The “Undisputed” film series is…vexing…During the mid 2000’s, there was this strange trend of making direct-to-video sequels to theatrical releases that audiences mostly had forgotten about. Remember “Behind Enemy Lines“, “Save the Last Dance“, “Hollow Man“, “Mean Girls“, “Wild Things“, “Bring it On“, “American Psycho“, “Cruel Intentions“, “The Butterfly Effect“, “S.W.A.T” and “Road Trip“? They were all pretty big deals when they came out, if only for their marketing campaigns and the hype which surrounded them. But even if they were box office hits or received positive reviews, they didn’t really leave a long lasting impression on cinema and no one figured they were ‘sequel’ material…except they not only got sequels, but in some cases, they even blossomed into franchises…direct-to-video franchises…But why? Especially as there are some serious gaps of time between the originals and their first sequels? Every case is obviously going to be different, as some might’ve been critically reviled, but made money or perhaps they found an audience on the home market, even if they under-performed in theaters. Yet the actual reason is much more simple and pragmatic. In the mid-2000’s, the era of the VHS tape was coming to an end, as video stores were being overrun by DVD’s, which were cheaper to produce, provided better picture quality and could even have bonus features. This was a big deal at the time and audiences demanded more, so studios decided to flood the market with direct-to-DVD releases. But because they want to increase their profit margin, they dusted off properties that had enough of a namesake to guarantee an audience, but not enough of an audience to demand high production or promotional budgets- which theatrical releases usually require. People might not actually remember the content of “Behind Enemy Lines“, but they might recall the name, which increases the chance of a rental. At the absolute least, a low budgeted thriller called “American Psycho 2” will probably catch your eye more than a low budgeted thriller with some random name. Low risk, maximum profit….and that is why there are now four “Undisputed” movies, three of them being released straight-to-DVD.
(Directed by Walter Hill)
(Written by David Giler and Walter Hill)
(Starring Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes and Peter Falk)
Who doesn’t remember “Undisputed” when it punched its way into theaters in 2002? When the marketing campaign really hyped up the climactic fight between Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, back when they were still considered box office draws? When it opened to middling reviews…and…flopped at the box office? Okay, maybe I’m the only one who remembers this because I was one of the few people who bothered to purchase a ticket at the time…and maybe the only thing I remember about the movie was the trailer that sold me on seeing it in the first place, but…yeah, “Undisputed” was not very distinct or memorable. The story follows George ‘Iceman’ Chambers (Ving Rhames), the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world, who is convicted on a rape charge and sentenced to prison. It just so happens that this prison has underground boxing matches, where its own Champion, Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes), reigns. Tensions flare between the two, leading to an inevitable match to determine who the true Undisputed Champion is. “Undisputed” isn’t a badly made movie, having solid production values, cinematography, choreography and performances. The stellar cast is rounded out by Peter Falk, Wes Studi and Michael Rooker, with the latter two arguably being wasted, but they’re strong enough actors that they elevate the material simply with their presence. Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes are also good in their roles, having enough charisma to carry the scenes they are in, even when the script and direction are letting them down. “Undisputed” isn’t bad at all, but most of its creative decisions almost seemed designed to leave audiences feeling…cold…Director Walter Hill once said that most boxing movies use the sport as a metaphor, but he wanted to make a boxing movie that was about the actual boxing. I’d argue that “Undisputed” is more of a prison survival flick, but even I’d have to concede that boxing is the topic of nearly every scene in some way, so maybe enthusiasts of the sport will have stronger reactions than the rest of us did. There are no real secondary subplots, redemption arcs, love interests, familial drama or any content that isn’t enduring the hardships of Prison or preparing for the big fight. I don’t see anything wrong with being a simple genre flick, although I thought Walter Hill’s over-reliance on flashbacks and captions was both choppy and lazy. “Undisputed” has aged somewhat awkwardly, as 2002 was embracing this music video style of editing that quickly grew obnoxious and now feels like a desperate attempt to cater to the youth of the time. Some of the ‘gangsta rap’ scenes in particular had my eyes rolling. But anyway, “Undisputed” would be a competent boxing story and maybe even is one, except there’s…one…critical…problem.
