It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
Walter Hill’s Undisputed is a meat and potatoes action movie and it is structurally straightforward, even if the flashy editing is a bit overblown. The 2002 picture leads up to a decent main event between the two stars and functions mostly as a peek into how an unorthodox prison boxing match is set up.
Hill’s film is a B-movie through and through and that’s to its credit. The director focuses on efficiency and doesn’t waste time with subplots or futile meandering. There is a lean and decisive form to it, plus it packs serious punch thanks to a pile of supporting players that give rise to the main event.
George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) is the undisputed heavyweight champion, but he’s convicted of rape and sentenced to prison in Sweetwater. He swears he’s innocent. He arrives in prison and discovers that the facility boasts its own boxing champion, a calm convicted murderer named Monroe Hutchens (Wesley Snipes).
Mob boss Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk) wants to set up a fight between the two. Things are set up, with the warden (Dennis Arndt) content to turn the other way and the “London Prize” format established as the method of the match. Soon, all that’s left to do is fight it out to prove once and for all who is the undisputed champ.
Rhames excels as the Iceman. He believes he’s above the regular fools and criminals in Sweetwater and expects special treatment. He instructs his cellmate (Wes Studi) to not allow anyone to talk to him. He fights off potential allies and manages to piss off anyone and everyone behind bars.
But best of all, Rhames is a credible world champion and a credible asshole. His “defence” of the rape conviction is played alongside the victim’s recounting of the incident. He explains it as “rough sex” and chalks it up to a misunderstanding. She says otherwise. When he speaks to his lawyer, he’s crass.
Hutchens is the underdog. He’s a swift and prepared boxer, an instinctive fighter who has a trainer named Ratbag (Fisher Stevens). He’s put in solitary after a fight with the Iceman, but he has the support of the population and seems every bit the everyman he’s set up to be.
Their fight is believable and cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II pumps it through the bars to illustrate the separation between the prison and the outside world. The events in the jail don’t count, just as the conclusion illustrates, and the world turns on its own axis.
And that’s where Falk’s character comes in. He is the man perhaps most imbued with slippery memories of the outside world, even as the Iceman adapts readily to life behind bars. He has transitory glimpses of the past, fight details, names he can remember and names he has forgotten. For him, the fights have special meaning.
Undisputed isn’t a remarkable movie, but it does have more depth than many would anticipate. There’s something to be said about the collision of classes, about how the upper echelon builds the narratives and renovates memories – regardless of how truth plays out behind steel bars. And there’s something to be said about a good, honest fight.