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Undisputed

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg-13
91 min. Miramax. Director: Walter Hill. Cast: Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames, Peter Falk, Michael Rooker, Jon Seda (II).

Walter Hill's Undisputed is silly, underdeveloped, and predictable. It's also pretty darn entertaining in a knowingly B-movie way. Everything in the movie points the way to a pulp-beating matchup of a Mike Tyson clone played by Ving Rhames and a zen-styled convicted murderer played by Wesley Snipes. To paraphrase Gladiator, are you not entertained?

For years, Hill has specialized in spitting, swearing, crotch-grabbing manly movies, and on this score, Undisputed doesn't disappoint, though it'll likely fade from memory about as fast as the morning funnies. Snipes plays Monroe Hutchen, sent up the river for a crime of passion and now a penal boxing champion. When the heavyweight champion of the outside world--Rhames's James "Iceman" Chambers--gets corralled for a he-said-she-said rape, the whole prison wants to know, has Hutchen met his match?

That's pretty much it, though Hill and writing partner David Giler whip up some penitentiary politics between the warden and Peter Falk's ultra-profane mafioso (again?). It's almost comical how Hill and Giler kill time by pretending to indulge sidelines like Chambers having to deal with a civil lawsuit and a tax audit when they're simply elaborate exposition to raise the stakes of the Big Fight. Still, the tack-sharp Rhames milks every moment of screen time, building a magnetic and unsavory antihero out of thin air, while Snipes's understatement seems to have encouraged Hill to effectively trim much of his performance away as excess fat. What's left are mostly shots of Snipes--in solitary confinement--making matchstick pagodas, hilarious Movieland shorthand for Hutchen's purity of soul.

That we don't get to know Hutchen drains some of the blood out of the climactic battle, but its conclusion seems preordained from the opening moments, anyway. Similarly, Hill and Giler raise all of the did-he-or-didn't-he Tyson-related issues through Chambers, but perhaps wisely avoid taking a definitive stand on any of them (Chambers comes off as an arrogant monster who, nevertheless, has been wronged by the systems). Snappy cutting and committed performances by the leads bring the promised thrill to the set piece despite the reductive characterization.

It's not every film which positions a rapist and a murderer as its protagonists. It's couch-potato cinema with pulp appeal for, I'd assume, mostly men. Go for the bruising cons and the F-word-spouting Peter Falk, and stay for the matchstick pagodas.

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