‘Potential Rapist Vs Murderer’.
Who exactly were we supposed to root for in this conflict? Chambers gets the majority of the screen-time and his actions drive the narrative, so I would say he’s the ‘protagonist’, but he’s also a major asshole who might’ve raped someone. Remember, there are no redemption arcs, so it’s not like he ends the movie as a better person, nor does he learn anything from his trials. We never even get any real hidden depths from the guy, so why should we care? I was especially disappointed that we didn’t get to witness his reaction to the final fight. But at least the movie never confirms whether he actually is a rapist, whereas Monroe gets a flashback of him beating a man to death in a jealous rage. Does he feel any remorse? It’s left ambiguous, as he’s not in the movie as much as you would think and most of his scenes are comprised of him looking serious and making ‘toothpick houses’. Interestingly, Snipes apparently objected to the studio wanting a scene that would make him more sympathetic, so apparently we weren’t supposed to like either of these guys…SO WHY SHOULD WE CARE!? The stakes feel minimal, as Chambers just wants out of prison…even though we’re not sure if he should be let out…and Monroe wants money to send to his sister- whom we never meet, so have no reason to care for either. I think it would’ve been better if they shared the screen more often as they have the right kind of chemistry, but outside of their climactic fight, they are only share the same scenes TWICE. I want to emphasize that I think “Undisputed” is fine for what it is and it can certainly be a serviceable genre piece, even though I’m not particularly interested in boxing. But it’s also very underwhelming because the movie doesn’t give you any reason to make an emotional connection to its narrative. Sure, the final fight is pretty good, but it lacks any sense of catharsis because you don’t feel like the conclusion really matters. Either one shitty person wins or another shitty person wins…Yay? “Undisputed” wasn’t a major bomb, but it didn’t do well financially and might’ve contributed to the decline of both Snipes and Rhames as ‘leading men’. The next Wesley Snipes flick of note was “Blade III“, which did end his career as a major star, before the IRS got him for tax evasion- which is almost amusing now considering how much Tax evasion is brought up in this movie. Ving Rhames would immediately resume doing supporting roles, which was his bread-and-butter anyway. Both are currently trapped within ‘direct-to-DVD’ hell, but they usually headline this market, so I guess they’re still Kings of their Castles, even if they had to move to much smaller, less impressive Castles. “Undisputed” ended up being a footnote in their careers, the kind of mediocrity that was quickly forgotten by the masses and would never produce a follow-up, much less a franchise…right?
UNDISPUTED 2: LAST MAN STANDING (2006)
(Directed by Isaac Florentine)
(Written by James Townsend and David N. White)
(Starring Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins and Ben Cross)
I have to admit that I only bothered watching “Undisputed 2” because the third entry had just been released and was receiving more acclaim than even most movies that are designed to receive acclaim do. My franchise compulsion wouldn’t let me skip a number, so I immediately rented “Undisputed 2” so that I could enjoy “Undisputed 3“, but I ended up enjoying “Undisputed 2” a lot too. Michael Jai White replaces Ving Rhames as George Chambers, except he’s no longer the Champion and is so short on money that he resorts to doing foreign commercials. This takes him to Russia, where he’s framed for drugs and sent to Prison. Now he must contend with being an arrogant, infamous foreigner amidst a sea of bloodthirsty criminals. But then he discovers that the corrupt Prison officials are arranging illegal mixed martial arts fights, with Boyka (Scott Adkins) being their ‘Undisputed’ Champion…and as the first movie said, you can’t have two Champions…From a storytelling perspective, “Undisputed 2” is a rehash of its predecessor, albeit with more ‘prison’ cliches and a more conventional narrative. You’ve seen every plot development, twist…scene…line of dialogue…everything…in every other Prison Survival flick ever made. With that said, I made a firmer connection with the narrative this time around because it is obvious whom I’m supposed to root for. Chambers might be an asshole and if I have any real problem with the movie, it’s that Michael Jai White oversells that aspect of his personality, but he’s presented as the lesser of two evils and he is finally given a redemption arc. But now that I’ve gotten all of that lame critic stuff out of the way, DID YOU SEE THOSE F@CKING FLYING SPIN KICKS?! OMG, THEY WERE F@CKING AWESOME!
