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.