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The condemned: Rendel: Dark Vengeance (2018)

The plot: Basically an answer to the question, “What would happen if you gave a middle schooler who loved Batman and The Punisher the chance to make an original superhero movie?” Rendel is Batman/Punisher fan fiction in the same way that 50 Shades Of Grey was originally Twilight fan fiction: It takes one wish-fulfillment element of the source material and runs it into the ground in the most literal-minded way possible. With a few cosmetic tweaks to the origin story and a much sillier means of making the hero powerful, the film rests on the premise that watching a silent masked vigilante get murderous revenge on the people who killed his family is inherently cool, then proceeds to disprove that premise.

The film follows a mute masked man as he tracks down and executes the members of a criminal organization in service of the Vala corporation, a multinational conglomerate we know is evil because the opening credits inform us that it is somehow profiting wildly off a new vaccine that has “adverse effects” and is hurting people. (In case it’s unclear what they’re doing is bad, later on one of the henchmen gestures to the vaccines and tells his underlings, “These aren’t meant for the white men.”) If Vala has politicians in its pocket and can legally market and sell this vaccine, it’s unclear why it has a small army of criminal thugs transporting the stuff. Also, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Ah, yes, the always-lucrative ‘vaccines for poor people’ market.” But this is far from Rendel’s weakest element.

The film cross-cuts between two stories: the masked killer Rendel and his impossibly graceful blond sidekick taking out the gang (led by a creep named Rotikka and his musclebound partner), and nebbishy family man Rämö (Kris Gummerus) as he gets fired from his job of—what else?—turning down approval of the vaccine due to safety concerns. Rämö can’t seem to find legitimate work, so he ends up doing illicit bookkeeping for Vala, until he stumbles upon proof of the vaccine’s harm. At this point Rotikka and his goon kill Rämö’s wife and daughter, leave him for dead (whoops), and you realize we’ve been watching Rendel’s origin story in tandem with his revenge story. Put plainly, Rendel gets his revenge, kills Rotikka, and vows to go on protecting his hometown from crime. The citizens of a fictionalized version of Mikkeli, Finland can rest semi-easy, knowing a lazy fusion of Batman and The Punisher is ready to execute wrestling moves on anyone who dares give people of color vaccines.

Over-the-top box copy: There’s a sticker slapped on the front of the Blu-ray cover that reads, “In a desperate time, an avenger will rise.” That’s a pretty blatant mockbuster-esque tactic of trying to reel in some unsuspecting Marvel fan. Beyond that, nothing too silly, though it does tease that the film comes “from the mind of visionary writer-director Jesse Haaja,” which presumes that would be of interest to someone, despite this being Haaja’s first feature film.

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The descent: “The very first full-length superhero film from Finland” is exactly the kind of tease that makes you wonder exactly what could mark a superhero film as being of Finnish origin. As it turns out, not much: Save for the dialogue being primarily in Finnish, there’s almost nothing to distinguish the movie from the countless other low-budget actioners set mostly in abandoned buildings at night. Still, aren’t you a little curious? Finland is giving you its version of a superhero! What does that look like?

The theoretically heavenly talent: It’s probably fair to say most people aren’t chomping at the bit to check out a movie because it stars an occasional Finnish TV actor. Similarly, a weird hodgepodge of English-speaking B-movie actors who appear in the second act as a team of mercs hired to take out Rendel doesn’t include any names you’d recognize. Guess that leaves the visionary mind of Jesse Haaja.

The execution: I’m going to go ahead and guess that Jesse Haaja was coming of age right around the turn of the millennium, because everything about this movie screams, “I thought Spawn was pretty cool.” From the washed-out color scheme to the “why film normal speed when you could film in slo-mo?” camerawork to the hilarious soundtrack, every aspect of Rendel looks like it time-traveled from 1999 to the present day. And that’s starting with the menu screen on the Blu-ray, which lets you know right quick the vibe this movie will be going for:

“Now listen, you spineless and immoral bastards.” That’s the opening line of the movie, and it is directed at you, the viewer. What did you do to deserve such a designation? The film doesn’t tell you. Voice-over narration from Rendel opens and closes the story, but it’s nowhere to be found in between, probably because it would immediately give away too many pieces of information—like who Rendel is, why he’s doing this, or how any of it came to be. Haaja wants to save that for his big reveals toward the end, meaning it’s a good half-hour of wondering what the hell the deal is with Rendel before you start to intuit the origin-story connection. It’s not a great way to get you to care, especially because Rendel is completely voiceless in the film. When he crafted his mask out of an impervious bonding agent that melds with your cells, he forgot to make himself a mouth hole, you see. By the film’s end, I wasn’t wondering if he’d continue to fight crime (of course he is, he’s got a bulletproof mask bonded to his face he can never remove, taking him out of consideration for a lot of jobs). I was wondering how he would live for more than another couple of days without the ability to consume food or water. Rendel did not think this through very well.

For not being much of a presence in the film in any noticeable way, Finland certainly wanted to be a part of this movie! Just take a look at two of the names credited with being executive producers on this film, and then ponder the ramifications of sentient cities.

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Screenshot: Rendel

As a reward for being executive producers, these two cities are explicitly called out in the opening of the film as being the only places that have resisted the efforts of the nefarious Vala corporation. Other Finnish cities are probably kicking themselves for not getting in on this action, as they all look like scumbags now.

