There is one constant to the films of Walter Hill, at least in the last ten years, and that is studio tinkering. Never have I seen a filmmaker with such bad luck. Consider these: The roar of "Trespass" was hushed by Universal due to the L.A. riots of 1992. United Artists treated the perplexing "Wild Bill" like it was the plague. Bruce Willis' ego ran the show on "Last Man Standing." And you could write a thick book about the problems Hill faced with the captivating, but sliced apart 2000 sci-fi thriller "Supernova" (a film that Hill eventually took his name off of). Hill's new boxing drama, "Undisputed" (IMDb listing) is another example of the filmmaker up against a studio that obviously wanted something different. Hill is a unique director, but he keeps falling prey to studios that have no interest in something original.
Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes) is serving a long-term prison sentence for a crime of passion that resulted in murder. His freedom is found in boxing, and he's been the Sweetwater Prison champ for more than ten years, without a single loss. Now comes news that the current heavyweight champion of the world, James "Iceman" Chambers (Ving Rhames), is coming to Sweetwater to serve out his rape sentence. Full of ego and swagger, Iceman soon proclaims himself the champ of the prison, leading the lesser prisoners (including Fisher Stevens, Jon Seda, and Wes Studi) to cower in fear of the massive champ. But when a crafty, elder mobster (Peter Falk) gets the idea to stage a fight between Iceman and Hutchen, the prison comes alive as the countdown to battle between the two gladiators begins.
If anyone knows grit, it's Walter Hill. The man behind the gang drama "The Warriors" and the urban comedy "48 Hrs." is a man who knows street talk and testosterone-influenced situations. On paper, "Undisputed" was probably a story of redemption through boxing. It was likely intended as a critical look at the modern boxing world, a world that would happily allow a convicted felon to be a superstar (the allusions to Mike Tyson are strong throughout the film). But that was before Miramax got their hands on the film and promptly turned it to mush. In its current form, "Undisputed" is a shapeless story, featuring scenes that don't end, but fade out in an effort to keep the film rolling at all costs. There are no characters, just actors trying to hold onto characterizations that have been lost in the mix. What was once a boxing film with a sharp, opinionated mind and vivid soul is now just a tepid boxing film that follows familiar clichéd paths like any random sports film.
What does remain from the ashes of "Undisputed" is the power of Ving Rhames's performance. An actor that I have not always liked, Rhames at last finds a role that will allow his unavoidable braggart persona to flourish. Always the hulk, Rhames now has a chance to use his massive size to full effect, making his Iceman Chambers character as scary as he is real. Going one step beyond a Mike Tyson lampoon, Iceman is all the more terrifying a human because he's not as mentally unstable as Tyson is. He simply chooses this behavior. It's a fantastic performance out of Rhames, made all the better as Wesley Snipes, out of choice or editing, resembles nothing more than wallpaper for his half of the picture.
Since the personality was ripped out of "Undisputed," there isn't a lot to recommend here. As Walter Hill keeps plugging away in the Hollywood studio system, the man does churn out some interesting failures. You can now add "Undisputed" to the top of that heap.
Filmfodder Grade: D