Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Southpaw stepping into the ring next week, and the Rocky spinoff Creed on its way this autumn, let’s cheer on some of the great boxing movies of yesteryear.
Even well past his Hollywood peak, Walter Hill is best known as an action director. But his 2002 feature Undisputed isn’t really an action movie. Though it’s set in prison, there are no major riots, escape plans, or even yard scuffles that last more than a minute or two. The main event is, instead, a boxing match—a lengthy one, and well-staged by Hill, but not exactly a stunning set piece. A subsequent series of direct-to-video sequels (a surprising number for a non-hit movie) would be more fight-intensive, but most of this first film is buildup to the fight between heavyweight champion George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), in prison on a rape conviction, and unofficial champion of prison boxing Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes), a former boxer imprisoned by the same mechanism that led to Nicolas Cage’s sentence in Con Air: His hands have been classified as deadly weapons, upping potential manslaughter to murder. The fight preparations are more akin to televised hype than traditional sports training montages (though there are versions of those, too).
Much of the run-up material is essentially exposition that Hill handles with a lot of energy. Well into the movie, he’s still displaying names, charges, and sentences on the screen when a new face is introduced, emphasizing that almost every major character is a convicted criminal. He uses white flashes as all-purpose transitions, sometimes throwing to flashbacks (including TV interviews with Chambers and black-and-white footage of Hutchen’s crime), sometimes working in archival footage. Though Snipes was still a major star at the time (Blade II, one of his biggest hits, having come out just months earlier), Rhames gets more attention; Hill makes the intriguing choice to tell much of the story from, essentially, the bad guy’s point of view. The rape question hangs over the movie—Hill doesn’t offer any cues that Chambers is lying as he maintains his innocence, but doesn’t offer indication that the victim is lying either—and Chambers is, at minimum, the cocky champion eager to defeat and humiliate the scrappier underdog.
Yet the movie holds that underdog back, with Hutchen spending a chunk of the movie in solitary confinement building toothpick sculptures like some Michael Mann-style masculine-zen hero. (He seems like he’d get along great with Blackhat’s Nick Hathaway; they could bunk together and speak to each other in only the tersest and tensest expressions of masculine philosophy). Though the movie gets a boost from affording ample screen time to usual supporting player Rhames (one of his other starring roles: playing Don King for an HBO movie), the pulpy fun of Undisputed might be even more satisfying if Snipes didn’t spend so much of the movie at an odd remove.
But maybe more Snipes wasn’t necessary; neither Hutchen nor Chambers change much over the course of their story. As much as the movie shows that the fight is important to both men, it also doesn’t romanticize boxing, replacing the quasi-showbiz dazzle of promotion with the more explicitly mercenary world of criminal maneuvering (even when no one’s taking a dive). “I’m not an athlete; I’m a gladiator,” Chambers says in a flashback interview, further explaining that people don’t “play” boxing. As much fun as Undisputed has playing tough, it’s hard to argue that point.
Availability: Undisputed is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.