Ever since the unlikely series of events that turned UNDISPUTED into one of today’s greatest action franchises, I’ve tried to better appreciate Walter Hill’s 2002 prison boxing drama that started it all. In my review from fifteen years ago I called it “asinine” and generally had a bad attitude toward it without really giving a strong argument for why. Over the years I’ve rewatched it a few times and though I always think it’s decent, it never quite clicks for me. I can’t say that’s entirely changed on this viewing, but I definitely liked it more than on previous viewings.
So I did it! I better appreciated it!
The story is about a humble toothpick-model-builder and convicted murderer named Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes, MONEY TRAIN) who’s just minding his own business being the undefeated champion of a secret prison boxing league when suddenly the actual heavyweight champion of professional boxing, George “The Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames, THE TOURNAMENT) gets locked up there. And it’s like having both a Jason and a Freddy out there in the universe – eventually, one way or another, these two are gonna have to end up pitting their skills against each other so we can see who wins. After all, the legendary mobster Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk, PRONTO) is in there too and he’s a passionate connoisseur of the sweet science, he’s not gonna let it not happen.
Moments after the champ has told his new cellmate Mingo (Wes Studi, MYSTERY MEN) not to let anyone bother him, Ripstein walks in. The Iceman knows of his reputation and shows him respect, saying that his manager says hello. Ripstein casually disses him by claiming not to remember his manager (“Alot of people, they say they knew me from the old days. They’re full of shit.”) and then telling him “You’re a good champeen. But we got a champeen right here, and he can kick your ass.” He proceeds to give an unsolicited critique of The Iceman’s recent fights and ends on the rather undiplomatic note, “Oh, did I hurt your feelins? Fuck you.”
After Ripstein walks out, his prison manservant Chuy (John Seda, Homicide: Life On the Street, BULLET TO THE HEAD) laughs and tells The Iceman the name of this “champeen.”
“No offense,” he says. “Not trying to start any trouble here.”
But of course he is, and he does. Because he leaves behind the ticking time bomb of the Iceman’s bruised ego. Iceman keeps saying stuff like “I’m the only champ in here” and brags about being “the most famous man in the world,” and especially after he introduces himself in the mess hall and slaps Monroe, it’s clear that a bout is inevitable. At first the prison authorities try to thwart the conflict, planning to transfer Monroe, but first putting him in solitary confinement with the door welded shut! Doesn’t seem safe, but also doesn’t bother him, because he’s Monroe. He doesn’t have anywhere to be anyway. And “I live inside my head,” he explains to the prison psychologist (Amy Aquino from that show Felicity).
Haven’t they seen DEMOLITION MAN, though? Even if you freeze Wesley for 36 years somebody’s eventually gonna have to deal with him.
But this isn’t Simon Phoenix, this is a nice Wesley. He’s innocent. Okay, he’s not innocent of beating a man to death with his bare hands in the early ’90s, but he is innocent of starting any shit here. It’s The Iceman who’s an asshole, who needs everyone to consider him a superstar celebrity above everyone else, and acts like a baby if they don’t. The idea that at least one person in this prison thinks he’s only second best just nags at him all day.
His reasons for being there make him even less sympathetic. He swears that “I ain’t no punk ass rapist” and that his accuser (Rose Rollins, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III) – who he insists on mentioning is a “showgirl” – had sex with him consensually. But we see clips of her interview and she’s clearly sincere, and has been victimized not only by Iceman but by his fans, angry to lose him from boxing.
Hill is not depicting a heightened world in the sense of THE WARRIORS or STREETS OF FIRE, but of course it’s absurd how elaborate this boxing league is, complete with a caged ring ringed in barb wire, an opening performance by Master P, Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder as “Gat Boyz,” and very professional color commentary by Ed Lover (WHO’S THE MAN?). A reporter interviewing Iceman at the beginning refers to this as “California’s newly-built Sweetwater Prison,” so it’s impressive the level of organized corruption they’ve already gotten to while it still has that new supermax smell.
