Pocket Review: Undisputed

September 7th, 2002  |  Published in Uncategorized

I rationalized a visit to Undisputed on the foundation of two things: it’s a prison movie, and it’s a boxing movie. The only thing that would have taken it over the top would have been if it had also been a giant robot assassins from space movie.

Combine its peanut butter/chocolate combination of genres with its director, Walter Hill, who has created such confections as Last Man Standing and The Warriors, and it seemed like the pieces were there for a fun, if empty, piece of entertainment. Recheck his credits, though, and you also find Red Heat, Another 48 Hours, and even Streets of Fire, which is probably indication that the pieces are there for total disappointment.

In this case, he manages to disappoint.

I don’t spend a lot of time demanding stuff like “story” and “character development” from my B movies. You pay a few bucks, you sit down, and you go away for a few hours, allowing the self-contained reality that is the anti-art of straight-ahead B cinema take you where it will. Hell… if the continuity editor couldn’t be bothered to check back on a detail, or the writer couldn’t be bothered to make sense of some event, why should I? I’m not getting paid to make these things work… I’m just there for the ride.

So in the theater we have a movie by a director who excels at the non-art of empty diversion and walks a fine line between “good” and “unemployable,” and an audience member (me) who doesn’t give a damn as long as it all moves fast enough and makes enough noise to drown out whatever flaws are introduced by a flick tossed into the carnage of Hollywood’s annual post-summer jettison of the ballast.

Undisputed involves two boxers (Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes), one mobster (Peter Falk), a weak warden, and a prison guard we’re supposed to imagine is perhaps a hair sadistic but who never overcomes the subliminal affability that the actor (Michael Rooker) has always hinted at, even as an evil, bald mall guard.

Rhames is the heavyweight champion of the world, sent to prison for rape. Snipes is the champion of the prison boxing league. Falk is a mobster who loves boxing. Rhames has something to prove; Snipes loves to box but knows his self-control, once compromised, is all he has left; and Falk wants the two to box, badly.

Pros:

Ving Rhames has some moments of explosive violence that are so tightly presented that they’re disturbing and jolting. A sense of menace pervades the screen when he’s in the frame. From the moment he arrives in prison, he’s a frightening presence because we come to realize that even if he didn’t rape his victim, he’s still a sociopath.

Snipes could have played things all sorts of ways given the script he was handed. He does alright with what he’s given.

Peter Falk is fine, too.

The film looks nice.

Cons:

When music videos first arrived, they were the product of film-making sensibility being brought to the confines of the small screen and the pop music format. The good that came from the form was a sort of discipline that squeezed each second for meaning and impact. When the form was adapted (cannibalized) by mainstream television producers, it gave us Miami Vice, and, eventually, Law and Order, which managed to produce dense-packed single-hour-units of drama that make tv feel engaging. Unfortunately, certain clich?s have established themselves as writers and directors have come to embrace the MTV-inspired idiom, which confuses slo-mo, saturated monochrome, and Dragnet-style dialog for “dense.” When it’s limited to television, it’s easily cured: you click away and the show gets cancelled after a season or two. When it makes it to film, it ends up feeling like a made-for-tv movie, and there’s no clicking away: you’re not out fifteen minutes, you’re out $8.00 and two hours. Hill would probably make a credible prime-time director, but given two hours and a music video sensibility, the films few ideas rattle around like dry peas in a big can, swimming in dialog that’s snappy but empty as the actors tread water waiting for the next explosion of violence from Rhames or the Big Fight.

Similarly empty are our antagonists. As noted earlier, Rhames’ “Iceman” is a sociopath. Snipes’ character is a near-total void. He beat someone to death years ago, now he’s in prison, and he’s a good boxer. Why do we care about him? Well… he makes cool buildings out of toothpicks, which makes him sort of inscrutable, which is cool.

When the two fight, it’s a well-directed, fairly suspensful affair that ends with the victor awash in golden light as triumphant music swells, but we’re never given a reason to care which one it is… at all. What did we have to choose from? A rapist, or a murderer who spends his days pummeling other inmate/boxers or being inscrutable. Similarly, it’s supposed to be touching when the punk-bartering Black Muslims join with the skin-head white supremacists and top-buttoned Latinos to support the home-prison favorite, but it’s really like some sort of bizarre variation on the scene in Snow White when all the forest animals gather to adore her only Snow White is Snipes and the forest animals are all convicted murderers and arsonists. Bizarre.

I will say this for the movie: I usually feel guilty for not applying a slightly more critical eye to the things I watch. This one was just unengaging enough that I had luxurious amounts of time to spend thinking about all sorts of things. Go if you want to lose matinee money and 90 minutes to a prime example of mediocre movie-making from 1989.

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