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Undisputed (R)
Official Site
Director: Walter Hill
Producers: David Giler, Walter Hill, Brad Krevoy, Andrew Sugerman
Written by: David Giler & Walter Hill
Cast: Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes, Peter Falk, John Seda, Wes Studi, Ed Lover, Fisher Stevens, Michael Rooker, Master P


Do you like boxing? I do. Do you like boxing pictures? I generally don’t. There’ve been plenty of boxing pictures—I’ve read that it’s the most popular sport in movies. But with the exceptions of Golden Boy, The Harder They Fall, and Raging Bull, most boxing pictures just don’t punch their weight. Sadly, Undisputed does nothing to change that long, inglorious tradition.

The story opens inside California’s Sweetwater Prison, where undefeated heavyweight Monroe Hutchen ( Snipes) is facing yet another competitor in the ring. Silent and focused, Hutchen dispatches his opponent and remains the undefeated champ of the prison boxing world. Taking a plotline torn from yesterday’s headlines, Undisputed then introduces us to “Iceman” Chambers (a very meaty Rhames), heavyweight champ who’s now heading to prison on a Tyson-esque rape conviction. Gosh, don’t you just wonder what’s going to happen next?

The Iceman is one cocky concoction, strutting into the big house like he’s King Shit, which he is. He keeps inmates from starting shit by starting shit first and ending it with his fists. (Iceman makes me think of the guy in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash who had “poor impulse control” tattoed on his forehead.) Throw in Mendy Rivstein ( Falk), a wizened mobster who’s the profane Yoda of the joint, and who’s also something of a boxing historian and naturally all this big-gate talk has to lead to a bout.

There’s boxing at the beginning and boxing at the end, but not a lot of boxing in between. So how is this boxing? I thought it was pretty laughable. Watch some bantamweights or featherweights; see how they seem to zip around the ring? Heavyweights, on the other hand, tend to be known more for their sheer slugging than their peppiness. The heavies in Undisputed danced and spun like it wasn’t real work to move 190+ pounds around for several rounds. Plus, each punch that connected produced a resounding smack that practically echoed. I read recently that some scientists had confirmed what movie soundpersons have claimed for years—that exaggerated sound effects make things seem more realistic to audiences. Undisputed’s sound folks took this and ran with it.

On the plus side, it is never a bad day when you can regard Mr. Snipes’ physique, and this movie required many scenes that dwelt lovingly on his lean, muscled frame. Plus, we get an all-too-brief shower scene that exposes the Iceman’s musculature. So there are nice male bodies to contemplate, though when you see them side by side, it’s hard not to imagine the taller, beefier Ving pulling the limbs off of Wesley without breaking a sweat. To their credit, the filmmakers do manage to create some suspense as to who will win the climactic fight.

Unfortunately, the journey to that point may leave you eyeing the exits. Snipes isn’t given much to do in this picture except look Zen and buff, which he does damn well but it’s not exactly a performance now is it? Rhames, on the other hand, performs up a storm, making the best of dreadful dialogue like “I’m not an athlete, I’m a gladiator.” The arrogant posture he lends to the Iceman was effective especially considered against footage of the rape victim giving talk-show interviews. “Did he or didn’t he?” I wondered. Plus, and maybe this is a generational thing, but I found it pretty depressing that the setting that lent itself to employing so many actors of color was a prison. Yeah, yeah, brothers are in prisons, I know that. In fact, I just read Joseph Hallinan’s Going Up The River: Travels In A Prison Nation (and I recommend it highly), which discusses the disproportionate representation of people of color in prisons, but still… Work is this scarce for black actors? I’m reminded of Hollywood Shuffle, where Robert Townsend considers demeaning, toss-away roles and concludes: “There’s work at the post office.”

At any rate, a whole bunch of lame goings-on lead up to the main event. The boxers don their trunks and get their mean I-eat-babies-for-breakfast looks on. There’s Mob money on the outcome, so we get the delicious scene of wiseguys arriving, via police escort!, to witness the fight. I also found it pretty amusing to hear the incarcerated sing about “the la-and of the free, and the home… of the… brave” right before the fight began, but that’s just me. And then the bell rings and the fight begins, and it’s scant reward for what you’ve had to sit through to get to this point.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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