I got a good dose of genre movie purity yesterday when I went to Walter Hill's newest film, the prison-boxing drama Undisputed
; Roger Ebert payed the film a tremendous compliment in his review by comparing it favorably to the Warner Brothers genre pics of the 30s and 40s, and I have to agree. Lean and taut, the film marches to it's inevitable conclusion, the climatic bout between convicted murderer, and former California Heavyweight Champion, Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes), and convicted rapist, and former World Heavyweight Champion, James "The Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames), a brutal slugfest that at one point had me doubting what I thought the outcome would be.
Eventhough he is the ostensible star, and an executive producer of the film, Wesley Snipes is clear outshown by Rhames and Peter Falk, who plays an imprisoned mobster and boxing aficionado. Hutchen barely ever says a word (he keeps to himself, doesn't really speak unless addressed, and delivers a hard, cold stare to those around him; that, and his undefeated prison boxing record, mark him as a respected man in the prison), he is laconic, and possessed, if you excuse the expression, by an almost zen-like calm (he wiles away the time in his cell by constructing structures out of toothpicks, when he is put in solitary, he even builds a large, Japanese-style temple). Hutchen, though he never really talks about it, owns up to his own guilt, he beat a man to death for sleeping with his girlfriend. Chambers is an egotistical motormouth, who steadfastly maintains both his boxing superiority, as well as his innocence of the rape charges (Hill makes the central dilemma of Chamber's conviction very interesting; Rhames is charismatic and believable in his denial, eventhough everyone around him believes he is guilty, admitting to a prison adminstrator that his defense lawyers didn't allow him to tell everything that happened that night; that and the $75 million dollar lawsuit brought against him; but to counter all of these factors, Hill intercuts scenes from a TV interview with the victim, who is tearful and sincere, and whose story is equally, if not more, plausible than Chambers), he immediately sets out to gain both dominance and independence, by physical violence, and he manages to alienate just about everyone, except for his cellmate, who is played by Wes Studi (the film is populated with character actors who don't get many lines, but who have faces and a certain physical presence). Chambers's attitude creates a rare moment of unity as the Mexican Mafia, Black Muslim Streetgangs, and White Skinheads ban together to support Hutchen in his fight against Chambers. And besides his overwhelming physical presence, Rhames brings a certain amount of desperation to his character (Chambers is 35, is serving a 6 to 8 year sentence, and is going broke, he has to get out and regain his titles), as well as intelligence, though he is ill-equipped for his new environment. Now Peter Falk, as the Jewish mobster Mendy Ripstein, is a hoot; an unshaven, mumbling, almost senile ex-gangster, he staggers around with two canes, and with the help of his "assistant," a member of the Mexican Mafia, named Chuy (who was hired to protect and help Mendy); Ripstein is pretty out of it most of the time, and is a big-time boxing aficionado, he constantly talks about fighters of the past (Hill cuts in documentary footage of boxing history, glimpses of such fighters as Joe Lewis and Rocky Marciano), and it is he, using his mob connections, that sets up the fight between Hutchen and Chambers, which will use archaic boxing rules. Falk particulary shines in two moments: after the fight is cancelled due to a prison riot, Falk curses up a storm, over a wide-range of topics, in a funny, and profane rant, which manages to use the word "fuck" every other time. The other is when Falk, in a rare of moment of lucidity, tells the warden about the time when a Cuban mayor got in the way of a mob casino; it's a nice moment of quiet menace, and Michael Rooker, another boxing aficionado, and head prison guard, gets a funny one-liner off at the end of this scene. (needless to say, the warden caves in, as he has already done; Mendy's mob connections are pulling all of the strings behind the scenes).
The narrative is as economical as possible; it ranges over a few months, going from short scene to short scene, culminating in the relatively long climatic bout (the boxing in the film is realistic, fast, brutal, hard-hitting stuff, very good). The fighters fight in a cage, and use London Prizefighting rules, with a slight modification, and are surrounded by hundreds of screaming inmates. Ed Lover plays the MC, and they have a rap-group (headed by Master P, I guess) for pre-fight entertainment, and who, before the bout, sing the National Anthem. I actually liked all of these touches, there are lots of details and backstory contained in the various scenes, for instance, it seems like almost every character, no matter how minor, or how long they get on screen, get a B&W freeze-frame, as titles appear on screen describing their incarceration dates, crimes, and a little-bit of personal history; the film doesn't allow you to forget, that even these seemingly sympathetic characters are career criminals who are in prison for a reason. It is these types of details, as well as the great characterizations, the infusion of moral ambiguity, the direction of Walter Hill, and the exciting boxing matches that enliven the film, especially one that has an almost pre-ordained conclusion. I think Undisputed
is up there with such great boxing films as Gentleman Jim
, Body and Soul
, and Raging Bull