Over the Hill
I may never have come across Undisputed had it not been for the strangely disconnected sequels, three intense martial arts films that were released directly to video. Despite their corny, gratuitous nature and impatience for bothersome details like “stories,” the sequels are honestly more engaging and fascinating than this original, more cinematically-inclined theatrical release. But we’ll get to this film’s bizarre afterlife as the namesake of the Boyka flagship another day.
Undisputed is a prison boxing film directed by Walter Hill, who is probably most renowned for helming the ‘80s cult hit, The Warriors. 2002 is well after Hill’s prime, but the film still showcases some intriguing directorial touches, particularly in the claustrophobic way he portrays prison life.
The film follows boxing champion George Chambers (Ving Rhames), a character very obviously inspired by Mike Tyson. Convicted of rape, Chambers is sentenced to a prison that houses an underground boxing ring, in which Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes) holds the belt. Chambers and Hutchen serve as contrasting figures: Chambers is brash, erratic, and wildly intimidating, all embodied in an electric performance by Rhames. Hutchen, on the other hand, is quiet and disciplined, embodying the unspoken code and social hierarchy of prison culture.
The movie predictably culminates in a showdown between Chambers and Hutchen. The climactic boxing match is visually engaging despite being dramatically predictable. But the fight itself isn’t the crux of the film, which is much more of an exploration of two fighters with diametrically different mindsets than it is about boxing action.
The issue with Undisputed is that all of its components are nearly interesting, but none of them, save Rhames’ performance, are actually interesting. When you add up a collection of mediocrity, the grand sum is, unsurprisingly, mediocre.
The acting is solid but unremarkable other than Rhames. Snipes seems to be going through the motions, but his inherent charisma more or less carries him through. Peter Falk, Columbo himself, makes an appearance as a foul-mouthed mobster. And the various bit players deliver decent performances. (I was especially fond of a character nicknamed “Ratbag.” That’s the kind of nickname you can only pull off in prison.)
The script hints at some intriguing ideas but never gets around to actually dissecting them. Chambers, as a Black athlete, is subjected to a presumption of violence and guilt, which he further feeds with an unpredictable persona. Unfortunately, the screenplay only superficially gestures toward this concept that warrants deeper exploration, especially as it any ambiguity surrounding Chambers’ guilt or morality vanish as the film progresses. Ultimately, it’s a rather prosaic screenplay and character study.
Although Hill gives the film a strong sense of space and decent, gritty flavor, it’s nothing special. One baffling detail of the production is that the prison houses a fully functioning, professional-looking boxing ring, making it feel as though we’re transported to an entirely different boxing movie during the fight and training scenes.
Undisputed works as a cable TV movie (back before the concept was rendered moot by streaming) and not much more. It’s the type of film you could leave playing in the background, but not one that warrants or rewards close inspection.