This is one of those Rocky-style films in which the climax is built-in. We know there’s going to be a fight where the underdog goes up against the big bad champ. It’s the rest of the movie that needs to keep our attention and luckily Undisputed does a decent job save a few scenes that could have been cut. When the world heavyweight boxing champ George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) is sentenced to 6 to 8 years for rape he is sent to the newly built Sweetwater Maximum Security Prison in the Mojave Desert. Of course he vehemently denies the charges rages at his lawyers to find a way out of this mess and is generally in a pretty foul mood. In fact he bullies and pushes people around just about wherever he goes including Monroe Hutchens (Wesley Snipes) who as Chambers finds out is the reigning undisputed prison boxing champ–10 years running. Hutchens is a hero of sorts to the rest of the prisoners and this doesn’t sit well with the Iceman. Seizing a glorious opportunity to make some serious cash longtime inmate and mob boss Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk) sets up a boxing match between the two. He lures Hutchens into the ring on the promise of prize money to send home to his sister and three kids. For Iceman it’s the chance to get out on special parole via mob ties to the parole board. For both it means a fight to the finish by London Prize Ring rules — no referee lighter gloves and the last man standing wins. So who’ll be king of the hill?
The fact that Rhames‘ Iceman is more than a little reminiscent of real-life boxing champ Mike Tyson and the legal woes he suffered a few years back is certainly not lost. Yet Rhames infuses his character with a certain intelligence and a lot of cocky bravado. When he is on the screen you can’t take your eyes off him partly because he takes up half of it with his hulking mass. It’s also kind of fun to see Rhames playing the baddie again although not quite as malevolent as Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Snipes also puts in a compelling performance as Hutchens who was on his way to being a boxing champ himself before he lost his cool in a crime of passion and wound up in prison for murder. Hutchens doesn’t say much but quietly waits out his sentence making Japanese temples out of toothpicks. His character however comes alive when he is in the ring and for a man of little words Snipes looks good dealing out the punches. The supporting characters are hit and miss. Falk seems sorely out of place among all the hoodlums and just a little too senile to be believable as a tough-nut gangster. Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit) however as Hutchens’ crony Ratbag lives up to his character’s name nicely. Other inmates Jon Seda (Selena) as companion to Ripstein and Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans) as the Iceman’s only ally are also both memorable in small parts.
Action director Walter Hill best known for his ’80s hits 48 Hrs. and The Long Riders seems to be trying out some new techniques in his older years. Without going for the typical opening credits Undisputed launches the audience right into a boxing match. Hill alternates between black and white and color to make his points but the most unique technique is how he introduces the characters. As each new character comes on screen they are immediately freeze-framed with titles detailing who they are when they were convicted and what they were convicted of. Doing this isn’t necessarily a key to the story but you get to the point where you want it just because you are actually curious in finding out what crimes they’ve all committed. The film only drags when Rhames and Snipes are not on the screen and of course all the fancy camerawork really only pays off for the big finale. Watching these two animals duke it out in a cage is as exciting as you’d expect. Maybe not quite as bloody as say the ring action in Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull but fun nonetheless.