Saturday, October 29, 2011
UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING
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.