Although “Unbeatable” contains a few pugilist-pic cliches, the storytelling artistry of Hong Kong helmer Dante Lam and Nick Cheung’s powerhouse performance make a raw and compelling experience out of this action-drama set in the world of mixed martial arts. While Lam never loses his grip on the action, he also beautifully modulates his characters’ turbulent ups and downs like musical movements, expressing the protagonist’s motto that fighting is all about setting your own rhythm. Critical opinion is likely to generate very positive word of mouth, but any potential to become a B.O. champ will depend on novelty interest in MMA.
What puts Lam a cut above most Hong Kong genre helmers is that he lets the drama drive the action rather than play second fiddle to it. Inherent in all his films is the idea that life is a battle, and in “Unbeatable,” whose Chinese title mean “Raging War,” the fighting is scarcely confined to the ring. Although Lam pulls no punches, so to speak, in presenting the physical brutality of MMA, his characters’ traumas and personal relationships prove no less engrossing.
Lam’s best films, like “Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon,” often pit male protagonists from opposite sides of the law against each other, then allow them to develop mutual empathy. In “Unbeatable,” that relationship is reworked into a redemptive mentor-pupil bond in which the protagonists learn from each other while dealing with guilt and penance.
The prologue grimly tracks three people hitting rock bottom. After a carefree holiday in Yunnan province, 30-year-old Lin Siqi (Eddie Peng) returns to Beijing to find his tycoon father (Jack Kao) has gone bankrupt overnight. In Hong Kong, washed-up former boxing champion Chin Fai (Cheung), or “Scumbag Fai” as he’s known locally, is up to his ears in debt. Gwen (Mei Ting), a single mother living in Macau, struggles with mental disorder triggered by a family tragedy.
Fai flees to Macau to take on a menial job at the boxing school run by old friend Tai-sui (Philip Keung) and sublets a room in Gwen’s rundown tenement home. Siqi, who’s also come to Macau, barely scrapes by with back-breaking construction work. To prove himself to his dad, who’s gone into a slump, he decides to enter the world-famous MMA championship, the Golden Rumble, and enrolls in Tai-sui’s school, where he eventually persuades Fai to be his personal coach.
With offbeat humor and warmth, Lam deftly brings these wounded souls into each other’s orbits, with transformative results. Gwen’s daughter Dani (Crystal Lee, splendid) warily opens up to Fai, and their developing bond helps to pull Gwen out of the doldrums. Turning Gwen’s hypersensitivity to noise into a metaphor for her social estrangement, the script builds a devastating chain of events using headphones as a motif, adding resonance to the film’s use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.”
As Fai cultivates a surrogate family at home, his initially mercenary reasons for coaching Siqi give way to recognition of the rookie’s tenacity and talent. Eventually the film reveals Fai’s backstory, how he threw away his career through youthful folly; in their shared anger, regret and need to prove themselves, these two men strongly recall the leads in Ryoo Seung-wan’s “Crying Fist.” But Lam tempers the genre’s scowling machismo with a lighthearted touch, as when the two men cheekily lock lips while wrestling each other to the ground.
In contrast with the playful, feel-good tone of the training scenes, the matches are thoroughly vicious, underscoring Siqi’s endurance and desperation. Consciously differentiating itself from traditional Western-style boxing or Chinese chopsocky fare, action director Ling Chi-wah incorporates hot MMA moves, like the “lock technique,” rarely seen in Hong Kong films. The exceptional attention to fighting strategies also enhances the film’s feel of technical authenticity; Kenny Tse Chung-to’s camera prowls nimbly around the boxers to catch their swift movements, while his tight closeup shots magnify their pain with punishing intensity. A final-act twist delivers the payoff of not one but two action climaxes.
Lam downplays any attraction between Fai and Gwen, depicting instead a day-to-day companionship that brings out Fai’s protective instincts. In a real sense, the true romance is between Fai and Dani, the film’s toughest fighter, whose optimism reminds adults what makes life worth living; watching the bossy, impish moppet run rings around the uncouth yet good-natured coach is pure delight.
Peng, who showed off his impressive physique in the gymnastics-themed film “Jump! Ashin,” is most captivating when he lets his body do the emoting; he has an easy chemistry with Kao and Cheung, but these character relationships don’t deepen sufficiently as the film progresses. Ultimately, it’s Cheung who owns the film, bringing considerable complexity to his portrayal of a flawed, troubled, passionate fighter who still retains the capacity to inspire and be inspired by others. Flaunting a ripped torso from intensive training, Cheung calibrates his fighting style to gain in strength and dignity as Fai gradually gets his act together.
Shooting is mostly confined to the ring, the school and the flat, all of which have a suffocating grunginess, interspersed with romantic, stylishly saturated images of Macau and some atmospheric scenes set on the rooftop. Other craft contributions are controlled and polished.