Walter Hill's 'Undisputed' -- with powerhouse performances by Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes -- pulls no punches.

Movie Reviews

August 23, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



Undisputed is the best action film of the summer.

Even though it has relatively few big action scenes and almost no special effects, it plays like one uninterrupted streak of action, because violence menaces the characters like a storm cloud when it isn't slicing through their milieu like lightning.

The tale is simple: A heavyweight boxing champ named Iceman (Ving Rhames) lands in the slammer and discovers that the quickest way out is to fight the prison program's boxing champ, Monroe (Wesley Snipes).

But the director, Walter Hill, and his co-writer, David Giler, have visualized it with thoroughness, toughness and complexity - this is one battering ride that doesn't cheat on the moral hairpin turns.

In the tradition of torn-from-the-headlines melodramas that movies have generally ceded to television - and with an inventiveness topical melodramas rarely get on TV - Undisputed presents Iceman as a bludgeoning behemoth convicted of rape. Yes, the outline fits Mike Tyson, but Iceman is a Tyson who has transformed aggressive dominance into a conscious principle.

Whether in a ring or in a prison, he considers everyone who gets in his face chumps, including members of the black Big House clique that would otherwise claim him as an ally. His one article of faith is his rock-bottom belief in his own pummeling strength. You know exactly what he means when he asks an interviewer, "Hey, look at me ... what would I got to rape anybody for?" - and how much he doesn't understand. (The movie has a mother lode of sardonic humor: There's a prison rap group called the Cut Boys, who do one mean national anthem.)

Rhames can be a monolithic actor, but here he finds the bitter root of his character and lets it grow and flower. Monroe is Iceman's opposite: Sentenced to life imprisonment because of a passion-killing he committed with two lethal weapons - his fists - Monroe has figured out how to survive by living within himself and focusing on being a champion with integrity. Hill and Giler give Monroe the same bit of business Sam Peckinpah gave Steve McQueen in the penitentiary opening of The Getaway - building a bridge out of toothpicks - and Snipes imbues Monroe with the understated, acutely aware cool of McQueen in his prime.

It's a knockout comeback for Snipes as an actor, and for Hill as a director, after removing his name from the skimpy sci-fi spectacle Supernova (2000). Working independently on a tiny budget, Hill has poured everything he knows into this compact framework, from his love for actors to his understanding of kinetic moviemaking.

Wes Studi, Hill's Geronimo in Geronimo: An American Legend, brings magnificent recessive power to the role of Iceman's cellmate - he's a man who gains a powerhouse dignity by restraint, just as Peter Falk's prison fixer, a Meyer Lansky-style mob boss, gains his by dispensing hard-earned, no-bull wisdom with vaudevillian delight.

Everywhere you look there's a deft character actor to behold, including Jon Seda, who is touchingly protective as Falk's right-hand man, and Michael Rooker as a head guard wily and potent enough to take heat from both the prisoners and the higher-ups.

Few directors are able to showcase actors with fast-cutting techniques. Hill is an ace at it because everything about his action is organic. Even the rapid overlays of titles spelling out locations or identifying inmates according to name, crime, nickname and gang allegiances, do a couple of things at once. They provide useful information, but they also chart the existential prisons the cons have built for themselves - and their awareness that somebody is always watching them.

The escalating violent incidents swerve toward the climactic bout between Monroe and Iceman like iron filings to a magnet. Both Rhames and Snipes look as if they can give - and more important, take - a heavyweight punch. They achieve stature in the ring by staying true to their different styles.

Hill tried and failed to match Kurosawa in his gangster remake of Yojimbo - Last Man Standing. Maybe boxers are better parallels to samurai than gunmen. At one point, Iceman says, "I'm not an athlete. I'm a gladiator. ... People play baseball. Nobody plays boxing."

Undisputed is Hill's real Kurosawa movie.

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