There probably aren’t two actors better suited to play top-notch boxers at odds with each other than Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames. In many of his films, Snipes has displayed his natural, quick athleticism. And Rhames? Just watching his forehead muscles move while he chews food is enough to send most people running in fright.
Throw in director Walter Hill’s lean, man’s-man action style and Undisputed shouldn’t run as far off the rail as it does. While Rhames effectively emits a potent violent vibe as a man who believes all life’s problems can be solved with his fists, Snipes is given little to do and is lazy with what he gets. Despite some terse dialogue about fisticuffs and some juicy supporting work from Peter Falk, Undisputed doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Snipes plays Monroe Hutchen, a former ranked heavyweight boxer who has to settle for organized fisticuffs behind bars after murdering his wife’s lover in a fit of rage. At Sweetwater Prison, a desolate California facility solely for violent criminals, Monroe’s the undisputed champ … at least until James “Iceman” Chambers hits the cellblock.
Iceman (Rhames) is a heavyweight champ who has been stripped of his title in the wake of conviction on a rape charge. Once the hair-trigger Iceman learns of Monroe’s dominance in the ring, he itches to fight him. After some wheeling and dealing on the part of imprisoned mob guys and the prison administration, the stage is set for a brutal fight abiding by London Prize rules – the smallest gloves possible, no traditional rounds and no referee.
Hill and writing partner David Giler toss Rhames several witty, Mamet-like observations on boxing. At one point, Iceman muses, “People play baseball, nobody plays boxing,” and “I’m not an athlete, I’m a gladiator.” Of course, Rhames juices up these lines with his aggressive baritone and menacing physical presence. His performance gives the movie some malevolent life.
As an aging mobster who misses the purity of pugilism, Falk provides able support. Most actors are lucky to get one memorable monologue. Here, Falk has two – one quietly threatening, the other loudly comedic. It’s so good that you actually hear him as a mafioso, not Columbo.
The movie’s failure rests on the shoulders of Snipes and his character. Giler and Hill go to unreasonable depths to make him noble. His Zen calm – broken only by his wife’s infidelity – is so strong that he makes toothpick Shaolin temples while in solitary confinement. Come on, guys. And, naturally, he will give any money he makes from the fight to his destitute sister, who is never seen and mentioned only in passing.
In a better movie, we wouldn’t feel compelled to choose which fighter to root for. Clearly, we’re meant to root for Snipes, but we’re not given very credible, character-driven reasons. Maybe it’s because he played heroes in Money Train and Passenger 57. In the place of character development, we get lame, triumph-over-adversity musical strains.
It’s a soft choice in a movie that should have been hard to the core, and in the end, Undisputed strays far from the hard-hitting mentality of the sport it embraces.