I’ve got to admit straight off that my interest in this series was more caught by the second and third entries rather than the original. The combination of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine, both rising star in their respective fields in the DTV world, was far more interesting than this lesser Walter Hill film with middling reviews.
Undisputed tells the story of two boxers George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) and Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes). Both men are the undisputed champions of their respective realms. Chambers is the reigning world Heavyweight boxing champion while Hutchen is the champion of a secret prison boxing tournament. When Chambers is accused of rape (a thinly veiled version of what happened to Mike Tyson), he's sent to the same jail as Hutchen to serve a four year sentence. As everyone knows who he is, it's not long before they start calling for a fight between Chambers and Hutchen.
This was quite a good film – it wasn’t quite all there – but it had some very solid ideas. On the surface it plays out a little bit like one of the Rocky films, if Rocky Balboa was in jail, but the major difference is that the story is told mostly from the point of view of Chambers. It's very hard to categorise the two men as neither can really be called the hero or the villain. Snipes character was definitely the underdog but at the same time he was in jail for murder. While Rhames character is a very brash, arrogant and somewhat unlikeable character but the film focuses so much more time on him he appears to be more the protagonist of the two.
There’s also some solid supporting work from Fisher Stevens, Peter Falk and Dayton Callie. Falk in particular does well as an aging boxing enthusiast. There's a great bit of dialogue he gets about how boxing is this noble sport that's been running for thousands of years, that essentially boils down to two men trying to prove he's the best there is. All the supporting characters have good backstories and feel like well rounded characters, which is quite a rarity for this type of film.
Of the two main characters, Rhames comes off as the more dynamic. Snipes plays his character a bit too subdued. I'll avoid making any cracks about how Snipes is in jail right now for tax fraud. As I said Rhames is quite an arrogant character but he's also more dynamic. He constantly has meetings with his lawyers where he denies the rape charge (The film leaves whether or not it happened up in the air). He deliberately goes out of his way to not make friends with other inmates. He attacked Snipes character in the cafeteria, unprovoked. I think one problem was that they left it until the end of the film to reveal that Snipes was in prison for murder. If they'd shown it earlier, it would have made his character much more interesting.
I'm not massively familiar with Walter Hill's work. I think I've probably only seen The Warriors and Southern Comfort, two films I really enjoyed. This film wasn't as good as those. I got what he was trying to say about boxing – the story about two men with nothing to lose, trying to prove themselves at their lowest point – it just needed a bit more excitement, it felt too lightweight.
Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006)
As I said, the first film never really settles on who was the villain and who was the hero, like most fighting films do, but Chambers was the more obvious villainous part. It makes it quite strange then for the sequel to revolve around him. Then again he did get his freedom at the end of the film while Hutchen stayed in prison.
Undisputed II sees George “Iceman” Chambers, six years later, having lost his world heavyweight title. He's now stuck with a rubbish manager doing adverts for vodka iun Russia (not unlike Bill Murray in Lost in Translation). While there he's framed for drug smuggling and gets sent to prison. However, rather than a relatively cushy jail (like the first film), he gets sent to a rough, dilapidated, backwater prison full of corrupt wardens. It turns out the prison is “owned” by the Russian mob who run a prison fighting tournament and they've deliberately set up Chambers in order to add him to their roster. Chambers makes friends with his cellmate Parker (Ben Cross), a recovering heroin junkie, who helps him train his body to fight the reigning champion Uri Boyka (Scott Adkins) and win his freedom.
Undisputed II sees Michael Jai White steps into Ving Rhames shoes as Chambers. Again the character is quite arrogant but the film more obviously sides with him than the earlier film (and the whole rape thing is dropped all together). White is a great fighter but this is the first time I've seen him give a good acting performance. His roles in Spawn and Universal Soldier: The Return were both very weak and it's nice to see that his acting skills have grown over the last decade (he's also truly spectacular in Black Dynamite).
The film is much more an action movie than the original. There's not a whole lot of realism to the storyline and at times it comes off as quite comic-book-y. The major selling point is the fighting scenes which are some of the most truly balletic martial arts I've seen. Scott Adkins in particular seems to defy gravity with every kick and flip. I usually find a lot of “fighting tournament” films quite dull because the action always takes place in a ring but with this film the fighting transcended its dull setting.
Most of the praise has to go to the director Isaac Florentine, he's done a number of films over the last two decades for Nu Image, all of which have had stellar fighting choreography. For me, US Seals 2, in which he collaborated with Jackie Chan Stunt Team member Andy Cheng is still his high point but this film is pretty close.
There's less emphasis on the supporting cast in this film but Ben Cross does pretty well with an otherwise cliched role. The one note of disappointment other people have made is that the film goes a bit slushy and sentimental at the end. They're right, it does – but I won't hold it against the otherwise excellent DTV film.
Undisputed III: Redemption (2010)
Once again, the Undisputed series brings it's 'villain' back for the lead role - Uri Boyka, who we last saw with a broken leg, is still in jail, now reduced to mopping the toilets. However, after a quick montage showing him repenting his sins and retraining his leg. Before long he's back on his feet and just in time, as the Russian mob want a representative for an internal tournament of prison fighters.
Boyka transfers to an even worse prison for the tournament but the corrupt officials running it want to fix it so the Colombian representative win. So they set about making it as hard as possible for Boyka by forcing him to wear himself out doing hard labour and locking him in solitary confinement. The harsh treatment forces him to team up with an American boxer Turbo to increase his chances of winning. You see, this time, when you lose, you get carted off and shot.
You'd think a third film about a prison boxing tournament would be a step too far (I watched this whole series back to back over one long evening) but actually, this one still feels pretty fresh. There's a nice sense of continuity between this film and first sequel. I'd have maybe liked a little more of Boyka training to use his leg again. One of my favourite parts of Rocky Balboa was when the Rocky learned his joints were calcifying and he had to start using a different boxing style. In this, it's a little too easy, Boyka trains his leg and it gets better.
Scott Adkins is great as Boyka. He doesn't have a lot to say which helps create a little bit of mystique about him. Most of the dialogue gets transferred to Turbo (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) instead which was a good idea. I've seen Adkins in quite a few films now, and he's great fighter but again, like Michael Jai White, I've always found his acting a little lacking, until this film. He came off as a full rounded character. There's a great quote when he's asked why he fights, Boyka says “God has given me only one gift - I am the world's most complete fighter".
The fight scenes again were excellent and much more frequent. I liked that they had some scenes with Boyka and Turbo working in a mining pit, it gave the film a little bit of freshness, and there were some nice twists in the story line too. So many DTV films have either confusing plotted stories or boring cliched ones but this has a nice clear story. A good theme of redemption that ties into the other films in the series, one man proving himself as the best fighter.
The film ends on a good, satisfying note. I'm not sure the series has any further to go but it would be interesting to catch up with Boyka again at some point. If this series has done anything it's renewed by faith in good fighting tournament flicks.
There's no denying this is a odd series, given that the first film and its two sequels never really square up. I'd advise any one interesting in good martial arts to just check out part 2 and 3 though. They deserve all the hype they got in the DTV world. I'm looking forward to Adkins next film and Florentine's.