Saturday, October 29, 2011
Starring - Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Ben Cross, Eli Danker, Mark Ivanir
"Just when you thought it was safe to go back to prison..."
When we last parted ways with felonious boxing bad-boy George "Iceman" Chambers, he was thoroughly disputed, presumably humbled, and Ving Rhames. How times change. Continuing the further misadventures of Chambers, now played by Michael Jai White, Undisputed II picks up some 6 years after his questionable incarceration in "Sweetwater Prison"; having since lost the championship, he has been reduced to shilling Russian vodka in order to make ends meet. A far cry from his former glory, this plummet in status apparently worked wonders for both his body-building regime and his ageing process. Faster than one can say "Fuck continuity", Chambers is framed for a crime (again?) and subjected to a "hush-hush" prison fight-league (again). Only this time the resident champ is "the most complete fighter in the world" Uri Boyka, played by the formidable Scott Adkins, and armed with a mind-blowing array of kicks and more selfishly skewed pride than the Iceman can shake a fist at. Oh, and it's set in Russia. Hell, judging by the credits, it must have been filmed in Russia while utilizing 90% of the hard working collective from the "Russian Moving Pictures Union".
Director Isaac Florentine has been slowly climbing the ladder of direct-to-video action for a number of years now, delivering films of generic competence that are punctuated with outstanding action sequences. Holding hands with Adkins since Special Forces has only served to insure quality fighting during his rising career. With Undisputed II Florentine, alongside seasoned A-producer/B-scripter Boaz Davidson, has stripped away the drama and characterization of Undisputed and replaced it with what I presume the majority of viewers expected from the outset: hand-to-hand combat. Any connection to the original is severed to the thinnest of ties, delegated to throwaway lines about Iceman's sordid past and a vaguely familiar battle of wits in the cafeteria. This route allows Florentine and Co. the freedom to develop Chambers unhindered, whilst assuring the less confident viewers that they are indeed still following along with a character they already know. ("Ah, good old Iceman... Still cutting off tough guys in the lunch line, just like he used to...") A tried and true direct-to-video sequel technique if ever there was one. Developed in the exact opposite fashion as it's predecessor, the plot line is all conquered territory, featuring clear-cut good guys and bad guys, a duplicitous corner man, a wise and elderly teacher, and an elusive broadcasting system that raises nary an authoritative eyebrow. Attempts at insightful narrative rear up from the back seat in minimal amounts, taking on the didactic forms of winter jackets and a markedly trustworthy niece. Of course, upon witnessing that first spinning jump kick, it becomes increasingly difficult to care if anything else is tucked away back there, so long as this awesome spectacle remains in the driver's seat.
Now, before moving forward allow me to clarify my position; opting to shy away from drama in favour of action is not, in my opinion, an inherently inferior decision. They are simply two different modes of storytelling. The real question then becomes whether or not the trade off was worth it. If that is not an inquiry that you can foresee yourself ever answering "Yes" to, then chances are you have watched this movie accidentally. Or, are one of the many lackadaisical consumers who barely even bother to look at the packaging of that which they are about to consume. If you do possess the acumen to appreciate kicking and punching as much as/more than growth and feelings, it probably took a maximum of 3 minutes to determine the value of this particular approach.
From the opening fight sequence to the climactic showdown, the real success and beauty of Undisputed II comes in the form of engaging violence. It is becoming more and more rare that fight fans (mixed martial arts fans, specifically) are treated to an exhibition of distinctly raw talent, and not fancy editing equipment. Strictly recalling American film making, that is. Lingering takes boast double-digit punch combinations, and the variety of oft-used actual martial arts holds run the full gamut from muay thai, to jiu jitsu, to judo, to wrestling, to beyond. Interspersed are some of the most gratuitously elaborate flip kicks ever captured on film. (Undisputed III notwithstanding.) Much of the praise goes to choreographer and stuntman extraordinaire J.J. Perry, and the cadre of opponents who realize the equivalent importance of being on the receiving end of a stylish beating. None of it, however, would have been so skilfully realized were it not for the film's two stars.
Upon release of this film the casting was immediately open to my scrutiny, despite my predetermined genre excitement, as I had some grand concerns over the decision to replace Rhames with White. Rhames had yet to obliterate the majority of his artistic legitimacy, and though I had always liked White, he never secured that particular role required to really catapult his career. Thanks for nothing, Spawn. Given the present state of affairs, I sheepishly recount the adage based on "hindsight"... Rhames fell far and quietly around the release of this one, (Piranha movies being a good way to kick-start the climb back up), whereas White parlayed this role, along with a relationship with other talented like-minders, into an extremely promising portfolio. From his Black Dynamite brainchild becoming one of the funniest "genre-love" movies of all time, to the justifiably anticipated Mortal Kombat project, to his (generally less anticipated) directorial debut, everything is coming up White. His acting here is fine; believable, given the source material, and never straying outside his range of smirking, "intense eyes", and stoicism. It's Scott Adkins as villainous Boyka, however, who ends up stealing many of the scenes. Wary as I am to admit, considering they are purportedly chums, and I desire to one day hang out with them. Not only is Adkins the best American martial artist working today, he does some great scenery-chewing while maintaining an impressive Russian accent. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of the subtle character depths of Grandmaster level chess or philately, it's when Adkins is growling and barking that shades of genuine acting shine through. He, like White, is currently on the brink of realizing his potential and this film was the proverbial springboard. After years of high caliber stunts in big Hollywood movies, the combined powers behind Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (of all things), have put their faith in Scott Adkins, bestowing unto him spoken lines and face time. An unsurprisingly safe gamble given the cult response, and if this man is not A-list famous within 2 years of this posting, there is something very wrong with the action community. (If The Expendables 2 uses him correctly, it could be much sooner than predicted.)
