Well, unlike my first reviews of UNDISPUTED and UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING, I’m perfectly happy with what I wrote when UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION was first released. So you can follow that link for what the movie’s about and why it’s great, plus my attempt to sell circa 2010 Ain’t It Cool News readers on the works of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine, and the concept of DTV action in general. Still, on the occasion of part 4 coming to American video tomorrow I wanted to revisit part III for further analysis and appreciation.
I’d never watched it back-to-back with part II before. That really emphasizes the differences. Though I praised the J.J. Perry fight choreography in II, Larnell Stovall’s work here is something to behold. More fights, longer takes with more consecutive moves, different styles (more throws and groundwork, and capoeira courtesy of Lateef Crowder). As much as I love and don’t want to take away from the classics like KICKBOXER and BLOODSPORT that inspired movies like the UNDISPUTEDs, I think it’s fair to say that the choreography and filming of martial arts sequences has gotten far more sophisticated since those days.
But the appeal of these sequels is much more than just the great fights. They’re highly entertaining stories of athletics among anti-heroes. Pretty broad characters but with lots of little touches. When Crowder finishes pounding a guy’s face in the ref calls for the doctor, and an old man in a lab coat is let into the cage. I really wonder what circumstances led to this poor guy being the doctor for an international prison fighting tournament! Either he fucked up his life bad or some snake sweet talked him into a hell of an interesting post-retirement gig.
I love the beginning of sequels when you catch up with a character and they’re in a different place in life. For example, at the start of RAMBO III Rambo lives in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, and makes a living by stickfighting. Here Boyka is in the same literal place that he was before, but he’s gone from the champion who makes everyone stand up when he enters the room to the guy with the limp who they look right through. He’s unrecognizable buried behind a Robinson Crusoe mane and beard. (See also THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK.)
The opening stretch of this one is topnotch. Gaga (Mark Ivanir, SCHINDLER’S LIST, DELTA FORCE 3), the gangster who runs the fights, sees the disheveled man mopping the muddy floor and is taken aback when he realizes it’s Boyka, who made him so much money. Gaga transcends the standard asshole gangster character by showing sincere pity for Boyka, and offering to get him a better cell. A genuine act of kindness (or guilt), not a deal with strings attached – we know this because he doesn’t believe he can get anything more out of this pathetic man with the knee injury. Boyka refuses his offer but lets it be known that he wants to fight in the (beautifully outlandish) “Prison Spetz Competition” (international prison fighter tournament). Gaga thinks he’s crazy, and starts rattling off the reasons why. “What’s going to happen in the tournament against the best fighters in the world? It’s suicide, Boyka, you’re in–”
A long pause. “It is a suicide, isn’t it?” Gaga asks quietly. “Sorry.”
The new champ Sykov (Esteban Cueto, FAST FIVE) is plowing through competition and who should pop up at ringside but Rip Van-Boyka fitting in about as well as the guy that eats the crickets in HELLRAISER. In his cell he keeps trying to strengthen his knee – the classic makeshift fitness equipment trope – but is it working?
He knocks his bucket of water over. He’s frustrated. He pulls off his crucifix necklace, goes over and finds something hidden under the corner of his mattress. Unwraps it. It’s a razor blade.
And this is my solitary complaint about this movie: that there’s not a beat or two for us to look at that razor and contemplate whether Gaga is right, whether Boyka wants to kill himself, before a chunk of his hair falls and we realize that (phew!) the blade is not to slit his wrist but to trim his hair and beard because he’s ready to return to the ring.
Then you gotta love the way he challenges Sykov – by throwing a whole bucket of water on his back while he’s celebrating a victory. When Gaga says “Let him fight. If that’s what he wants he deserves to go out with some dignity,” he must think he’s actually going to get killed in the ring, right? Because if he just got a normal non-fatal ass-handing I don’t know if that would be called “going out with some dignity.”
This is the first time in the movie that we’ve seen him with the trademark hair and goatee. He takes off his weathered jacket, shirt and fingerless gloves, revealing the muscles and tattoos, returning to form. But every time they show his footwork we see these ragged pants. Vagabond Boyka.
But when he does this flip kick we know he’s still Classic Boyka. Or Bokya+ even!
At the tournament in Georgia it becomes a buddy movie. Boyka has to work with an arrogant American called Turbo (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, MICHAEL JACKSON: SEARCHING FOR NEVERLAND) and it does not go well at first. Turbo keeps complaining, Boyka angers him with a dirty look and eventually has to tell him to shut the fuck up. They get in a fight while chained together, and are punished with some time in literal holes. Turbo breaks down and exposes his vulnerability to the stoic “Russia” as he calls him, panicking about rats and taking a shit. So when they work chained together again and are forced to cooperate it grows into something of a friendship. I love when they start treating the work in the rock quarry, which is intended to wear them down, as their workout, adding pushups and counting off rock lifts and pick axe swings.
Raul “Dolor” Quinones (Marko Zaror, REDEEMER) is another great villain for this series, though this time with no apparent sense of honor. When the competitors arrive at the Georgian prison the warden (Hristo Shopov, Pontious Pilate in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) gives them a speech about how no one will get special treatment and all will be treated equally – as his champ Dolor stands separately carrying a book of Federico Garcia Lorca poems and then is given the floor to lecture them! And whenever all the others work in the hot sun, Dolor is openly allowed to lounge in the shade.
They even secretly bring him syringes full of heroin or whatever drug he calls “my chocolata.” Other than being a Spanish-speaker, this is very Trumpian how they flagrantly flaunt the favoritism while claiming it’s not happening, daring everybody else to point out that the fuckin sky is blue.
At the time Zaror had mostly played good-hearted, introverted heroes, so this crazed prick villain character was one of the early signs of his range as an actor.
In my UNDISPUTED revisit I quoted Walter Hill saying that he made the first movie where boxing wasn’t a metaphor for anything. It struck me that this movie about underground fighting is kind of a metaphor for professional fighting. Gaga and Farnatti (Robert Costanzo, DIE HARD 2), as the mobsters betting on Gaga and Turbo, have their own subplot about trying to represent the interests of their fighters. They’re outraged when they learn that the two have been forced into hard labor. They’re acting as their managers. But they might be the type that are more loyal to the money than the people.
At the end, when Boyka (SPOILER for the end, duh) is out and he starts walking faster and then running and a smile spreads across his face, it’s the first time we’ve ever seen him smile in two movies. He saved it up for the right time. And it grows into a big laugh. What a joyful ending!
UNDISPUTED II and III are both worth frequent revisits. Both were even better than I remembered. When I watched II I felt like maybe it was my favorite of the series, but then of course I watched III. If there’s an area where III is clearly not as good it’s in using more of the rap songs (consistently weak in this series) and in not having Michael Jai White. But the deepening of the Boyka character is something really special for the genre. We never saw this treatment for Tong Po or Chong Li or Ivan Drago. But I would’ve loved to! That the protagonists of II and III were each the villain of the previous chapter really strengthens the theme of redemption, something very appropriate for a series taking place in correctional facilities. The movies promise that these guys can become better people without forsaking their talents for kicking and punching the holy living fuck out of others. I like that message.
So stop trying to dispute Boyka, you dummies, and just let the man be undisputed.