Arguably the weirdest part of Rendel is that it takes the figure of Rotikka—the primary nemesis of our hero, the guy who personally killed Rämö’s wife and child, who we’re repeatedly assured has no morality or conscience—and spends as much time on him, imbuing him with sadness and turning him into a tragic comic figure, as it does with the titular protagonist. Rämö’s dad is one of the acting heads of Vala, as it turns out, and there are a half-dozen scenes in which Rotikka shows up at his father’s barely lit workplace/lounge (who likes being able to see the paperwork when they’re doing business, anyway?), only to be berated, scorned, and treated like shit by his blood relation. “You’re one dickless, brainless, and useless fucking asshole without any morals or honor,” his dad informs him. Cut to: Rotikka looking sad, and morosely walking out of his dad’s lightless business lounge workplace. It’s genuinely weird how hard the movie strains to make you feel bad for Rotikka, all the while showing you what a rotten human being he is. I’m surprised there’s no shot of a single tear rolling down his face.

Honestly, though, the “dickless” insult is just the tip of the linguistic crudity practiced by Rendel. The film uses juvenile and scatological language time and again, really reaffirming the whole “a middle schooler’s idea of what’s cool” tone. Here’s a few other choice lines:

  • “Hey, you little gimp-cunt! Time to rip you a new asshole.”
  • “You dickless piece of shit.”
  • “I’ll rip your eyes out from your ass, I promise.”
  • “Hey wienerface!”

Okay, that last one is actually kind of funny, especially when you stop and remember it’s coming out of the mouth of a grown man, directed at another grown man. There’s a few instances of what I can only assume are cultural clashes over effective insults, but when the outcome is as delightful as what happens when Rotikka yells at his criminal underlings, as in the moment below, I’m all for it.

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Screenshot: Rendel

The action is a bummer, which is not something you want to hear about an action movie. It’s got all the panache of a straight-to-video flick from the ’90s, which, again, is what this endeavor feels like. The editing works overtime to try and convince you the punches being thrown are landing closer than a couple feet from the opposing stunt double, but it doesn’t always succeed. Fistfights should at least have some kinetic energy, but Haaja doesn’t understand the mechanics of fight scenes. What he does understand is that WWE-style wrestling moves, at least, are grandiose enough to seem more interesting than lackluster punching and kicking, so he relies heavily on them to spice up the action. At those moments, the fight choreography transforms into something akin to the dumpster fight from They Live without Roddy Piper or any sense of self-aware fun, but the same molasses pacing. I love that the villain even walks around with arms outstretched in between moves, as though soliciting applause from outside a wrestling ring.

For all the moribund action, this movie does lay claim to one title: It earns a place in the killing-kids-onscreen pantheon, joining other Home Video Hell luminaries like Don’t Grow Up in its willingness to brutally execute a child on camera, without diplomatically cutting away before the kill, as almost any other movie on the planet would. When Rotikka arrives at Rämö’s house to murder his family, he points a gun at the daughter’s head. “Surely they won’t show that,” you reason, as Rotikka proceeds to pull the trigger, Haaja proceeds to film it and include it in the finished cut, and you stare open-mouthed as an adorable little moppet takes a headshot in Finland’s big grasp at international superhero excitement. It genuinely shocked me—so for that, well played, Rendel.

(Note: The clip below includes the entirety of the scene just described.)

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Rendel may be a mess, narratively and visually (At no point does Rämö seem to learn any fighting skills whatsoever, meaning he just magically becomes a badass by smearing a highly toxic substance onto his head), but it’s not without a few simple pleasures. To wit: There’s a moment early on, after Rendel has dispatched an entire platoon of low-level baddies, and Rotikka and his goon arrive to survey the damage. They’re staring at the vigilante’s bloody handiwork, guns drawn and nervously casting about, when they’re surprised by the pizza delivery guy. It’s one of the few well-executed smash cuts in the film.

Similarly, one of the final fight sequences drops another nice surprise into the mix. The entire second act is one long digression, in which Rotikka’s father hires a group of elite international killers to take out Rendel. The movie makes a big production of introducing each one in a different country, giving each a distinct if one-note personality, and setting them loose on our hero. He dispenses with all of them in about five minutes. Two of them are killed by friendly fire from their own fellow mercs, suggesting these badasses may not exactly be the best shots around. But the leader, Radek, survives an ax to the chest from Rendel in order to confront the vigilante in the climax of the movie. He calls out the masked avenger, taunting him, and prepping for the big beatdown, which plays out like this:

Where did that car come from? Who suspended it in such a manner that it could be dropped by stepping on a release mechanism? Rendel’s never been to this place before, which means someone else thought it was a good idea! Neither Radek nor any of the other Vala goons noticed it? That is just poor planning on their part. All of those implausibilities make for a delightful inexplicable decision on the part of the film. If my dumb superhero movie isn’t going to make much sense anyway, I’d rather it did absurdist nonsense like this. Followed immediately by Rendel again doing exactly what a teenager would probably find badass: Keying Rotikka’s car and giving him the finger.

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Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: In America, very unlikely. In Finland, who knows? Perhaps Rendel will become a national hero! Someone needs to tell that country’s people that they’re a bunch of spineless and immoral bastards—especially the children, I’m guessing.

Damnable commentary track or special features? There is a freaking 15-part making-of feature on this thing. I was appalled until I realized it was largely composed of 40-second montages—one for each day of filming, as near as I can figure. The initial six-minute interview with the director suggested the existence of a crowdfunding campaign, as he talks directly to camera about needing “your help” to finish the film, which is how I found the Indiegogo page for it. Presumably those 15 damn making-of clips were little treats for everyone who donated enough money. There’s also a proof-of-concept short on here (the video they made to raise money for the film in the first place), and it honestly plays more like a failure of concept. Sorry, Jesse Haaja. At least he admits in his interview that Rendel is basically what 13-year-old him would’ve made, thereby confirming my suspicions this is essentially a movie by, and for, middle schoolers.