2002, R, 94 min. Directed by Walter Hill. Starring Master P, Fisher Stevens, Wes Studi, Jon Seda, Michael Rooker, Peter Falk, Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 23, 2002
In film after film, director and co-scriptwriter Walter Hill has specialized in creating worlds of nebulous rights and wrongs. His is a morally shaded universe lacking conventional heroes and villains. Hill's protagonists are usually tarnished characters while the villains are generally little worse, morally, than his so-called heroes. It's a pattern that begins with his early films -- The Driver, a story about a getaway car driver and the weirdo cop on his trail; the gang warfare of The Warriors; The Long Riders saga that focuses on the Jesse James gang; and the weekend warriors of Southern Comfort pitted against Southern crackers in the Louisiana swamp -- and continues with the less commercially successful films of his later career -- the Western gunslinger tales, Wild Bill and Last Man Standing. Undisputed is unlikely to earn Hill more business, despite it being a solid prison boxing movie. Again, Hill gives us a world filled with morally complex characters, but that just may be this film's undoing. The story gives the viewer little to root for in this boxing match between the undisputed prison heavyweight champion Monroe Hutchen (Snipes), who is incarcerated for the crime of murder, and George “Iceman” Chambers (Rhames), the heavyweight champion of the world who has just been sent to prison on a rape conviction (in a thinly veiled take on the Mike Tyson story). Root for the murderer or the rapist -- or no one at all? That's the viewer's dilemma in this hero-less world, and most viewers will probably feel uncomfortable with the ambiguity. Overcoming that hurdle is worthwhile, though, because Undisputed is a good, if unoriginal, film. Most striking here are the performances. Rhames is a tightly harnessed bundle of fury, Snipes a restrained champion who seems to have made inner peace with the crime of passion that sent him away for life, and Falk a riveting delight as the foul-mouthed, broken-down boxing promoter who's living out his last years in prison even though his head is ensconced in Havana, circa some 40 years ago. Supporting players Studi, Seda, and Stevens are also all wonderful as sidekicks, and Rooker practically steals the show with his few lines as a prison guard. A good music score by jazz veteran Stanley Clarke is given an occasional assist by Master P, as the leader of a prison hip-hop group (they sing the national anthem before the big match). It's arguable that Hutchen's character should have been developed more in order to make him a more identifiable, and therefore likable, character. But likability -- although it might be a help at the box office -- would have hurt this movie's objective. And that's indisputable.