Whereas “Undisputed” was a boxing flick, “Undisputed 2” is a martial arts movie and it excels in that department. The choreography might not be as realistic as the first film, but it’s a lot more stylish and exciting. Scott Adkins is at his physical peak here and his flying, spinning, twirling, diving kicks made me re-think the laws of physics, as I’d never seen some of these techniques before and they look f@cking impossible, even though they were apparently all him. I’m a huge fan of Adkins now, but what movie made me his fangirl? This one. Boyka is the type of villain who could’ve easily been cartoonish, but there is a demented sort of nobility about him that makes you want to see more of the character. Adkins looks unrecognizable in the role, but his intensity and charisma ignites the screen every time he’s on-camera. Michael Jai White also handles the physicality of the role very well, even if he was somewhat upstaged by his co-star. I like how Chambers continues to use boxing- albeit a fictional, over-the-top version of it- and of his method of fighting isn’t presented as obsolete, even though the movie is obviously pushing MMA as the future of combat sports. The first fight between Chambers and Boyka is cool because it’s ‘Boxing Vs MMA’ and they quickly establish Boxing as the superior fighting style when it comes to exchanging punches, but the movie also makes a point to show the limitations of boxing when your enemy also uses grappling and kicks. Chambers has to expand on his moveset before his rematch, so the choreography doesn’t just look cool, it also serves the story…No, that’s not right. The choreography BECOMES the story. Isaac Florentine is an incredibly gifted action director, enhancing the fight scenes with the right amount of slow motion, quick cuts, long shots and the camera is always in the right place in order to capture the extent of the technique on display. The editing keeps things moving fast, but never to the point where you can’t tell what is happening. “Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing” is easy to underestimate because of its direct-to-video status, along with its connection to a mediocre first film, but it ended up being surprisingly good. I suppose boxing purists might be annoyed with this shift in the formula and I understand where they’re coming from, but DID YOU SEE THOSE F@CKING FLYING SPIN KICKS!? OMG, THEY WERE F@CKING AWESOME! I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE NEXT ONE!
UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (2010)
(Directed by Isaac Florentine)
(Written by David N. White)
(Starring Scott Adkins, Mykel Shannon Jenkins and Mark Ivanir)
Just as “Undisputed 2” chose to make a hero out of the villain from “Undisputed“, “Undisputed 3” continues this path of redemption by following Boyka (Scott Adkins), the villain of “Undisputed 2“. Now it’s his turn to become the hero! Once considered the ‘Ultimate Warrior’, Boyka has been reduced to being the ‘Ultimate Prison Toilet Cleaner’ thanks to his busted leg. Yet it turns out his fall from grace was deliberate, as he refuses any help from Warden Gaga (Mark Ivanir). He’s trying to rebuild himself in his own way, slowly strengthening his leg until he can compete once more…He gets his opportunity when an inter-prison tournament is announced, which will gather the greatest Incarcerated warriors from all around in the world in order to compete. But it quickly becomes apparent that something sinister is afoot in this competition, as the losers are disappearing under ‘mysterious’ circumstances, so Boyka is fighting for more than just glory this time around. “Undisputed 3” is just like “Undisputed 2“…except better thanks to an improved script. The stakes are higher, Boyka’s redemption arc was nicely developed and the plot has a lot more twists and turns. I also found myself enjoying the villain, Raul “Dolor” Quinones (Marko Zaror), whom you love to hate, as he’s such an amusing prick. He has so much personality, even with very little dialogue and is strangely athletic considering his size. I actually want to see him be the lead for “Undisputed 4“. I can’t say the film is perfect, as I found Jericho “Turbo” Jones (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) to be annoying. His characterization is obviously designed to be reminiscent of Chambers from the last two movies, but the difference is Chambers came across as legitimately tough, while ‘Turbo’ seems like he’s trying too hard to come across as tough. I also had mixed feelings for the conclusion of his entire subplot, as it felt like the filmmakers copped out on a compelling set-up, but I also found the ending to be satisfying…So…I’m just happy that the film elicited an emotional response from me that wasn’t rooted in physical beatdowns. Speaking of which…
