Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We look back on highlights of the DTV action craze—some of the coolest, wildest, and most entertaining action movies to skip theaters entirely.
We begin with the credits: Nu Image logo, ugly typeface, establishing shot of a prison. Post-roman-numeral subtitles like Redemption, Vengeance, or The Return are not exactly a mark of quality, but to a certain kind of action fan, they are as irresistible as the idea of multiple direct-to-video sequels to a forgotten Walter Hill movie from 2002. In fact, the connection between the original Undisputed and Isaac Florentine’s Undisputed III: Redemption is beyond tenuous. The only thing one needs to know is that the character of Yuri Boyka, who was introduced in Florentine’s Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, is a badass.
Not that Undisputed III wastes much time establishing his bona fides, even if he is first seen mopping a prison floor with desert-island hair and a bum knee. Boyka is played by Scott Adkins, the closest thing the direct-to-video action industry has produced to a genuine homegrown star. In Undisputed II, which starred Michael Jai White as an American prizefighter who ended up in a Russian prison, he was something like a bad guy. But here, by the laws of fandom and popular demand, he has returned to become the hero of the world of illegal prison fighting tournaments.
While John Hyams’ Universal Soldier sequels are the artistic high points of the late 2000s and early 2010s direct-to-video renaissance, Florentine’s films are most representative of its unpretentious pleasures. Some of his earlier efforts—like Bridge Of Dragons and US Seals II: The Ultimate Force, a delightful, brainless B-movie in which ex-SEALs were forced to fight with swords—had elements of fantasy. But it was with the discovery of Adkins that Florentine, a former martial artist and stunt coordinator for various Power Rangers series, truly came into his own with a run of generic action movies made in Bulgaria.
However earnestly conceived, the plot of Undisputed III matters only to the extent that it is elevated by Adkins, a capable actor whose expressive eyes are as much of a signature as his enviable physique. We meet a mobster villain so Russian that he is at one point shown talking through a Bluetooth earpiece while peeling carrots and sitting in a leather office chair. We learn that there is an international prison fighting circuit in which the champions of various penitentiary systems fight each other in a prison in Georgia. Boyka has been brought low and now he must rise to new heights. Messianic undertones are involved, along with some imagery cribbed from Ringo Lam’s superlative Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle In Hell.
To be honest, Undisputed III is not one of the better-looking direct-to-video actioners of its time. Its budgetary constraints are conspicuous; one would like to believe that Florentine is at least paying tribute to his Power Rangers roots by staging several scenes in a rock quarry. But what it offers in a downmarket package are the two purest rushes in the genre: star charisma and violence. The backdrops are anything but spectacular, but Florentine’s clean, roomy frames and distaste for close-ups offers an awesomely spartan approach to the choreography of kicks and punches.
Much of this is extremely un-Hollywood, which is why a movie like Undisputed III could only be created for the alternate reality of direct-to-video. There’s no rapid cutting, no set pieces—only the sight of two muscular guys duking it out in impressively simulated bloodsport. One might go so far as to say that Adkins’ presence (and the sincerity he invests in these kinds of roles) lifts it up from impersonal combat into a drama with a protagonist worth rooting for, however ludicrous the plot and circumstances.
Availability: Undisputed III: Redemption is available for rental or purchase from Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and VUDU.