At Sweetwater Prison, The World Heavyweight Champion is about to meet his match.
Undisputed is not an action movie, it is a boxing movie. The cover on the DVD (different to the poster above) has a helicopter flying through an explosion and the tag line "A smart action movie". It also has a comparison quote "the butt-kicker that XXX should have been". Nothing could be further from the truth here except the 'smart movie' part. I was expecting a prison action movie with shivs in the bathroom, brawls in the mess hall (although there were the beginnings of a riot), prison snitches being hung from their cells by their linen, corrupt wardens and beatings from officers. There was none of that and it was so, so refreshing.
As soon as I saw Michael Rooker playing A. J. Merker, second-in-charge to the warden, I expected him to be aligned with one of the prison gangs, taking money on the side and sneaking in drugs. In reality the man doesn't lay a hand on anyone and only upholds the prison law respectfully. The fights themselves are in the grey-area of legality but the warden allows it and no-one is forced to fight in any kind of Battle Royale; so in that regard it is quite different from any prison action movie you will normally find on Explosive Action. The only explosive action here is fists against fists and ego against ego.
The basic plot is George 'Iceman' Chambers (Ving Rhames), the heavyweight champion of the world, has been convicted of rape and sentenced to 6-8 years in a prison reserved for the worst of the worst. He denies the charge but as his lawyer so bluntly puts it, there is a difference between justice and the law. He demands specialty treatment and to an extent it is rewarded to him but he does try to play it cool with the other prisoners. That is, until he hears about the inter-jail twice-yearly bouts and the reigning "champion" Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes). He is the undisputed jail champion of 168 fights and Rhames is the undisputed champion of the world so of course there is tension. Snipes would happily go about his day and ignore the new arrival, however the gauntlet is thrown down by Rhames and the bear repeatedly poked until a match is set.
In the special features, Wesley Snipes says his character is "Reserved, Cerebral and Internal" which I think is very accurate and adds to the 'smart' tag used on the DVD cover. Snipes barely says any words throughout the movie and puts on a very strong performance as a man doing time for a crime he does not deny, keeping to himself and fighting only for his own respect. That's the key word to Undisputed - R.E.S.P.E.C.K, as ring announcer Marvin says. The movie also could have also descended into a crude display of thuggery - not that there is anything wrong with that, I enjoy an over-the-top beatings movie more than anyone - but instead it focussed on the mind and the preparation for one single fight, without resorting to montages (well, just one or two glimpses of the guys exercising). Snipes spends most of his time in solitary confinement for his own protection, building model Japanese buildings from match sticks and contemplating his past and his future.
The obvious comparison of Rocky is unavoidable; Snipes playing the Rocky Balboa character and Rhames playing a re-interpretation of Carl Weather's Apollo Creed. But really the only similarities are with the Iceman having a serious case of untouchable FIGJAM ("Fuck I'm good, just ask me") the same way Apollo Creed does and Snipes being portrayed as the 'people's hero' like Rocky is. The truth is both men have committed violent crimes (which Rhames disputes until the end) and are just trying to get by with what they've been handed. Snipes, it is revealed via flashbacks, killed a man by beating him to death in the course of protecting his girl. The only real flaw I found with the movie was that there was no resolution to Rhames' crime either way, aside from his early parole due to the agreements founded for the final bout. You never know if he actually raped that girl or if she was the gold digger that had been suggested. That, and Michael Rooker didn't have enough scenes.
Some of the other characters are worthy of mention; Mendy Ripstein is the partially senile mob equivalent of Rocky's Mickey Goldmill and is the organiser of the fights, having watched fights since the 50's, and commands a lot of respect in jail even from the warden. "Ratbag" is the manager of Snipes and get's winded by Rhame's in one of his show-off moments. Mingo is cellmates with Rhames and acts, quietly, as his eyes and ears. All serve their purpose admirably and do not take away from the main show of Snipes vs. Rhames.
It was an each way bet with me as to who would win in the end. Logically you think it would be Snipes as he is the bigger actor and has the title role, but Rhames' character Iceman does go on to be in the sequel (acted by Michael Jai White), which I haven't seen yet. Like Rocky before it, I was glued to the screen for the final bout to see how it would play out. A great movie and I really look forward to checking out the sequels. Highly recommended.
Nice and sharp picture presented in scope, mainly dark and concentrating on the hues of a prison facility. Good clear sound that really drives home every bone-crunching punch to the chest. Runtime 94 minutes. Comes with two short interviews with the two stars that really separate actor from character; Ving Rhames is a very well spoken man.
R1 Miramax DVD from eBay for a buck or two. Does not have an R4 release it seems (or it's out of print) which is strange as the two sequels do.