MODERN FIGHT FILMS: THE UNDISPUTED TRILOGY

June 15, 2010

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Walter Hill made his directorial debut with Hard Times (1975), a downbeat portrait of Depression-era gamblers, bare-knuckle brawlers, and the women who put up with them. In 2002, Hill made Undisputed (2002), another fight film, this time set at a prison in the Mojave desert, where a recently jailed ex-heavyweight champ faces off against an undefeated inmate fighter.  Two direct-to-video sequels were spun off of the latter, with the third hitting DVD and Blu-ray this past week (Thanks to IFC’s Matt Singer for recommending #3).

In Hard Times, Hill utilizes the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio to stage scenes in depth, capturing desperate faces in the background cheering on the back alley brawls. During fight scenes, Hill cuts for strategically dramatic emphasis and spatial coherence. When a bald thug lands a blow, Hill cuts back and forth between reaction shots of Charles Bronson (the new fighter in town) and James Coburn (his shyster manager), interspersed with a long shot of the pier on which the scrum is taking place. In this sequence he efficiently establishes the initial goals of the plot – Bronson will destroy the baldie and set up a feud with his opposing  fur-lined coat wearing  manager.  As a fight scene, it’s crisp and coherent, almost always keeping both men’s bodies in the frame, and switching from low to high angles to establish the shifting fortunes of the “hitters”, as Coburn calls them.

In Undisputed (2002) the tempo is sped up considerably, but Hill maintains spatial continuity and dramatic interest. The opening bout is held in a cage, in which there is a similar scene in Hard Times. In both instances, the set has steeply sloped audience seating, and Hill repeatedly cuts to high-angle shots to establish the carinvalesque, Roman Colosseum feel of the bouts. Undisputed packs in far more exposition though, with repeated flashbacks (in B&W) to the back-stories of the main participants (Ving Rhames’ Iceman and Wesley Snipes’ Monroe Hutchen). There is also repeated use of white flashes to cover jump-cuts, adding to the jittery rhythm. And where Hard Times has sparing use of slow-moving pans, Undisputed utilizes a roving SteadiCam in and around the ring.  But even with all of these MTV style additions, the fights are clearly mapped out, with same use of high-low angles to chart the fortunes of the bout. Hill uses the tools of modern ADD-cinema to his advantage, packing in tons of information, from mobster Peter Falk’s love of boxing (cuts to B&W Joe Louis fights) to the details of Iceman’s arrest.

Hill introduces Iceman as a multplied image on a TV monitor, a media creation. First we see interviewer Jim Lampley behind a screen asking a question, but instead of a cut to Ving Rhames, Hill cuts to the production room and his image on television. This clever reversal sets up the gassy bravado of Rhames’ character – who is constantly performing his “warrior” image. In contrast, Snipes is depicted as all interior, quietly building temples out of toothpicks, and speaking only when absolutely necessary. The film is filled with resourceful character bits like this. Rhames and Snipes are in top form here (while Falk enjoyably swallows the scenery whole), and with Hill and fight choreographer Cole S. McKay’s  lucid setups, Undisputed is an underrated entry in the history of the fight film.

Four years later, production company Nu Image (and their subsidiary, Millenium Films), resurrected the title for a sequel, hiring Power Rangers veteran (and martial artist) Isaac Florentine to crank out a low-budget direct-to-video version. Ving Rhames was replaced by Michael Jai White (Spawn), and was re-located to Eastern Europe to take advantage of their low production costs. Instead of trying to pass off Bulgaria as Venice (as they did in the landmark Sharks in Venice), they relocate Iceman to a Russian prison, where he’s jailed on a frame-up drug charge. It’s a ruse by Russian mobster Gaga (Mark Ivanir) to set up a fight with Boyka (Scott Adkins), the champ on his highly lucrative prison fight circuit, which is broadcast to private gambling clubs.

Where the original Undisputed builds a semi-realistic version of prison life, the sequels focus entirely on the fight sequences. The plot is negligible, the supporting cast weak, but the fighting is superb. The term “B movie” is much abused these days, but the Undisputeds honor the scrappy spirit of the Republic and Monogram studios. Limited to a few sets and a flimsy narrative, these cheapies pack in more impressive physical feats than any Hollywood blockbuster that will be released this year.

Florentine, Jai White and Adkins are all trained in martial arts, and have boxes full of black belts among them. So what the film loses in character detail, it gains in athleticism, incorporating more styles in its version of mixed martial-arts. Once called “human cockfighting” by John McCain, MMA, as promoted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has become halfway respectable and turned into one of the most popular sports in the world.

Jai White is a low-key performer, offering none of the sarcastic menace of Rhames, but he’s lithe and powerful in the ring. Adkins is the reason these films got popular, however. A nimble Englishman donning a believable Russian accent, he possesses incredible balance and gymnastic aerial skills – the Astaire to Jai White’s Rogers. Florentine is no Walter Hill, but his fight scenes are clean and economical, mostly keeping both fighters in the frame, with the occasional close-up for emphasis. It’s bracing to watch such simple craft since quick-cut Bourne-clones ruined action movies over the past decade. Florentine’s main tic is using high-speed cameras for super slow motion in capturing Adkins’ more athletic twirlings, moments in which he’s turned into a religious icon of the ring (like the etchings his character prays to before each match). My friend Matt Singer objected to its use in his article, but I think it’s essential to the construction of these films – further illuminating the physicality of the performers.

Listening to their fan base, Adkins is turned from villain to hero in the third, and most satisfying film in the series. Not only does Adkins prove to be an appealingly mulish lead, but the film is filled with breezy supporting turns as well. Mark Ivanir is back as Gaga, played with sardonic charm, and veteran character actors (check out their resumes) Robert Costanzo and Vernon Dobtcheff provide American buffoonery and East-Euro creepiness  with as much bravado as Peter Falk did a crusty old man in the original.

Mobsters from around the world gather for an international prison fighting tournament, betting on the champ from their own country. After getting his leg snapped in Undisputed 2, Boyka is reduced to cleaning toilets while rehabbing his knee at night. He claws his way into the tournament, only to discover it was rigged by the crooked Georgian, Rezo (Dobtcheff). As if pulling names from American Gladiator, he befriends a Yank named Turbo (the I Wanna Be A Soap Star winner Mykel Shannon Jenkins) and plans on upending the whole money-grubbing show.

The tournament shows off a wide variety of fighting styles from a Brazilian’s capoeira to a North Korean’s taekwondo to the unnameable dance-fighting of Dolor (Marko Zaror), the Colombian and Arch-Villain. Prone to shooting heroin in his neck and reading Garcia Lorca under an umbrella shade, he’s a wildly entertaining villain and an equally unpredictable fighter. Pulling aspects of capoeira, boxing, and the tango together with self-regarding verve – his climactic fight against Boyka is an epic and strategic delight. Dolor attacks Boyka’s knee, destroying the Russian’s aerial attack, so Boyka switches tactics and uses a ground game of submission moves and tackles. It’s a nicely thought out piece of fighting psychology that encapsulates the Undisputed series,  a group of films that shows visual and emotional intelligence where you’d least expect it.

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