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Undisputed (September 6/02)

It's a funny thing about Undisputed. The whole thing is leading up to this boxing match between the two central characters - virtually every scene in the film lays the groundwork for that climactic showdown - but when it finally arrives, it's not nearly as interesting as everything that came before it.

The film is set entirely inside a fictitious prison known as Sweetwater, where boxing matches are held every few months (and sanctioned by the prison authorities!) An inmate named Monroe (Wesley Snipes) is the reigning champ, having never lost a bout. But he's about to face his toughest challenge yet when the current heavyweight champion of the world, George "Iceman" Chambers (a Mike Tyson type played by Ving Rhames), is sent to Sweetwater for rape. An aging mafioso (Peter Falk) is a big fan of old-school boxing, so he arranges for the two to fight using ancient rules (which basically amount to last man standing wins).

Undisputed is a tough little movie, a B picture in an era that doesn't really allow for them. Like The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen before it , this is a film about manly men doing manly things. The few women that populate the cast aren't looked upon as objects of desire, but rather as authoritarian figures to be feared. And Walter Hill is pretty much the perfect choice to helm the movie, since he's one of the few remaining tough-guy directors. He brings a nice sense of style to the film, introducing the various characters with on-screen text and occasionally showing us a map of the prison.

The cast is remarkably well picked, too. Snipes plays a man who deserves to be in prison but nevertheless manages to evoke our pity. After being thrown in solitary (unfairly, but since he's the strong, silent type, he doesn't complain), he spends his time erecting an elaborate model made entirely out of toothpicks. Snipes is very good, but he's basically the straight man to Rhames' over-the-top and incredibly entertaining performance. As the disgraced champ, Rhames imbues the character with the sort of overblown behavior we'd expect from such a person. He's a lot of fun, and it doesn't hurt that he's been surrounded by some stellar supporting actors (most notably Fisher Stevens as a character known as "Ratbag").

So the whole thing is leading up to this big fight between Monroe and Iceman, and when the moment finally arrives, Hill shows it to us in real time. The fight takes around 15 minutes, and surprisingly enough, it starts to become dull halfway through. Now, fans of boxing will probably enjoy the hell out of the fight, but to the rest of us, it's just tedious. Still, Undisputed is (for the most) part a very entertaining throwback to the tough-guy flicks of yesteryear. And how can you really go wrong with a film that features Peter Falk doling out the F-word dozens of times in less than a minute?

out of

© David Nusair