Saturday, July 03, 2010


I'm a big fan of boxing.

Less the sport, at least as it's practiced today, and more how it works as a storytelling device. I love Robert E. Howard's Boxing Stories. I love Rocky. I could go on, but I'm sure you have the idea.

In fact, my most recent completed story is a boxing yarn, the one for the upcoming Aym Geronimo collection I've mentioned.

I'm also a big fan of Walter Hill. He's hardly the most consistent moviemaker out there, but he's a solid, tight storyteller, and I like his body of work overall. In fact, my absolute favorite of his movies is Hard Times, a boxing story.

And yet I hadn't seen Undisputed until this week.

I'm not sure I can explain why.

The movie stars Wesley Snipes as Monroe Hutchens, a former contending boxer who is serving a sentence for beating a man to death after finding him in bed with his fiancée. At the time the story begins, he has been in prison for 10 years and is the undefeated, undisputed champion of the inter-prison boxing program. He's very calm and confident, but has a certain humility. He believes in the fight more than the fighter.

Enter Ving Rhames as, well, Mike Tyson... but we'll play along and say George "Iceman" Chambers, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and now convicted rapist.

Peter Falk, in an absolutely tour de force performances as Mendy Ripstein, a fight enthusiast and former associate of Meyer Lansky, arranges a fight between the two.

The movie is filled with terrific background characters and has a nice momentum. It's the kind of tight formula movie that Hollywood doesn't make anymore, but really should.

It was followed by the direct-to-video Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, directed by Isaac Florentine.

Michael Jai White takes over for Rhames as "Iceman", now a free man and the star of the movie.

The formula dictates that he not stay a free man too long, and he is sent to a Russian prison on trumped up charges, so he can fight Uri Boyka, played by Scott Adkins, in a Mixed Martial Arts competition.

The movie is not as packed with great side characters as the first, but Ben Cross and Eli Danker are terrific as fellow prisoners who, along the way, assist Chambers in his work to win his freedom in a fight with Boyka.

White also does a fine job of taking the "Iceman" role, beginning it with a similar energy and arrogance to Rhames's performance without feeling like an imitation.

Boyka is an interesting foil. Here he's kind of a dark mirror to Hutchens, the lead in the first movie. He's a man who believes in and lives for the fight.

Here, the action is upped, especially because of the new fight style, and the choreography is spectacular.

Undisputed III: Redemption made a big splash at ActionFest and it's no surprise. Florentine returns as director and knows what works here and amps everything up quite nicely.

Following the pattern set by the second movie, Adkins, the adversary in the previous installment, is the protagonist.

Boyka is entered in large tournament, in which prisoners once again fight for their freedom. With this formula, the side characters are adversaries, Marko Zazor, who I'm told will be in the much anticipated - at least by me - Pistoleras, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins. They are interesting characters, but perhaps in a less characters actor kind of way from the side characters in the previous two.

Storywise, I felt this one, despite all of the buzz, is the weakest of the movies.

But it does deliver the much discussed action in spades. The tournament aspect allows for several incredible fight sequences, including the final one, which is absolutely bone crushing.

And all of the actors do well here, especially Adkins, who is given the challenge of taking a rather silent, almost one-note, character and developing it into a reason to follow the entire movie, and succeeds seemingly without effort.

In some ways this movie comes close to bringing the "trilogy" full circle, making the more Zen fighter the protagonist. I suspect the buzz around this, a direct-to-video sequel to a direct-to-video sequel will nearly guarantee another. My suggestion, and from a writing perspective, the most difficult, find a way to pit Adkins's Boyka against Snipes's Hutchens. Who is the protagonist? I don't know.

I know that I enjoyed these all, and I enjoyed them in crazy succession, although I'd hardly recommend that for the average viewer. In all honesty, I think the second was my favorite, although the first was likely the stronger movie.

The third knows it's riding on Adkins and the consistent fight scenes, so seems in many ways not to try as hard to deliver as well-written a movie, but it's a hoot to watch, and delivers what it promises.

One way or the other, Florentine has definitely matured a lot as a moviemaker. He's lost none of his remarkable skill at showing skillful, kinetic and exciting action in a clear way. He's also come to bring fairly strong characterization and interesting quirks to the screen. The buzz surrounding him is not all hype. I'd like to see where he's able to go from here.


Peter Nellhaus said...

How about Muay Thai boxing movies?

I don't know if I'll ever get around to seeing the sequels, but I did like Undisputed as well.

Neil Sarver said...

I confess I saw ONG-BAK and was kind of disappointed after the build up I have for it and haven't gone on to explore more. Which I admit is silly. I'd like to check more out one of these days.

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