Sunday, July 10, 2011

SUMMER OF ACTION! -- If I Press Any Harder It's Gonna Break

Earlier in this SUMMER OF ACTION! I reviewed Walter Hill's underrated 2002 prison boxing thriller UNDISPUTED (Buy at Amazon) starring Wesley Snipes as an inmate pugilist and Ving Rhames as a thinly-veiled version of Mike Tyson.

Found guilty of rape, "Iceman" Chambers (Rhames) lands behind bars and must fight against the highly-touted longtime prison champ Monroe Hutchen (Snipes). As much as I liked the flick – which sports a great supporting cast including the late Peter Falk and Michael Rooker – my biggest complaint was that while Snipes is in marvelous shape and looks like he could punch through a prison wall, Rhames comes off a bit too big and lumbering, not like a world class athlete who dominated his sport on the outside. Say what you want about Tyson, but in his prime letting him loose in the ring was like unleashing a caged tiger.

The Iceman's casting is corrected in the highly entertaining – and quite unexpected – UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING thanks to a slightly ironic twist. Michael Jai White who played "Iceman" inspiration Mike Tyson in the made-for-tv movie TYSON steps into Rhames' shoes as the down-on-his-luck former champ struggling without a title after serving his time. A trip to Russia to film a vodka commercial lands Chambers in the middle of a frame job and faster than you can say "da svidaniya" the champ is in a craptacularly grey Russian hellhole complete with – you guessed it – a savage champ named Boyka (Scott Adkins).

But while Hutchen was a pure boxer willing to strap on the gloves and duke it out in the squared circle, Boyka is a lethal mixed martial artist, a blur of feet, knees, elbows and hands who dishes out spectacular punishment against the cons that the warden (and mobster who really runs the prison) keeps feeding him.

If you've seen any prison flicks the story progresses about how you'd expect – Chambers runs afoul of Boyka, a fight between the two becomes inevitable, prison shenanigans put the result of the fight in doubt, the aging con who emerges from hiding to train the champ, etc.

But heralded action director Isaac Florentine earns his stripes by grafting the typical "new prisoner meets prison kingpin" storyline onto a gritty, fun low-budget actioner complete with double-crosses, septic tank fights and an underground gambling storyline that reminded me a little of the excellent Thai fight-fest BANGKOK KNOCKOUT.

But the flick really belongs to the charismatic White and the spectacular Adkins. White brings a sneering "how'd I get involved in this shit?!" presence to Chambers not to mention the size AND speed to believably step in the ring with Adkins, whose turn as Boyka in this flick and the third installment has made him an action fanboy fave.

And for good reason.

UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (Buy at Amazon) is that rare instance – sorta like the TURBULENCE flicks I love so much – where the direct-to-video sequel is more entertaining than the bigger-budgeted, theatrically-released original. And, if the buzz is to be believed, UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION (Buy at Amazon) is even more entertaining than the second installment! We'll see in the days of summer ahead...

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