Cinema meets the sweet science at the multiplex, and nobody gets knocked out
After a long hot summer of mismatches in 2002, we finally got to see a competitive heavyweight fight. We didn’t catch this bout in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or Memphis, Tennessee, even though we wish we had, but at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem.
The latest if not greatest Hollywood caper to touch upon the fight game, Walter Hill’s Undisputed is a genre-buster that low blows both cinema and the sweet science. A prison flick first and foremost, then action-adventure, and possibly, at some point, maybe even a drama, this trifle – conceived as a vehicle for Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames and costarring that old workhorse Peter Falk – is lightweight in every respect.
To its credit, the film has all the necessary trappings: the participation of real-life boxing luminaries Jim Lampley from HBO and referee Joe (“I’m firm but I’m fair”) Cortez and flashbacks of classic black-and-white bouts and yellowing fight game posters. These attempts at authenticity aside, Undisputed is less about boxing than commerce, less inclined to explore some truths than to feed off misconceptions.
The story line, such as it is, concerns the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), and his fight against the undisputed heavyweight champ of prison, Monroe Hutchins (Wesley Snipes). The Iceman is doing hard time in the Big House because of a questionable rape conviction. Sound familiar? Instead of Iron Mike we get The Iceman. Instead of Desiree Washington we get a character named Tawnee Rollins. Instead of the so-called Indiana Youth Center where Mike Tyson was warehoused for three years, we get Iceman Chambers doing time in the Mojave Desert’s Sweetwater Prison. And unlike the joint in Indy where boxing was a no-no, the jail in Cali specializes in fights between hardened criminals.
The heavyweight battle in Sweetwater is organized by a mobster named Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk). A scenery-eating wiseguy in a six by ten foot cell, Ripstein is one part Meyer Lansky, one part Frankie Carbo, and one part La-La pipe dream. With Ripstein pumping up the volume, one keeps chomping at the bit at the thought of the big big fight in Undisputed. The monster bout is Christmas pudding for the chain gang. It’s the real deal, the Holy Grail, and it’s alive and well in a rattling cage.
Undisputed is full of oddball touches. The London Prize Ring Rules, obsolete for centuries, are mentioned several times by the foul-mouthed Ripstein. There is a heavyweight contender outside the slammer, one of the Iceman’s former foes, who goes by the name of Montel Briscoe (Montell Griffin and Benny Briscoe?). There is a subplot about Black Panthers behind dark glasses in a race war with neo-Nazi skinheads. And Iceman’s manager/trainer and many Mafiosi are permitted ringside to wager on the prizefight. Sweetwater, it’s fair to say, is a far cry from Rikers Island.
Undisputed not only poaches from a distortion of reality. This Miramax film also helps itself to gobs from other flicks. Parts of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Hurricane (2000) come and go without a trace. And the fight scenes are, sad to say, ripped right from the heart of Rocky (1970). In films like Rocky and Undisputed, it never occurs to fighters to use defense. Pugs pound and pound on each other until one man finally drops. Despite all we know about fists and chins and brains and central nervous systems, despite all we know about boxing, this grotesque showbiz stuff continues. But the constant thudding and nonstop hip-hop give the film a particular flavor. If you don’t have a headache going in, you’re sure to have one after 90 minutes.
We’ve come to expect better work from actors of the caliber of Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames. Wesley’s brilliant work with Spike Lee in Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991), as well as his stunning athleticism in White Man Can’t Jump (1992), suggests that with the right material Snipes’ star does shine. During his long and distinguished career, Rhames has portrayed several men with hearts full of soul: James Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984); Cinque, leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army, in Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988); the Crime Boss in Pulp Fiction (1994); and none other than our very own DK in Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King (1997). Both these fine actors should have refused the nowhere script of Undisputed.
Unlike classy boxing-related entertainments like Raging Bull (1980), The Set-Up (1948), The Champion (l949), Fat City (1972), The Harder They Fall (1956), Requiem for a Heavyweight (l956), and Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Undisputed fails to take its place among the Dream Factory’s greatest hits. Worse than Ali (2000), which was boilerplate biopic disguised as something significant, and worse than Fight Club (2000), which was just a lame excuse to parody extreme violence, Undisputed coulda been a contender with some character and plot development, or a fistful of fresh ideas, but it was not to be.
Both the fight game and the film game own the potential to be truly profound, but shoddy objectives besmirch the honor of both arts. It hasn’t always been so, it needn’t be this way now, and it shouldn’t, if we’re lucky, be that way tomorrow.