I was also curious because Monroe said they only have a match every six months, but he has a record of 67-0. Does that mean he’s been in for 33 years? No, it says onscreen that he was convicted in 1991 and is a “former ranked heavyweight,” so the stats gotta be including his professional record when he was California State Heavyweight Champion. You see, freeze frame spec card character intros do come in handy sometimes.
Incidentally, all the white flashes, Avid farts and onscreen text and shit, while unbecoming of Hill, don’t bother me as much here as they apparently did when I wrote my first review. He definitely has the style more under control than in THE ASSIGNMENT, and I guess those techniques seem less obnoxious in an age where they’re not as prevalent.
It’s a pretty simple high concept type of story with pretty interesting characters floating around it. Even Michael Rooker as A.J., the head prison guard, is likable. In the big picture this is a crooked guy, he’s making illegal money getting prisoners to punch each other. But in the context of the story he seems like a nice guy, seems to respect Monroe and tells him sincerely to take care of himself before he goes into solitary. It’s so rare that a prison guard character isn’t a total piece of shit. Same goes for the warden (Dennis Arndt, SNIPER 3), who’s more like a wimpy mayor than an iron-fisted authoritarian. He knows about the big fight but wants nothing to do with it and purposely goes on a vacation to distance himself.
(Like when Dwight Yoakam up and goes to Sea World in THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA.)
Ripstein is a funny one – he talks in a froggy old timey voice (actually very similar to Mickey in ROCKY), tells stories about working for Meyer Lanskey and masterminds this whole mafia gambling ring from inside. But he clearly doesn’t do it for the money, he does it because he’s a huge, nostalgic nerd for esoteric boxing shit. This is why he insists on something called “London Prize Ring Rules” for the fight. He considers them “the purest expression of the sport” according to Chuy. I assume these rules are something Hill is into and probly has told his friends about as much as Ripstein has.
Chuy has been assigned to protect the old man, and acts like he owes him a life debt, calling him “Mr. Ripstein,” representing him like a spokesperson and listening raptly as he talks about fights he saw in the ’50s and shit.
Monroe has his own sidekick, the weaselly arsonist Ratbag (Fisher Stevens, HACKERS), who acts as his manager, cutman and hypeman, but seems unnecessary and causes him trouble he doesn’t need. When Ratbag mouths off and The Iceman tricks him into punching him “just to say you did” he kind of deserves what he gets.
Monroe is above all this drama. He seems more focused on building his toothpick models than thinking about the fight. When some other cons present him with their plan to poison The Iceman’s food and slow him down, Monroe says “You do that I’m gonna break you up into pieces.” He wants to actually be the best. He doesn’t just want to get away with winning.
If The Iceman is equally honorable, he never gets a chance to prove it to us. Rhames is kind of playing that type he’s so good at, the browbeating but charismatic bully asshole. When he does let down his swagger for a second to just be a human, like when he starts asking Mingo about his life, it’s so disarming you almost want to forgive him. Most Rhames bad guy characters don’t get an opportunity to have a friendly side.
The previous year Rhames had received some acclaim for his show-stopping role in John Singleton’s BABY BOY. And UNDISPUTED was sort of meant to be, because he’d been training for two years to play Sonny Liston for a William Friedkin directed biopic called NIGHT TRAIN. When that got canceled and he was offered UNDISPUTED he just kept right on with the training and was ready to go. (Six years later Rhames did get to play Liston in Robert Townsend’s PHANTOM PUNCH.)
For Snipes, this was not the biggest release of 2002. It made more of an impression than his supporting role in David S. Goyer’s ZIGZAG, or the DTV movie LIBERTY STANDS STILL, but it could not live up to BLADE II. In an interview on the DVD, Snipes says that he was given the choice of the two leads, and “I liked Monroe because he was more reserved. I have done alot of characters that are very extroverted and out there, and mouth off and fast talkin, WHITE MAN CAN’T JUMP stuff. So I wanted to do something a little bit more contained, more economical. I liked that he was more cerebral, internal, but then when he got into the ring he was just… a monster.”
