A surprisingly taut and engaging drama, “Undisputed” shows how well-focussed directing and putting substance over style can help overcome or at least distract an audience for the most part from a somewhat shonky but solid B-Grade “Rocky” clone story.
In a time of year when its all about the flashiness of effects or high concept plot driven epics, Director Walter Hill gives us a simple character prison drama done in a very straightforward and almost minimalistic utilitarian style. The focus remains on the two main characters and the pending fight, with little to no subplots messing up the action aside from a small thread about the narrator and his watchfulness of Peter Falk’s aging Cuban boxer character. This keeps the pace lean, the action taught and yet still allows time for a decent exploration of the main characters.
The downside to this however is that visual wise its not particularly impressive. The scope of the script is more TV movie in form and some scenes display somewhat corny sentimentality or overdone prison movie cliche moments but in an almost sterile PG-rated tone. In other words this is about the nicest prison you’ll see this side of the Betty Ford clinic.
Every now and then however some moments of clever dark satire ring through, and little touches such as floating titles hinting at each inmates name and crime (the latter appearing first) are welcome additions. Performances are strong all around with Snipes underplaying it calm and relaxed to an almost Zen-like state, whilst Rhames is all bluff and macho bluster as the ego maniac ‘champ’. Character actors from Fisher Stevens to Michael Rooker all make quick appearances, and Falk goes a little over the top but still shows good signs of life (something missing in his more recent roles).
The action itself is well shot, as someone whose not a particularly huge fan of boxing I found the various fight scenes quite watchable and whilst of course the Rhames/Snipes battle you could predict being the finale right from the get go, the end result as to what happens goes in an interesting direction – especially after we’ve spent a little over an hour or so learning about these two men and their various nuances/reactions to different things.
You actually have an emotional investment to both these characters, and there’s no clear ‘good guy’ as such to root for which makes the stand-off all the more interesting. Hill has delivered a fight movie that whilst not bringing anything new to the table, is nevertheless a slickly made dramatic piece that won’t visually blow you away, but will leave you entertained for its brisk 90 minute runtime.