Even for a typical direct-to-video action movie with atypically good action, the film does suffer from a couple of minor flaws. The pacing loses a bit of momentum around two-thirds of the way in, as Chambers spends his time "emotionally growing" and "constructing a bond" with his new corner-man, thus exceeding the quota of one-on-one fighting cliches; fighters should be kept to one reluctant friendship per tournament. Granted, they did have to illustrate both the literal warming of his icy exterior and his drastically fast-tracked 4 week training program, but any excuse for even one more "sparring partner" sequence would have served to break the monotony of these "necessities". I also found it mildly disheartening to be slightly removed from the spectacular climactic brawl due to some sloppy CGI; a petty grievance quickly overshadowed by my understanding of the need to live up to a subtitle.
For action fans, this is a film of some importance; for non-action fans, it's another couple of tough guys who back up their posturing with punches and kicks. It marks American film making's first notable embrace of the full fight spectrum, combining the brutal realism of grapples and submissions with the theatrics of impractically stunning strikes. One more realization already practised overseas, and spearheaded by the likes of Donnie Yen, Woo-ping Yuen, et al. Undisputed II: Last Man Standing will certainly stand as the turning point for certain careers, breaking more than enough ground via combat to compensate for the lapses in story judgement. The only English fight-flick of recent (long term?) memory to best Undisputed II is Undisputed III, and I have long been broadening my lexicon of Adkins-based-devotion in anticipation of that discourse.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Starring - Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes, Peter Falk, Michael Rooker
Walter Hill has not made a single bad film. A bold statement, it's true; but one I'll defend vehemently. At least, to the reaches of the present discourse. Some are absolutely amazing and some are just "good", but none of them suck. Even what I consider to be his weakest outing, Brewster's Millions, has it's moments. God bless him for trying his hand at something different... (Bear in mind here that I'm not counting Supernova, which actually did kind of suck, in light of the fact that he had his name removed.) Undisputed fits firmly in that range between "amazing" and "good", what would most likely be considered in this vernacular vein to be "great". Hill, who co-wrote and produced (naturally), subverts an existing action sub-genre, which was already simple exploitation of a previous dramatic sub-genre, by infusing the former's tropes with the latter's narrative. Through the natural evolution of direct-to-video cinema, prison dramas that featured some fighting became tournament-fight-movies that were set in a prison. (As we are all aware, illegal fisticuff competitions and "The Big House" go together like bread and water.) Lock-Up became Ring of Death, Death Warrant became In Hell. Undisputed adheres to the fight formula while bringing it full circle with intriguing motivations, realistic representations, and viewer empathy. The same characters that transitioned from drama to action are all present, but we now reflect on the 'how's' and 'why's' of the circuit as oppposed to the punches and kicks. Add to this some very strong performances from not only Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes but also Peter Falk, and you get a helping of what Hill serves up best: a dark, testosterone-laden struggle wherein morally ambiguous characters battle for the basic satiation of pride, honour, and respect.
A brash boxing champion is incarcerated in "Sweetwater Prison" for a crime he may or may not have committed, where he comes face-to-face with their undefeated zen master of pugilism. Factions are established, gauntlets thrown, and an undisputed victor begs to be crowned. A familiar story through and through, but after the foundation is laid, the deja vu begins to fade away. With Hill's signature "grey characterization", the viewer is never really presented with a "bad guy"; sure, 'Iceman Chambers' is kind of a jerk, but is he evil? Is he even guilty? This does not call into question viewer allegiance; slowly and purposefully we're drawn into the favours of the 'Munroe Hutchen' camp. However, by keeping Chambers on that cusp of darkness instead of actually tipping him over, Hill reinforces the notion that this isn't so much a film about "good vs. evil" as it is "man vs. man". Hell, Chambers is even allotted the majority of the screen time, forcing the viewer to contemplate his situation, gradually blurring the line between 'Chambers: the villain' and 'Chambers: the man'.
