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'Undisputed'

Prison boxers pack a punch in 'Undisputed'

Friday, August 23, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Undisputed" exhibits no pretensions about being anything more than a taut fist of a movie about a showdown between two boxers in prison, neither of whom has lost a bout except with the law.

 
 
'Undisputed'

RATING: R for strong language.

PLAYERS: Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames, Peter Falk.

DIRECTOR: Walter Hill.

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The movie's single-mindedness turns out to be a good thing, for the most part. The director, Walter Hill, specializes in violent films about violent men. The worst of his pictures -- which include his most recent endeavors, "Supernova" (he used a pseudonym on that one) and "Last Man Standing" -- attempt to justify the brutality with arty visuals or existential conceits bordering on the ridiculous.

Hill appears to be overreaching in the opening moments of "Undisputed," which introduce us to Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes), a one-time ring prospect serving a life sentence for murder. He beat a man to death with his bare hands for being with Monroe's woman.

The prison allows boxing matches in a steel cage, with inmates cheering from all sides. Hutchen, undefeated in the ring, makes short work of his latest opponent and attracts the kind of hoopla you would normally find at Wrestlemania. The camera never stops moving, and there's even a ring announcer who gives a blow-by-blow account. Throw in throbbing music, superimposed titles and location maps, and you figure Hill is about to call for the kitchen sink, too.

But the next big thing in stir is George "Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames), the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world until his conviction for rape. A smarter version of Mike Tyson, he insists he is innocent. But he faces a sentence of six to eight years, by which time he will be too old to resume his career -- and could lose his past winnings to civil suits and tax audits.

The first thing George tells his deferential cell mate, Mingo (Wes Studi), is to make sure people leave him alone. Fat chance. As he himself points out later, when you're No. 1, everyone wants a piece of you.

And Iceman wants a piece of Monroe Hutchen. There can be only one champ in this place, and Iceman insists it's him. But we know this disagreement is fated to be settled in the ring -- or, more accurately, the cage. An aging inmate, mobster and boxing maven Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk), makes sure of that.

Hill stages the resultant bout with clever elan, making it appear that the two actors are pummeling each other and, more important, leaving us in some doubt how it will turn out, even though the outcome seems a foregone conclusion. We like the quiet Monroe. We dislike the hair-trigger Iceman.

Yet Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Giler, shows us enough of both men that neither is entirely a caricature. Monroe builds elaborate toothpick structures while in solitary and says he prefers it there, acknowledging that the one time he lost control of himself it landed him in prison. He doesn't say much, but his status as prison champ clearly means the world to him.

Iceman's rage also is understandable, even if we don't necessarily believe that he's innocent, and while he thinks with his fists too often, the fact that he has a brain in his head makes him more interesting.

Rhames gets more screen time than Snipes, the putative star and one of the film's many executive producers, and makes the most of it. Falk has one great scene spewing more f-bombs than he ever dropped in a David Mamet movie. "Undisputed" also benefits from the way Hill makes even the lesser supporting roles seem organic to the setting and the story.

Of course, one is free to doubt that a prison boxer facing a reigning champ with much more impressive musculature would even stand a chance of winning -- or to ask why Ripstein, who can influence the parole board and intimidate the warden, hasn't sprung himself. But as Walter Hill movies go, "Undisputed" seems downright realistic.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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