Nine years ago when I caught up to UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING I declared it the first DTV sequel better than its theatrical predecessor, and I finally understood the internet love for its star Michael Jai White, who I’d previously thought of as the guy from SPAWN. But I still didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I do now. Yesterday’s pleasant surprise has become today’s under-recognized genre classic.
Since then we’ve seen White star in more vehicles worthy of his talents (BLOOD & BONE and BLACK DYNAMITE being standouts), we’ve seen choreographer J.J. “Loco” Perry further make his mark with HAYWIRE before moving up to giant movies like FATE OF THE FURIOUS, and we’ve seen villain Scott Adkins grow into a martial arts icon in his own right, often working with this same great director, Isaac Florentine (NINJA, NINJA II: SHADOW OF A TEAR, CLOSE RANGE).
But even looking back, UNDISPUTED II is not a stepping stone to greatness. It’s an example of it.
Smaller and dirtier than part III, shot on film before digital was accessible, it feels like a stronger blood relative of the early Van Damme and Seagal than modern clean-looking DTV. These are movies made for the global market, and this is truly an international effort: Israeli director and producers, American and British stars, shot in Bulgaria-for-Russia, largely Asian fighting styles, and this time I really noticed Florentine’s affinity for Sergio Leone and his Italian take on America’s westerns: the close-ups on mean faces, the simple emotional flourish of Crot (Eli Danker, SPECIAL FORCES)’s introduction playing a harmonica while looking at a photo of his niece who we later learn got to have a good life because he took the fall for her father. So every time we hear harmonica it serves as a musical theme, but also a reminder of his bittersweet aching.
I thought of George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) as the bad guy of UNDISPUTED. Apparently Rhames signed on to return for the sequel, so it could’ve been a series about The Iceman repeatedly getting locked up and fighting champs in different prisons. In this one he redeems his previous loss.
But then Rhames decided to leave to do Kojak. I imagine they only made Iceman the protagonist because they had Rhames and not Snipes, but once the character is recast as White it seems like an intentional artistic choice. And it’s a good gimmick. It’s novel to have a protagonist who’s as much of an asshole as Chambers, and then it’s nice when he has his heart of ice slightly defrosted by the grueling experiences and the respect he receives from the inmates once he earns it.
I’d never watched the series close together before. That means this is the first time I noticed that the champ lost a bunch of ink including a giant “ICEMAN” across his chest. I wonder if any fans were mad about that. This is also the first time I’ve fully appreciated the character’s evolution since part 1, when he came in with kind of a Kanye attitude – I am the greatest of all time and it infuriates me that you are not telling me that every time I walk by. Here he retains his entitled-celebrity-asshole ways, being difficult filming a vodka commercial and making his manager (Ken Lerner, HIT LIST) wait around for him forever. Framed and sent to the brutal Russian prison, he fights against his oppressors and is unfriendly to everyone else, but he doesn’t expect their worship either. After he stands up to Boyka their admiration comes naturally, and they give up their hats and scarves to warm him when he’s hung up Jesus-style in the snow as a punishment. They also seem to have warmed up to his personality – one of them smiles when the frozen Iceman, after spending all night in the snow, grunts, “Now what? What the hell you looking at?”
That he receives their kindness without demanding or expecting it seems to be transformative for him. I would say that it’s a baptism, except it’s more like a communion – one pours booze in his mouth from a flask, while another feeds him little pieces of bread. Earlier he couldn’t wrap his head around Crot bringing him soup while he was caged up in a rat-filled puddle, because “Where I come from ain’t nothin free.” But now he gets it, and arranges for everybody to receive new winter coats as part of his deal to fight Boyka. God bless us, every one!
Crot is the only real mentor/trainer character in the series so far. A former Russian commando who lost the use of his legs during a failed escape, he lives in the filthy basement underneath the prison and helps out Chambers during his punishment of having to literally shovel shit. He teaches the champ some grappling and kicks and lets him practice what ends up being the winning submission hold on his dead legs. He also chokes a guy out!
Before that training Iceman gets in a number of scuffles with guards and inmates, and he fights almost entirely with his fists, with only an occasional small kick. If I may nitpick, though, he doesn’t fight like a boxer – he clearly has the posture and movement of a martial artist (even though White had experience playing a boxer, because he was TYSON). He uses a crowbar at one point and moves it like a swordsman instead of like a dude swinging a crowbar at someone. But I forgive him.
