If you know what to sniff for, you can smell the stink coming. Undisputed, originally scheduled for release the last year, has shuffled through five different release dates. Wesley Snipes refused to participate in re-shoots after test audiences—specifically, white members of test audiences—found his character in the film too unsympathetic. And then there was the name of director Walter Hill, who has spent the last decade strafing the landscape with crap-bombs like Supernova and Last Man Standing. Oscar bait, this wasn’t.
It is possible to be prepared for something bad, but it’s hard to be ready for something as inept as Undisputed. This isn’t just lousy filmmaking—it seems to have been made in a universe where no one has ever seen a movie before. Appropriately enough for a film about boxing, it generally reaches out from the screen to beat you senseless with its incompetence.
Set in a California maximum security prison called Sweetwater, Undisputed plunges us into the dark world of prison boxing competitions. In this corner: Sweetwater’s reigning heavyweight champ Monroe Hutchen (Snipes), a one-time amateur contender serving a life sentence for murder. And in this corner, the challenger: George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), who is actually the reigning heavyweight champion of the outside world. Facing several years of incarceration for sexual assault, Iceman has decided he needs to rule this particular roost. So, faster than you can say “mob influence,” it’s time to set up a match between the undefeated Monroe and the undefeated Iceman.
Putting together a sports movie script really isn’t brain surgery. All you need is a big event and someone to root for when it rolls around. But that formula proves too complicated for Hill and co-writer David Giler. They’ve certainly got someone to root against in Iceman—who, among his many tattoos, might as well have one right across his forehead that says, “Nope, I’m definitely not Mike Tyson, all similarities to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental, please don’t sue us.” Rhames spends most of the film leveling his withering bad-ass glower at all comers, threatening reporters and using his celebrity status to avoid punishment. Just so there’s no confusion, this is a Very Bad Guy.
That leaves Snipes’ Monroe to be our hero, and … um, Monroe? Helloooo, Monroe? Monroe, it turns out, spends most of the film in solitary confinement, locked away from the prying eyes of the audience. Undisputed employs typical bad-movie shorthand to give us some sense of Monroe—he builds matchstick pagodas, so he’s sensitive and creative, and he wants money to go to his down-on-her-luck sister, so he’s caring—but there’s no character arc or growth of any kind. Hill would rather have us despise Iceman than sympathize with Monroe. As a result, Monroe isn’t really a character; he’s just the lesser of two evils. Maybe those white test audience members were on to something, Wesley.
With absolutely no reason to invest ourselves in the outcome of the fight, we’re left to pick apart Undisputed’s hilariously knuckleheaded construction. In a textbook display of lazy filmmaking, every character is introduced with a massive on-screen caption identifying his specific crime: “ARSON,” “MOBSTER,” “MURDER.” Hill includes snippets of an interview with Iceman’s accuser that echo the he said/she said of the Tyson/Desiree Washington rape case, yet they seem pointless given the rest of the film’s desire to paint Iceman as a one-dimensional sadist. And then there’s Ed Lover as the prison ring announcer, delivering so much exposition that anyone who walked into the film an hour late would have no trouble understanding exactly what had happened to that point.
Undisputed looks so obviously like a casualty of post-production tinkering—with scenes chopped and pasted together like a nursery school arts-and-crafts project—that it’s amazing you can make any sense of it whatsoever. Thank heaven for Peter Falk’s scenery-chewing turn as a grizzled Jewish mobster—at least he provides something to laugh at that’s intentionally funny. Undisputed staggers around like a punch-drunk fighter that doesn’t have the good sense to fall over unconscious, until you wish that someone would just be merciful and throw in the towel.
At least then you could use the towel to cover your nose from the stink.