The choreography is just as good as it was in “Undisputed 2“, having the perfect balance of fluidity and brutality. All of the stuntmen and martial artists make their techniques look like they’re connecting, even though they move so fast. There’s also a surprising amount of diversity in the fighting styles, as some people use capoeira, kickboxing, grappling and I think I saw some Taekwondo in there too, but they’re all stylized to show plenty of athleticism. Once again, Isaac Florentine knows exactly where to put the camera for maximum impact and the editor knows when to speed up the footage, slow it down, cut away or let it go for a lengthy period of time. There is also A LOT more action this time around, securing this as a true martial arts flick. It’s harder to critique “Undisputed 3“, as I feel like I can just copy and paste most of my review of “Undisputed 2” and my points would still stand. The formula remains the same, but it’s improved upon, especially when it comes to the action. There are still plenty of ‘prison survival’ cliches, but they aren’t as noticeable this time around and Boyka is a very interesting character. The cast is really good in general, but this was the first time I bought Scott Adkins as a compelling leading man. He has that quiet, smoldering charisma that western action stars require and he conveys a lot with little dialogue. I’m not going to say that “Undisputed 3” is a martial arts classic, but I’m not going to say…it’s ‘not’ a martial arts classic either.
BOYKA: UNDISPUTED (2017)
(Directed by Todor Chapkanov)
(Written by David N. White)
(Starring Scott Adkins, Teodora Duhovnikova and Alon Aboutboul)
I’m not going to lie, when I heard that Scott Adkins was going to be reprising his role for the fourth “Undisputed” feature, I was a little disappointed, because I was hoping the series would continue its tradition of redeeming the previous villains…and then I realized that I was being disappointed that my favorite action star was returning to the franchise that made him my favorite action star, so I told myself to shut up and make me a sandwich. Boyka (Scott Adkins) has continued his underground fighting career since his escape from prison, but wishes to become a legitimate competitor in the ‘big leagues’. He gets an opportunity to participate in a respectable tournament, but first has to win a match against an equally desperate man named Viktor (Emilien De Falco). Boyka wins, but accidentally kills his opponent in the process and is subsequently consumed by guilt. He travels to Russia to seek forgiveness from Viktor’s wife, Alma (Teodora Duhovnikova), whose debt to the local mob boss Zourab (Alon Aboutboul) is hefty enough that he practically owns her. Luckily, Zourab holds his own fighting events and Boyka makes him an offer he can’t refuse. If he wins a series of fights in Zourab’s ring, Alma wins her freedom. “Undisputed 4” is pretty good and will satisfy the fans of Boyka’s saga, but I feel like “Undisputed 2” and especially “Undisputed 3” have spoiled me so much that I cannot deny the sting of disappointment. The choreography hasn’t deteriorated though, as there are still an arsenal of impossibly incredible techniques on display here. Scott Adkins might be in his 40’s now, but he can do those same dazzling kicks and fluid counter-maneuvers that made him the ‘star’ of this franchise in the first place…or they did a phenomenal job at covering up his body double…But even if he didn’t do all of his stunts, his physique hasn’t aged a bit! I couldn’t help but notice, however, that his opponents often seemed quicker and more athletic. Some of them even come close to upstaging Adkins. I only bring this up because in “Undisputed 2“, he was the one who was stealing the show from Michael Jai White with his superior speed and technique. Age just sucks that way. Nevertheless, the choreographer gives Adkins all of the memorable moments, so the show remains firmly his. The fights continue to be brutal, yet there is a psychology to them. We’re used to seeing Boyka be the dominant one, but “Undisputed 4” continuously puts the character in positions of vulnerability that makes the action more dramatic. We have no problem believing Boyka is ‘the best’, but can he overcome his enemy while suffering from a critical injury? I liked how the choreography is designed around storytelling and not just looking fancy…even though it also does look really fancy.
