Despite its barbaric and controversial nature, boxing was once one of the more revered sports around. Whether that was due to its lineage going back to the days of Roman gladiator contests witnessed by emperors and senators alike is debatable. Whatever the case, such matches were, at one time, highly respected and attended events where everybody who was anybody would don formal evening attire to watch two men essentially pummel each other.
While some of that's obviously still true today, the sport has been sullied by all sorts of unpleasant and divisive affairs and developments. The biggest, of course, has been the presence of Mike Tyson and his behavior and imprisonment for rape. Although we'll probably never know all of the exact details regarding that latter subject or the boxer himself - such as whether he was set up, that his behavior is just a "stage" act or that he is what he is - the sport no longer has the allure or glamour that it once did back in the early days of Ali, Frazier and Foreman.
How appropriate then, that the latest pugilistic film takes place in prison where a convicted murderer must defend his undefeated status from the heavyweight champion of the world who's been sent there after being convicted of rape.
That's the setup for "Undisputed," an overwrought and predictable boxing flick that recycles tired clichés from both prison and boxing films, but does nothing special in mixing the two together beyond saturating the entire affair with enough testosterone to kill a bull elephant and then some.
Written and directed by testosterone junkie Walter Hill - who's been on a career nosedive of recent with flops such as "Supernova," "Last Man Standing" and "Wild Bill" after starting off with such promise helming "The Warriors" and "48 Hours" - and stemming from a script he co-wrote with previous collaborator David Giler ("Alien 3," "The Money Pit"), the film offers no surprises.
Hill even takes the easy way out of character exposition by identifying characters via onscreen titles, and then tries to ratchet up the "suspense" factor by including temporal updates - via more such titles - regarding the countdown to the big match. Worse yet, the filmmakers don't provide the viewer with a character or fighter to root for, thus limiting our potential interest and involvement in the story and/or outcome of the big, unavoidable and entirely predictable last fight.
For some reason, Hill and company have forgotten or simply ignored what's made the best boxing films so good and that's character. Sure, the original "Rocky" had its share of fight sequences, but that's not what made the film work. Instead, it was due to getting to know, like and then root for Balboa. People seem to forget that he actually lost the big match in the first film, but won simply for making it into the ring and overcoming all sorts of odds and obstacles stacked against him.
There's none of that at work here, as we simply have two "gunslingers" who are waiting for their big showdown. In one corner we have Wesley Snipes ("Blade 2," "The Act of War") playing the solitary prisoner who's in for murder via his "lethal weapon" fists, but we never know much of anything about him or his murderous actions that are only touched upon via a brief and inconclusive flashback.
Opposite him is Ving Rhames ("Baby Boy," "Mission: Impossible II") embodying the egotistical jerk of a world champion who's been sent to prison for a rape he claims was consensual sex. Despite cutaways to an interview with the "victim," we never know for sure if he's guilty - although his behavior in general would tend to indicate he is - but none of that appears to be the filmmaker's intention anyway.
Instead, Hill has designed the picture like the human version of an illegal and underground dog fight where the two animals are thrown into the ring to do battle. One is apparently supposed to root for Snipes' character by default since he's the lesser of two evils. Yet, the way in which the story and the characters have been concocted results in a less than satisfying let alone savory viewing experience.
Of course, those who enjoy seeing two men beat each other silly might find the fight sequences and overall chest-puffing atmosphere to their liking. As filmed by cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II ("Supernova," "Can't Hardly Wait"), they do have a certain powerful rawness to them. In addition, Snipes and Rhames appear to have done all of their own fighting. They're certainly convincing enough in such moments when one doesn't take into account the predictable ebb and flow of momentum, the outcome of the fight, or the typical movie scenario where each man takes more blows than most any boxer could withstand and just keeps on coming back for more.
The "big" twist here - beyond being set in prison - is that the match will take place in a bar-enclosed ring and be fought under London Prize Ring rules where there's no ref, no real rules and no end until one boxer pummels the other into submission. While that might sound cool or thrilling to some viewers, the modifications never really pay off in any sort of interesting or entertaining way.
While playing a completely unlikable sort, Rhames gets the meatier part and runs with it, near perfectly creating the cockiest S.O.B. you'd never want to meet in prison, let alone out on the street. Snipes' character, on the other hand, remains an enigma.
Cool as a cucumber, about all we know about him is that he's good in the ring and otherwise likes to chew on toothpicks when not using them to build miniature models of Japanese temples and the like. While Clint Eastwood made a living playing such stoic and mysterious characters who engaged viewers, the same approach simply doesn't work here.
The likes of Michael Rooker ("The 6th Day," "The Bone Collector"), Jon Seda ("Price of Glory," "Selena"), Wes Studi ("Mystery Men," "Deep Rising"), Fisher Stevens ("Pinero," "The Tic Code") and
Dayton Callie ("Volcano," "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar") appear in various supporting roles with varying results.
Some of the work is decent, but other bits from some of them and others come off more like daytime soap opera theatrics. Peter Falk ("Corky Romano," "Made") gets the most colorful role as a frail but coarse mobster figure and seems to be trying to channel the cantankerous Burgess Meredith for his performance.
If you enjoy your films served to the brim with testosterone and/or love the idea of a fight to the finish, you might find something redeemable here. Otherwise, don't expect anything along the lines of "Rocky," "Raging Bull" or even "Ali." "Undisputed" is not the champion of boxing films and thus rates as just a 3 out of 10.