Though Perry was already a veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator, I believe this is his first official credit as a choreographer, and it’s still a level many others have not reached. Florentine staged longer and more complex fights with Larnell Stovall in Part III, but I miss the more exaggerated power of what he did with Perry, which still has one foot in the world of his earlier Power Rangers influenced style. Boyka’s spinning kicks and flips seem to come one after the other after the other, lightning fast and thunder loud, smacking bodies around like the end of a log slamming against a side of beef. Not fast cuts, but quick, dynamic action beats like comic book splash pages.
Florentine’s cool camera angles and moves, and even a couple instances of four-panel split screen, never seem hyperactive or self-conscious. It’s an energetic style that always enhances and never gets in the way of the action. And he doesn’t mind using slow motion to show Boyka grabbed by one guy jumping up to scissor another guy and then spinning around to flip both of them over and then doing a flip and kicking both of them in the face and flipping them heels over head – in one continuous shot.
By now we’ve all learned that many DTV movies have better action sequences than many theatrical releases. That’s certainly true of this one, if you’re willing to compare martial arts sequences to Hill’s well done boxing match. But let’s also give credit to this script by James Townsend (BELLY OF THE BEAST) and David N. White (HENRY’S CRIME), story by Boaz Davidson (HOSPITAL MASSACRE). As simple and formula-based as it is, it gives its characters stronger arcs than in the original and makes us invest in them more. Chambers evolves from his experience. Despite being wronged this time, we see more of his good side and then we see him learn how to do nice things for people.
And Boyka isn’t a one-dimensional villain either. He might seem like one at first, but when he learns that Chambers was poisoned he is outraged. He takes this fighting shit seriously. Suddenly we see that he has more honor than we realized, and significantly his reaction is similar to Monroe, the good guy in part I, when he learned of a similar plot.
But even without that Boyka would be a very good villain. He’s so worshipful of fighting that he has a mural in his cell depicting Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Asians alongside Muhammad Ali, representing the whole history of fighting. “I am the next stage,” he declares. Badass juxtapositions: he is seen praying and collecting stamps. Show-offy entrance: he steps onto the top rope and does a flip into the ring. Crazy egomania: when he walks into the cafeteria everyone stands up and takes off their hats like the national anthem is about to play. Presumably at some point he had to convince them that this was appropriate.
Iceman might actually be able to relate to that kind of thing, but he’s not willing to play along. He stays seated, keeps eating and pretends to be oblivious to everyone around him. After Boyka confronts him he turns his back to him, slyly sliding a bench behind himself, but Boyka kicks right through it. In the next scene he kicks over a rack of barbells, angry at the guards who pulled him off of Chambers. When he first fights Chambers he knows he could easily beat him with kicks, but he decides to challenge himself and stick to boxing.
Now that we’re all more familiar with Adkins from other movies the character of Boyka is even more impressive, because it’s so different from his normal look and vibe. He had to bulk up more than usual, and camera angles and boots were used to make him look as big or bigger than White, who is actually about three or four inches taller than him.
Not that White is toning down his awesomeness at all. He looks like a He-Man character too, and he gets to have some swagger in between the toughness of surviving all the prison torment, the training and the fights. When he sees his cellmate (Ben Cross, FIRST KNIGHT) getting beat up in the yard he hesitates to help. Definitely not out of fear. Out of being an asshole. But then he steps in – we literally see his foot stomp down in front of the attackers – like a super hero, because “I just don’t like seeing people getting bullied. Unless it’s me doing the bullying.”
I like that there are all these fights and important events outside of competition. Like the first UNDISPUTED the story continues after the victory so that the movie doesn’t end in the ring with your standard arm-raised-in-victory-freeze-frame, or even (in this case) in the prison. Instead it ends with the freed Iceman giving up his winnings to get Crot released, and then bringing him to meet the niece from the photograph. It ends with our champ smiling and walking away from a tearful reunion he made happen. So the emphasis is on his growth as a person more than on him snapping Boyka’s fucking leg.
Will we ever see Chambers again in this series? Well, he did make a threat to the mobster Gaga (Mark Ivanir, BUNRAKU) that we haven’t seen fulfilled: “Let me tell you something. I’m not gonna forget what you did to me. Ever. And I will see you again. That’s my word.” But even if he came back and had a rematch with Boyka to prove who has a total lack of disputedness, they’d still have to bring back Wesley Snipes as Monroe Hutchen for the winner to fight for total supremacy. Which would also be cool. Or they could all be friends. Maybe the only way to truly be undisputed is to let go of all disputes.