With "Undisputed," writer-director Walter Hill is back in contention as one of Hollywood's last defenders of the muscular, no-nonsense genre movie. After a stretch of questionable projects like "Last Man Standing" and "Supernova," Hill has rebounded with a boxing pic so purely pugilistic that nothing impinges on the main event.
With “Undisputed,” writer-director Walter Hill is back in contention as one of Hollywood’s last defenders of the muscular, no-nonsense genre movie. After a stretch of questionable projects like “Last Man Standing” and “Supernova,” Hill has rebounded with a boxing pic so purely pugilistic that nothing impinges on the main event: Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames battling to a knockout in a prison boxing ring. B.O. decision may be extremely mixed, with women wanting to pass this one up, indicating pic’s real punch may be in ancillary.
Given the scuttling of original November 2001 release and several changed release dates since, plus much-discussed reshoots to which Snipes took public exception, as well as more producers than you could put in a fighter’s corner, “Undisputed’s” late-summer arrival isn’t auspicious. But any follower of Hill’s work, from “The Warriors” and “48 HRS” on, will quickly realize this is a movie he was born to make, and his universe of hardened men living by their own rules outside society’s mainstream has rarely received better expression.
Hill and co-writer and producing partner David Giler have seemingly borrowed from Mike Tyson’s life for the boxer-in-jail theme, and pic gets right down to business with a bout in the so-called combat cage of California’s maximum security Mojave Desert-based Sweetwater prison. Defending his undefeated jailhouse crown is Monroe Hutchens (Snipes), a lifer who was once a ranked heavyweight contender. He quickly dispatches his opponent, a white supremacist toughie (the fearsome Nils Allen Stewart). Sizing up Monroe’s latest knockout is aging mobster Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk), a self-made scholar in the sweet science.
Meanwhile, the prisoners await the arrival of current world heavyweight champ Iceman Chambers (Rhames), convicted — a la Tyson — of raping a woman (Rose Rollins, seen retelling her side of the story for a tell-all tabloid TV show). Supremely full of himself, even when he arrives in shackles at Sweetwater, Iceman acts from the start like he owns the joint. Naturally, he scoffs at the notion that the prison has its own champ in Monroe, and he wastes no time throwing a punch at the champ in the lunchroom.
“Undisputed” doesn’t distract from itself with subplots. Early sections detailing Iceman’s case are delivered concisely (aided by the presence of real-life boxing commentator Jim Lampley), with pic quickly moving on to the central conflict. Hill crafts a drama that we know will end with Iceman and Monroe in the ring together, and he doesn’t excessively postpone the inevitable. Still, pic manages to crank up the tension, with Iceman waging a one-man war against the entire inmate population, and a full-scale riot never seemingly far off.
A juicy part of the buildup is handled by Falk in his most colorful role in years; while one monologue comes off as a parody of his long-ago work with Cassavetes, another is a classic of subtle intimidation. His Mendy cleverly devises an arrangement that ensures both a Monroe-Iceman bout and Iceman’s early release from prison.
When it come time for the climax, pic delivers one of the most physically intense fight sequences since “Raging Bull” — and one in which Snipes and Rhames visibly did all the fighting. Appropriately enough, the bout has no ref and can only end by KO. With good effect, Hill’s camera uses the same eavesdropping telephoto perspective he features earlier in the film, playing up the stunning, nearly 20-minute display of pure, body-to-body violence. Capper is true to pic’s straight-ahead attack.
That same no-nonsense style is adopted by the impeccably cast ensemble, distinguished by Snipes, thankfully underplaying a man who buries his deepest emotions until he gets in the ring, and Rhames, in a fabulous display of exultant, sinewy stardom. Support, each with at least one moment to shine, is aces, particularly Wes Studi as Iceman’s reluctant cellmate and sparring partner.
Production is flawed only by a repetitive, white-flash transition effect, but otherwise concocts several effective onscreen moods, from peeping Tom lensing to claustrophobic tight angles to the spectacle of the match, true to Iceman’s proclamation that he isn’t an athlete but a gladiator.