As the film progressed and my contender devotions were playfully manhandled, I began to anticipate those helpful story archetypes that would typically make my decisions for me. Any minute now, the "evil warden" would bully or threaten one or the other fighter in an attempt to get him to participate in a no-holds barred (yet very secretive) bloodbath, killing his "lovable and/or comical corner man", and encouraging the other fighter to stuff some sort of mystery substance/powder in his gloves/shorts, which the younger, handsomer fighter will eventually overcome on his way to victory. Ding-ding-ding, good guy triumphs, I'm still amused, the end. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. The warden is a rather regular fellow, trying to appease outside forces whilst quietly keeping his nose clean. The general acceptance of people getting away with a crime of this magnitude in a government facility is addressed, and plausible explanations are drawn. Both fighters have begrudgingly amicable relationships with their corner men, but still fight for their own personal sense of pride. More so, they both want a clean, honest fight, with a semblance of rules no less. Part of the fun of the dynamic shared by the protagonists, which is built on a very minimal amount of actual interaction, is their similar sensibility. Both fight for honour, be it denoted by recognition and glory, or as the last bastion of a broken man. And who, pre-tell, is the puppet-master behind this extravaganza, pulling all the strings of power and influence? (Here's a hint: we've already discovered that there is no evil warden...) Why, it's a grizzled old ex-mafioso who also sees the beauty in the brutality and shares a symbiotic and growing relationship with a corner man of his own. (There's a large amount of "masculine emotions" surrounding this particular brawl.)
Ving Rhames turns in a solid portrayal, treading the line nicely between brazen intimidation and driven intensity. When Chambers stone-face baritone's "People play baseball, nobody plays boxing", he instantly commands as much respect as he does fear. (It may not hurt that it's a really good line, appealing to those of us who happily embrace our Y chromosomes.) It seems apparent then that Rhames had quite the positive experience shooting in this prison, considering that he quickly followed up Undisputed with the far inferior Animal...which had hot on it's heels the even farther inferior Animal 2. It was a very good, if not aptly cast, role for Rhames, but it's time for his parole.
Snipes is also quite formidable as the man of "few words/the people", and hopefully utilized this part as research for future endeavours. As the quiet "counter-character" to Chambers, he has a limited number of not only lines, but even scenes, in which to explore his motivations. He accomplishes this with a level of comfort reminiscent of his glory days when he simultaneously exhibited competent dramatic abilities alongside genuine bad-assedness.
This is truly a "3 character" film however, and the memorable performance really belongs to Peter Falk as "Mendy Ripstein". With as much of an internal investment in this fight as the two combatants, Ripstein commentates the surrounding circumstances, making sense of and adding eloquence to the primal simplicity of it all. Falk delivers a couple of excellent speeches in that gruffly iconic tone of his, and his tale of "the mayor" stands as a glimpse into the past moral system that shaped him. Great writing + astute casting + character exploration = "the casino stays open".
The film holds aesthetically true to Hill's repertoire, borne of a time when machismo movies were a standard practice. (Gender alienation is much more dangerous these days, both financially and socially.) Every light bulb flickers on the verge of burn out, dust particles floating through the bare illumination, and the colour palette resigns itself to a fraction of the spectrum. The muted greys, blues, and browns only brighten when the camera pans across the vast surrounding landscape, employing the 'prison-flick' convention of emphasizing the freedom that remains forever out of reach. Scenes are strung together by black and white footage of classic fighters, or interspersed with rapidly edited flashbacks of personal and defining moments, strengthening both the drives and connections shared amongst the three protagonists. The fights themselves are filmed well, utilizing hand held techniques that emulate those of televised events in their effort to draw the viewer as close to the action as possible. It pains me to admit then, that the most notable flaws also stem from these confrontations. The actual punching sounds are exaggerated in an attempt to emphasize the impact, and some longer takes would have served well in showcasing the actors' ability to throw combinations, not just jabs. (Funny how I still focus on the fighting even when the film doesn't.)
More often than not the name "Walter Hill" is merely whispered around the edges of Hollywood auteur lists; meanwhile, insurmountable evidence to the contrary is rapidly accumulating. With Undisputed, Hill is afforded the chance to revisit a sub-genre he helped to originate with Hard Times. Only now, the competitors fight in order to regain, as opposed to fighting in order to maintain. This modern disposition draws central concern away from the food going into one's mouth and towards the words coming out of everyone else's; the burden of shelter succumbs to that of judgement. I suppose it seems somewhat necessary at this point to mention my unadulterated love for Walter Hill, though I do take great pride in my ability to allow a film to stand on it's own merits. That said, this remains successful due to not only the efforts of Hill, but everybody involved, many of whom were thought to have long fallen from the graces of good cinema. The irony here is not that after the accolades I have bestowed upon Undisputed for pulling away from "tournament-fight movies", the two sequels go ahead and beat the shit out of the franchise, pummelling it right back into that overcrowded mix. Nope. Rather, the real irony here is that I actually like both of those movies better. Here we have that very rare series in which each subsequent chapter surpasses the one prior. (Ignoring, of course, genre preference.) That remains a diatribe for another day; suffice it to say, there was indeed a mystery substance that I blissfully saw coming from a mile away.