Isaac Florentine was not able to return as the director, as his wife had tragically passed away and…I feel guilty about what I’m about to say. I found myself missing Florentine’s presence, as even though the choreography is in the same league as the last two films, the direction, cinematography and editing are not. The fight scenes don’t feel quite as electric and lack the stylistic touches that enhanced the action in “Undisputed 2” and “Undisputed 3“. They both had more polish AND grit. Yet I don’t think the direction, cinematography or editing are bad or even mediocre. “Undisputed 4” was competent in these areas and once again, I have to wonder if I’m just being spoiled. At no point did the director, cinematographer or editor ever get in the way of the choreography, which is how they’re supposed to function. Todor Chapkanov, Florentine’s replacement, deserves a lot more praise than I’m giving him, especially considering that he’s primarily known for shitty Mockbusters. Chapkanov directs with a steady hand, letting the choreography wow his audience and that is what matters…even if I still miss Florentine’s more kinetic style. The story isn’t much and we’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times before, but at least it does give Scott Adkins some good material to work with as an actor. The character of Boyka continues to evolve and Adkins gets to show some real emotion that still felt in line with his characterization. Adkins does so good that he makes his supporting cast look REALLY bad, although admittedly they did not need much help. The acting was definitely weaker than all the others, especially when it came to the henchmen, whose lines sound like they were being delivered phonically. Finally, I thought the ending was unsatisfying from a character standpoint. Did Boyka really learn anything? I’m not sure, as it seems like his development took a few steps back and the overarching story seems to be retreating to the original formula. “Boyka: Undisputed” is definitely the most flawed entry of the series, but it’s still very entertaining as a martial arts opus. The action isn’t just really well done, it seems to gobble up most of the screen-time, so even if the dialogue and story have problems, they’re never the center of your attention. Just don’t be a spoiled little punk like me and expect a continued trend upwards.
Um, can someone please tell the filmmakers that the quality is supposed to drop when a sequel is released straight to DVD? I find this behavior to be strange and irresponsible for disrupting the natural order of things! THIS THREATENS THE FABRIC OF TIME! But beyond that…I’m impressed! The “Undisputed” film series started off on shaky ground, but quick found its niche and delivered some quality genre flicks. Sure, if you don’t appreciate the art of martial combat on celluloid, I doubt these movies will do anything for you. But if you love boxing, check out “Undisputed“, although be sure to keep your expectations mild. If you prefer martial arts action as I do, definitely check out the sequels. You don’t need to watch the original to appreciate the follow-ups, but I feel viewing them all in order improves upon the overall experience, so I’d happily sit through “Undisputed” again just to enhance my enjoyment of “Undisputed 2“…and you have to watch “Undisputed 2” to understand “Undisputed 3” and “Undisputed 3” is f@cking awesome…and “Undisputed 4” is pretty cool too! Whatever you choose to do, don’t underestimate the “Undisputed” franchise just because you didn’t care for the first film, or because the sequels are all direct-to-DVD. Lower budgets and lesser distribution is usually a bad sign, but sometimes they give the filmmakers more freedom to do something even better than what more money could offer…and director Isaac Florentine and star Scott Adkins excel in this kind of movie making. As long as they continue showcasing the same amount of talent and effort, I hope they keep making “Undisputed” films. I want them to do a sequel where they bring back Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Marko Zaror and Wesley Snipes, who have to team up to break out of a Prison in an “Expendables“-esque ensemble. They’d all be reprising their roles, but it would be funny if they did some meta-casting by getting Ving Rhames to play the Prison Warden. It’s not completely impossible as it’s not like these films are beneath Snipes or Rhames these days, but it would be f@cking amazing if they did something like that. THIS MUST HAPPEN! I would even favor this idea over my “Children of the Space Corn” dream project! DO IT! DO IT NOW!