I went into Undisputed with the wrong expectations. I had incorrectly guessed that the film would be an action movie centred on fighting of some kind, not expecting that it would turn out to be a sports film. I was willing to accept the unexpected result as I love a good boxing film, but I'm hesitant to say that Undisputed qualifies in that field.
With Undisputed, Walter Hill set out to make a boxing film which had no underlying symbolism. His film was intended to be strictly "one that's actually about boxing and not a metaphor", yet the actual amount of the film which is about boxing proves to be minimal. Despite this claim, Undisputed spends way too match of the film focusing on George "Iceman" Chambers in his plight to maintain his innocence and the negotiations around his release. Though there is nothing wrong with the acting in these scenes, Walter Hill's desire to focus on boxing doesn't prove to hold up yet it also means that the dramatic depth of it all is limited, so his directorial work seems truly misguided.
Considering the generic contract promised by a film which casts both Ving Rhames and especially Wesley Snipes in the leading roles, I would have expected that Undisputed would follow the roots of a guilty pleasure genre picture far more than a pretentious drama. Unfortunately, that's not the path Undisputed chooses to follow. Both Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes are prominent stars who portray essential characters in Undisputed, but the balance between focus is far from equal. What little depth there is proves to focus on Iceman with minimal time given to Monroe "Undisputed" Hutchens. If there was an equal balance between the characterizations of these two champions going head to head then perhaps things wouldn't drag on so much and maybe Wesley Snipes would be more of an engaging screen presence, but the minimal time he gets puts him into the final fight scene and little else while Ving Rhames is left to hold everything else up. If the film made greater use of the star power it had present then maybe it could have been a stronger dramatic piece, or better yet if it actually saw fit to follow a more energetic and inspiring boxing formula with greater conflict between the main characters, training montages and actual grit that comes with the prison context of the story then it could have been the guilty pleasure audiences would have been hoping for. However, that hope remains a distant dream for those watching Undisputed.
Since the entire film spends time building up to its climactic boxing match, the majority of commentary must be focused on that. Ultimately, it is far from satisfactory. It is arguably the greatest part of the film, but it is rife with technical faults. The two most major ones are the sounds and camerawork. From the beginning of Undisputed when it depicts its first boxing match, viewers are forced to confront the fact that someone thought it to be most appropriate to use the exact same sound effects again and again for when punches are landed. The same unrealistic contact blow sound effect is used with such heavy repetition that it hits viewers over the head like the many punches the characters take. There is no variation in the effect, no matter how light or heavy each punch turns out to be. And to add to it, the cinematography is less than stellar. Though the entire boxing match is captured with wide angles and plenty of long-shots, much of the cinematography films everything from behind bars. Attempting to give viewers the feeling of actually being there to witness the climactic boxing match, viewers must watch the fight as the camera pans along with metal bars in the way for too much of the fight. There are rare moments where you can see it clearly, but most of the time things are captured from the perspective of the crowd. My assumption would be that the intend of this is to add realism to the film, but considering that nobody saw fit to make the sound effects or fight choreography any more realistic I can't see why they would focus on this one element when it just gets in the way of Undisputed's action scenes.
But even though Undisputed fails to truly capitalize on its cast, Ving Rhames proves a solid lead. There is no way to be certain whether or not George "Iceman" Chambers is truly a guilty criminal or not because Ving Rhames consistently keeps a line of mystey present, balancing intimidation with honesty to the point that he seems fit to be in prison yet not a criminal. He has elements of egotism to him which he uses to fuel the badass nature of the character, yet he restrains it enough not to seem like a straightforward antagonist. Despite the repetitive material in Undisputed, Ving Rhames' natural aggressive charisma and boxing skills make him a fitting lead.
I wish I could say the same thing about Wesley Snipes, but the material gives him little screen time and no room to actually put any meaning into the character. In the few scenes he actually has, Wesley Snipes plays out as if he has a dead spirit. Yet rather than diverting this into the notion of being damaged by the wreckage of his past and the harsh reality of prison, he is simply stuck in repetitive melancholy which fails to put him on the same pedestal as Ving Rhames. This means that the badass actor who fought Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man (1993) and hunted vampires in Blade (1998) has nothing to do in Undisputed aside from deliver a select few punches. And like I said, the sound effects and loose choreography limit their impact.
So Undisputed desires to be a proud B-movie and boasts Ving Rhames' star power, but with a prolonged story which stretches on for too long in a short running time of 94 minutes and little use of grit, action or Wesley Snipes to sustain it, there is ultimately little satisfaction.
I soon discovered that my feelings towards Chambers actually fuelled my enjoyment as the film continues and Snipes character 'Monroe' comes into play. The tense build up between the two up to the obvious finale does get you going. Lets not get over excited here this is your typical 'Rocky-ish' story with all the usual characters, dialog and scenes, not original but a good beat em up when the fists fly.
The final fight is well done and you do feel the blows as Snipes and Rhames match up and sweat over each other, I'm pretty sure Rhames would win in a real fight though as he looks pretty darn solid.