I guess Monroe is a little bit in the tradition of Bronson’s character in HARD TIMES – a quiet, honorable, badass motherfucker who happens to be very good at punching and is happy to take advantage of that skill. The difference is that the movie spends so much time on his more talkative opponent that Monroe doesn’t feel like the center of the movie. I love the character, I love watching him, seeing what he does. I wish we got more of that.
And because of this smaller window to identify with the character you don’t get the full satisfaction you want out of the underdog sports victory. But to me the strongest moment of the movie is not when he wins, but in the 11 months later epilogue, “Special TV Night” in Cell Blocks C & D, when The Iceman wins back his unified title and is referred to by the color commentators as “the undisputed champion.” Ratbag and the Sweetwater cons know better and start chanting Monroe’s name. Monroe isn’t even watching the fight, he’s busy. But he smiles a little. He knows what he did. His friends know. That’s enough for him.
This is a prison movie and a sports movie. I can’t really consider it an action movie. The boxing is well done, with both leads looking very legitimate, but to me boxing scenes are not generally thrilling in the same way that martial arts fights are. They are almost entirely dependent on your investment in the story and characters, so the intentional moral ambiguity of Monroe and Iceman makes it hard to jump up and down in excitement even though the underdog “good guy” wins.
In my original 2002 review I wrote that, “All I could figure was it must be a metaphor for something, but I’m not sure what.” I figured wrong. After this viewing I did research and found an interview with Clint Morris where Hill says, “I’ve always wanted to do a boxing movie. Some say Hollywood movies that are made about boxing are just metaphors for other things, I think I’ve made one that’s actually about boxing and not a metaphor.”
But in a column in the New York Times Hill is quoted offering a purpose to the film that he only realized at a test screening Q&A when somebody questioned him about making the audience choose between a rapist and a murderer.
”I said to myself, ‘You know, that was the entire point,’ ” Mr. Hill remembered. ”I don’t think it had ever been so crystallized for me — that you can find grace in many different moments, and that people who do not lead exemplary lives are still capable of moments of grace. I think that idea was always the motor behind the movie, though it was never so well stated as that guy did.”
Hill wrote UNDISPUTED with David Giler (THE PARALLAX VIEW, FUN WITH DICK AND JANE), who he also worked with on the ALIEN movies, SOUTHERN COMFORT and Tales From the Crypt. They of course got the idea while talking about Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, but note that many other boxing pros have ended up behind bars. They made it on a relatively low budget funded by a consortium of American and European production companies, in part because of Hill’s frustration working on the big sci-fi movie SUPERNOVA (which was re-edited without his participation and which he took his name off of). It was a flop in theaters, opening below the Matthew Perry comedy SERVING SARA. xXx was the dominant action movie of the time. In the next ten years, Hill would direct the pilot of Deadwood and the mini-series Broken Trail, but nothing for the big screen.
But there is good news. One of those European production companies was Millennium Films, prolific purveyors of DTV action. Two of their other 2002 productions were HARD CASH starring Christian Slater and DERAILED starring Van Damme. If those guys and executive producer Boaz Davidson hadn’t gotten involved, UNDISPUTED would’ve just been a lesser, forgotten chapter in Hill’s career, an okay boxing movie some people remember renting or seeing on cable, not much else.
But they had other plans.
P.S. Important action movie note: The guy Monroe KOs at the beginning, white supremacist Vern Van Zandt, is played by stuntman/actor Nils Allen Stewart (THE JESSE VENTURA STORY), and he does not have the Mongol ponytail thing that he had in THE SHADOW and ON DEADLY GROUND. So he didn’t keep it forever.