example, there is the tough, yet tender Teresa (Tracie Thoms), fighting to save her ailing husband. Also, there is Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall), who, unlike the other women, takes gleeful pleasure in the fighting. However, Sabrina is the pained heart at the center of it all, and this lends a bit of unexpected poignancy to the proceedings.
The fights between the women, which are numerous and increasingly graphic, have none of the balletic martial-arts styles that are often associated with films like this. While there are some references to jujitsu and a couple of other fighting styles common to mixed martial arts (the female cast are all trained fighters), heads and bodies being bashed against walls and pounded into mush are the lingua franca of these battles. The competitive ferocity and desperation which comes out in the women's fights, along with the fact that this is an operation run mostly by men, suggests a metaphor for real-life situations in which women must compete with each other in a patriarchal society. This is an idea with feminist implications that are certainly there if one is so inclined to think in those terms.
Although there is some broad playing here, especially by Guillermo del Toro mainstay Doug Jones, in a rare role sans makeup and prosthetics, as the cheerful madman and ringmaster, the women's performances bring some more realistic grounding to the film's outlandish scenario. Zoe Bell, Quentin Tarantino's favored stuntwoman collaborator, who also starred in Tarantino's underrated Death Proof, makes a great impression in her first leading role. She not only takes the bull by the horns, but bashes its face in, marrying both the physical and emotional components of her role with riveting force. So while Raze is not always an easy film to watch, the committed performances by Bell and some of the other women - look out for a very brief cameo by Rosario Dawson - lift Raze above similarly themed genre film endeavors.