Walter Hill's "Undisputed," a boxing/prison picture as smart as it is brawny, shows what seasoned Hollywood pros can still accomplish without pretensions and overwhelming special effects.
"Undisputed" is a compelling entertainment because of Hill and co-writer David Giler's adroit cinematic storytelling skills and the powerful presence of Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, whose talent and intelligence are as impressive as their physiques. Those are the actors themselves fighting in a movie with no lack of visceral impact.
Rhames' massive Iceman Chambers is the current world heavyweight boxing champion, considered one of the sport's great fighters, but he's been brought low by a six-to-eight-year sentence for a rape he insists he did not commit. Despite this dire turn of events, he arrives at a new maximum-security prison in the Mojave Desert with his arrogance undiminished. Not surprisingly, he responds with contempt when he learns that the prison has its own champion boxer, Monroe Hutchen (Snipes), who has a record of 67 wins and no losses in the Inter-Prison Boxing Program.
Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk), a Meyer Lansky cohort from way back to Batista's Cuba and a boxing aficionado serving a life term for tax evasion, nevertheless believes that Monroe is just the guy to melt the Iceman.
Hill and Giler set up their story with much wit and ingenuity, and take pains to paint full-length portraits of Monroe and Iceman that are ultimately sympathetic to both yet devoid of special pleading. Monroe is a man who is proud of a life-long self-control that lapsed calamitously just once. A California state champion on the verge of the big time, Monroe lost it when he caught his woman with another man and has wound up with a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He builds pagodas and bridges out of matchsticks and says he has learned to live in his head.
Beneath his veneer of arrogance, Iceman is honest and self-knowing enough to admit to himself and others that he has always relied on solving everything with his fists and continues to do so because, as he explains, everyone is always trying to a get a piece of the champion. (Hill and Giler suggest how hard it is for a world champion to defend himself against a rape charge, but leave it up to us to consider whether he might be innocent.) But resorting to his fists at every provocation behind bars can only make more trouble for him at a time when he desperately needs to stay on good behavior to qualify for a work leave in 18 months to two years.
He's made zillions, but it's the old story: many ex-wives, an entourage, an inept and/or crooked business manager, the prospect of a $75-million civil suit filed by the woman who successfully accused him of rape, and a legal bill already up to $2 million and climbing, have not exactly left the champ, already age 35, sitting pretty. Is it any wonder that his manager (Daton Callie) and his attorneys want him out of prison as fast as possible?
Hill and Giler are highly imaginative in the way they have "Undisputed" play out with humor, suspense and unpredictability. They are especially adroit at never letting us know or see anything more than we need to, and this economy contributes to the film's leanness and vigor. Giler's witty in-depth characterizations extend to Michael Rooker as the prison's head guard, as eager for the match as Mendy; Jon Seda as Mendy's key protector in the prison; Wes Studi as Iceman's shrewd cellmate; and Fisher Stevens as Monroe's canny manager.
Mendy might have been written especially for Falk, so perfect is the fit, with Falk missing none of the old gangster's durable smarts and dark sense of humor. Master P heads a prison rap group that performs before the Inter-Prison matches.
Filmed at the Nevada's new High Desert State Prison, "Undisputed" is a great-looking film, shot and assembled with style and an easy, vital flow.
For a prison film, it is remarkably free from violence, and the expertly staged boxing scenes (famed real-life fight trainer Emanuel Steward worked with Snipes) are classic tests of skill and strength free of gratuitous gore.
MPAA rating: R, for strong language. Times guidelines: Aside from the language, the film is suitable for older teens.
Wesley Snipes...Monroe Hutchen
Ving Rhames...Iceman Chambers
Peter Falk...Mendy Ripstein
Michael Rooker...A.J. Mercker
A Miramax presentation in association with Millennium Films and Amen Ra Films and Motion Picture Corporation of America of a David Giler production in association with Hollywood Partners. Director Walter Hill. Producers David Giler, Walter Hill, Brad Krevoy, Andrew Sugarman. Executive producers Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson, Wesley Snipes, Avi Lerner, Sandra Schulberg, Rudolf Wiesmeier. Screenplay David Giler and Walter Hill. Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II. Editor Freeman Davies. Music Stanley Clarke. Costumes Barbara Inglehart. Production designer Maria Caso. Set decorator Alice Baker. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In general release.