A generic script with an inconclusive ending knocks out John Leguizamo’s convincing portrayal of a rags-to-riches boxer in “Undefeated.” Story offers one sports-movie cliche after another — the death of a family member as a motivation for boxing; the rise to success and abandonment of longtime friends and supporters; the affair with the boss’s girl; the protag asked to take a fall. The unimaginative script means there’s no tension in “Undefeated,” even in the ring scenes, and the conflicts faced by Leguizamo’s Lex Vargas fall like missed punches.
“Undefeated” marks Leguizamo’s directorial debut, and he gets strong results from most of his actors, eliciting a particularly vibrant portrayal from Clifton Collins Jr. as Vargas’ childhood friend and corner man, Loco. The friendship defines the two men; as their relationship dissipates, they become lost as individuals. The theme of their ups and downs could be intense and striking, but like every facet of “Undefeated,” it plays out too neatly, robbing the telefilm of more affecting drama.
As the vidpic begins, Vargas is a tough amateur boxer in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. His brother Paulie, Lex’s last living relative, is killed during a robbery; after encouragement from friends, Lex returns to boxing under the tutelage of Victor (Nestor Serrano).
Victor pushes for the slow and methodical, in boxing style and career development. A manager, the brooding Mack (Omar Benson Miller), becomes intrigued by Vargas, and soon he’s offering a meeting with a prominent promoter, Scott Green (Robert Forster), and the good life filled with champagne, girls, expensive cigars and nice digs.
And just to add to his conflicts, Vargas falls for Mack’s girl, Lizette (Vanessa Ferlito). Lizette plays both sides, using Mack to get her music career started and Vargas for love and the aura of success. To Leguizamo’s credit, Ferlito shines when eyeing her men, playing it cool or coy. Once she’s asked to speak, though, it’s more of a problem, as her lines are among the most trite.
Vargas eventually becomes champion — boxing in locations familiar to fight fans who watch bouts on HBO — and then comes the whammy: Green and Mack suggest that their biggest payday will come not if he defeats his next opponent, Beveaqua (Kamar De Los Reyes), but if he loses and they have a rematch or two.
The fighter wanders through the old ‘hood looking for an answer and finding his old homies going about their unglamorous lives. As the cliches pile on, Vargas even comments, “The ring is the only place where things made sense.”
And when Vargas heads to the final fight, “Undefeated” abruptly ends. Did he take the fall? Is he still champ? Does he still have Lizette’s heart? The script, by Frank Pugliese from a story by him and Leguizamo, offers no conclusions.
Much as Leguizamo has the look of a fighter, the boxing sequences appear drawn from a different weight class. Welterweights move like cats and the fists generally fly; seeing a champ worn out by the fifth round has little believability. Even for a novice viewer, it won’t be hard to note that Vargas doesn’t pick up moves from the great Roberto Duran, film of whom he studies early in his career.
Enrique Chediak’s camerawork is strongest in group scenes and overviews. Latin jazz from Roy Nathanson (Jazz Passengers, Lounge Lizards) and vibist Bill Ware is contagious and, in the early street scenes, an energetic mood setter.