Undisputed (2002) Movie Review

“Undisputed” is concerned with the question of, “What if boxing heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, while in prison for rape, found himself in a match with that prison’s current champ, and no one on the outside knew about it?” That question is parlayed by co-writer/director Walter Hill into “Undisputed,” with Wesley Snipes playing Monroe Hutchens, the unknown prison champ who becomes involved in a fight with recently incarcerated heavyweight champ George “Iceman” Chambers (the Mike Tyson-esque character in question), played by Ving Rhames (“Out of Sight”).

“Undisputed” is a small film starring and directed by big names. It’s a little odd that the movie has ended up on Amazon.com for sale as a DVD, even as the film plays in random theaters around the country. For reference, I’ve yet to see a TV, radio, or print ad for the movie in my part of the country. It’s as if “Undisputed” was made and then dumped without anyone uttering a single word about it. I am perplexed as to why, especially in light of “Undisputed” being a very entertaining movie.

The film, which takes place mostly in a prison called Sweetwater, treats the impending match between Monroe and Iceman as a sidebar, with the “real” boxing match taking place in the sequences before that inevitable confrontation in the ring. Director Walter Hill (“Alien”) takes the odd approach of showing all the hows, whens, and whys of his characters in flashbacks. Hill shows us the events leading up to Iceman’s incarceration, as well as Monroe’s, in quick media sound bytes and images. He also superimposes blueprints of the prison onscreen as characters move between rooms, leaving me to scratch my head and ask, “Why?”

The most interesting aspect of “Undisputed” isn’t its climactic boxing match (which takes place in the end, and lasts for about 20 minutes), but rather the characters themselves. Ving Rhames’ Mike Tyson character is not a cardboard villain, but a complex creature that doesn’t really want to fight, but has to in order to survive. The Iceman knows he’s a ghetto kid who grew up with nothing, and the possibility of losing his fortune and fame stemming from his rape conviction (which he continues to deny, much like the real Mike Tyson) fills him with terror.

But at the same time he’s very well aware that he’s a thug in sheep’s clothing, and that the only way he’s survived this long is through intimidation and with his fists. He is an animal, and no one knows it more than he does, which is why he uses his animal ferocity on everyone and anyone because as he sees it, it’s already gotten him this far, so it can’t possibly be the wrong approach to everything and anything. Again, it’s Mike Tyson as portrayed by an incredibly talented actor. (Ironically, Rhames once played the role of Don King in another movie; King is the real Mike Tyson’s former manager.)

For a while, I was disappointed with Wesley Snipes’ character, but then I justified the lack of exploration of Monroe this way: as written and played, Monroe is an insignificant part of Iceman’s life, an asterisk next to the famous champ’s name. The only people who will ever know that Monroe has fought the Iceman are those who witnessed the fight themselves. But in the end, Monroe is just a slight detour for Iceman, as is the incarceration. For those reasons, the lack of detail in Monroe, and the movie’s minimized look into his past, seems very appropriate. Rather Hill and co-writer David Giler intended this or not, the result is still intriguing.

Unfortunately the inevitable fight is nothing special. Hill tries to inject the fight using quick cuts and other filming techniques, but movie boxing matches have never been to my taste. As with Michael Mann’s “Ali”, I find people pretending to box to be lacking in any real excitement. (Funny how I don’t have this problem with martial arts picture, but that’s another subject.) As previously mentioned, the real fight in “Undisputed” is the one that takes place as Rhames’ Iceman prowls the halls of the prison trying to assert his role as the dominant male in a jungle full of dominant and murderous males.

There are a number of good co-stars in “Undisputed,” including Peter Falk as a slightly senile mobster who also happens to be a boxing historian; former MTV VJ Ed Lover as the hilarious prison ring announcer; and Jon Seda (TV’s “Homicide”) as Campos, the prisoner who looks after Falk’s gangster. Michael Rooker shows up as the head guard, but he really has little to do throughout the picture except to smirk every now and then.

“Undisputed” is a fast-paced movie and Walter Hill really pumps up the pacing, leaving very little fat to hang. The film is most entertaining when it focuses on Ving Rhames, who breathes so much life to his Iceman character that it’s easy to mistake him for the movie’s lead. The film runs barely 90 minutes, and about 5 of those are credits. Still, “Undisputed” is undeniably an entertaining movie, and it’s a shame it hasn’t received wider theatrical distribution than it’s presently getting.

Walter Hill (director) / Walter Hill, David Giler (screenplay)
CAST: Wesley Snipes …. Monroe Hutchens
Ving Rhames …. Iceman
Peter Falk …. Mendy Ripstein
Michael Rooker …. A.J. Mercker
Jon Seda …. Chuy
Wes Studi …. Mingo Pace
Fisher Stevens …. Ratbag Dolan

Buy Undisputed on DVD