Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 29, 2002
Punched Out

Undisputed is a boxing movie that totters on its feet.


I almost started this review by saying that Undisputed is uninspired, but that’s something a hack reviewer would write, so I won’t go there. Besides, it’s not entirely true. The film makes a commendable effort to break out of the conventions of prison movies and boxing movies. The movie just doesn’t work.

It begins as George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), the world’s reigning heavyweight boxing champion, is sent to a California state prison in the Mojave Desert to serve a 6-to-8-year sentence for rape. While his lawyers work on appealing his conviction, he tries to keep himself in fighting trim and fend off constant challenges from other inmates. Meanwhile, the same prison houses Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes), a former ranked heavyweight who has been inside since beating his wife’s lover to death 10 years prior. Hutchen’s now the correctional system’s top fighter, and an aged mobster (Peter Falk) who has seen decades’ worth of boxing wants to set up a bout between the two prizefighters.

The plot machinations required to bring the fight about are little short of ludicrous, involving organized crime bosses from Vegas wagering big money on the match, blackmailing the prison’s warden, holding the fight in secret, and sending guys in suits to sit with the inmates to observe. The movie doesn’t waste too much time on these details. Unfortunately, this whole plot gives lots of screen time to Falk, whose tendency to overact has gotten much worse with age.

The characters on the periphery of the action are the usual assortment of clichés you’d expect to find: skinheads, bitches, prison gangs. The main characters, however, are pretty much complete ciphers. The movie gives us rap sheets on the men as they appear — their names and what crimes they’re in prison for — but tells us nothing about their inner lives. This skimping on character development seems to be intentional, and it might have worked in conjunction with similarly bold artistic choices in other areas. The trouble is, this movie doesn’t get far enough away from its roots as a conventional sports film. We’re supposed to root for Hutchen because we’re reminded that Chambers is a bad guy, but when the first-round bell rings on the climactic fight, we don’t know who we’re cheering for. Hutchen hardly says anything in the film and doesn’t do anything except build elaborate models out of toothpicks and Popsicle sticks. The lack of character development is a waste of the estimable presences of Snipes and Rhames, as well as a supporting cast that includes Jon Seda, Wes Studi, and Michael Rooker.

Director/co-writer Walter Hill is an old hand, having made the 1979 gang film The Warriors and tasted big-time success with 48 Hrs. three years later. Hollywood considered him streetwise 20 years ago, but an awful lot of celluloid has flowed through the projectors since then. He’s still got enough talent that a comeback someday wouldn’t be out of the question, but he needs a fresher and probably younger writer to give him material. All in all, this boxing movie goes down as a loss by decision.

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