Undisputed (2002)

Because Michael Jai White was so fantastic in “Blood and Bone”, I’ll be taking a brief break from our blood-titled movies to cover a fighting series which involves him.

White stars in part 2 of the “Undisputed” franchise, which was a straight-to-video Eastern European production directed by the superstar of modern B-movie action, Isaac Florentine, who’d also direct part 3; part 1, on the other hand, was a fairly high budget affair, starring two pretty big names, by 2002 standards at least, Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes. There’s also roles for Peter Falk, Michael Rooker, Fisher Stevens, and Yo MTV Raps’ own Ed Lover, and was written and directed by the great Walter Hill (The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, and many many others).

George “Iceman” Chambers (Rhames) is the undisputed world boxing champion when a conviction for rape sends him to jail for 6-8 years; of course, there’s an inter-prison boxing league which several people, including old school mobster Mendy Ripstein (Falk) are very interested to see Chambers take part in. The prison already has its own champion, Monroe Hutchen (Snipes) who’s occasionally interested in defending the honour of the prison fighting league against the wealthy outsider, and occasionally sits in his room making models from matchsticks.

The problem that the movie never really gets over, although your mileage may definitely vary, is that boxing is sort of boring, visually. Especially modern boxing, which is largely a dull tactical display (the reason very very few boxing matches do big business these days), and even though “Undisputed” features all sorts of flashy moves that no pro would do, it’s still a little on the dry side.

But anyway. The prison authorities get Chambers to fight by promising him an early release, and by offering Hutchen’s family on the outside some cash. The two men circle each other, occasionally coming to blows, until they have the inevitable fight at the end.

The original plot is not why we watch movies like this. But, some sense of characterisation is quite important. A question I asked myself repeatedly throughout is “who are we supposed to be rooting for here?” Snipes is, probably, the hero but he gets far less screen time than Rhames and is seen, over and over again, to not be a particularly sympathetic person (he’s also in prison for murder). Rhames, on the other hand, protests his innocence of the rape charges but the movie repeatedly cuts to TV interviews with his accuser, who is never doubted by the movie for one second. Smarter experts than me have said this creates an interesting air of tension in that either man could win, but I disagree. You could have done that by making both men at least a little decent, but this way seems odd and discordant.

Women are seen as the root of all the main men’s woes – Rhames is obvious, Snipes was just trying to make money to feed his wife, Falk is in prison thanks to the women in his life, who he spends one memorable monologue cursing with some excellent expletive-filled dialogue. I’m not sure I like this?

One last curious thing – Falk draws up the rules for the final fight, which includes bare knuckles. He’s really into this, making a point of mentioning it several times. Then Rhames says bare knuckles is a bad idea and Falk immediately withdraws the suggestion without so much as defending his idea once. What gives?

What I like about it is the lack of irrelevant B-plots – it gets right to the central conflict and does it well. It also has some strong supporting characters, such as nice-guy-but-corrupt guard Rooker. But…I just can’t get behind it fully. Not upset I watched it, but if I were you I’d probably jump into things with part 2 (more on that tomorrow).

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Homeboy (1988)

homeboy

Directed by: Michael Seresin

Written by Mickey Rourke, ‘Homeboy’ is about a wonderfully named journeyman boxer called Johnny Walker who struggles to make an honest living, with his better days long behind him. A ‘Rocky’ story, penned by an actor who was also a pugilist, the film carries added authenticity given Rourke was an amateur boxer in the sixties and seventies, who after experiencing a couple of concussions initially took a break from the ring. Around this time, Rourke stumbled into acting, success and self-destruction followed before he returned to the ring as a professional way past his prime, a couple of years after ‘Homeboy’ was released.

Likely ‘Homeboy’ was to blame for what happened next, as Rourke was bitten by the bug. He thought he could climb through the ropes and things would be different this time around. Somewhat humbled Rourke fought in several four rounders, more as a test to himself; there was never any serious consideration that he would be a contender. The fights were spectacles, the likes that are comparable to the borderline farcical ‘professional’ contests fought in recent times by Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff’ and beardy ex-MMA fighter and street scrapper Kimbo Slice. In which, Rourke mostly prevailed.

The Rourke we saw on screen in the eighties, the handsome, wild and dangerously charismatic presence was not too dissimilar from the man who lived the vice life off screen. There are several wild aspects of the cowboy boxer Johnny Walker’s character that resembled stories from the dirt sheet tattle rags that lifted the lid on Rourke’s eccentric behaviour. I think Rourke has always seen himself as an outsider, a cowboy in Hollywood.

To give this film some more context. Rocky was over ten years old, and three other sequels from the Stallone penned franchise had followed, Raging Bull had wowed the critics, and by the late eighties there was no demand in Tinseltown for another boxing movie. Especially given that Mike Tyson was providing such drama and violent excitement in real life. ‘Homeboy’ was therefore destined to fail, and the curious way that Hollywood works meant that years later, Rourke’s finest performance to date in ‘The Wrestler’ would fall somewhere between a trio of award winning boxing movies in ‘Cinderella Man’, ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and ‘The Fighter’ as a decline in mainstream interest in boxing coincided with a cinematic resurgence that celebrated the Sweet Science.

‘Homeboy’ doesn’t sugar coat the brutal world of boxing, Johnny Walker takes some hits, and a brain injury illustrated by woozy point of view shots show the risks involved. Rourke’s input enabled the fight sequences to be realistic and his simple, almost goofy mannerisms perhaps illustrate the early onset of some degenerative conditions caused by multiple concussions.

Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’ shares numerous elements with ‘Homeboy’, beginning with Rourke playing a washed up has-been who hopes for one last shot at glory, a womanizer who likes his liquor, an outsider figure, who falls for a woman who also has lived a difficult life. The main difference is that it doesn’t feature Christopher Walken gallivanting around as a low level criminal / boxing promoter named Wesley Pendergrass.

In my opinion there is too much emphasis on Pendergrass’ criminal behaviour, the jewellery store hold-up at the end of the film, which sees Walken dressed as a Hasidic Jew, and the comical getaway seem out of place, as it segues in and out of Johnny Walker’s last stand in the ring. By all means include a corrupt promoter, with possible criminal connections, but don’t let it ruin Johnny Walker’s story. Unlike the crooked, yet loveable Dicky Eklund in ‘The Fighter’, Pendergrass isn’t even an essential part of Walker’s life.

Then there is Debra Feuer, who plays Ruby, Walker’s love interest. It is hard to believe that Rourke and Feuer were married at the time given the couples awkward chemistry. Ruby’s backstory is almost as drab as the beach side Fairground she runs, and the surprisingly non-sexual relationship with Walker makes her vaguely mysterious if not a vacant screen presence. Comparing this to the intensely volatile relationship between Rourke and Marissa Tomei in ‘The Wrestler’ underlines just how different ‘Homeboy’ would need to be, if remade today in order to appeal to a cinema audience who crave honest, brutal realism with bite.

Bob Dylan once wrote in his Chronicles about how mesmerized he was by Rourke’s screen presence in ‘Homeboy’, and though a young, handsome Rourke has a certain magnetism about him, there is also an arrogant air, a pose that is in places almost narcissistic (i.e. perfected in the mirror) as opposed to a natural presence oozing from the screen. The camera loves Rourke, and cuddles up to his rugged mug one too many times, before it becomes a tad unsettling.

Johnny Walker is a dirty fighter, who takes cheap swings after the bell, riles the crowd and turns boxing from a noble art into a grappling brawl. Outside the ring, there is a tender innocence, as loyalty and naivety lead him to love, and meeting the kind of men who take advantage of an out of town sucker. There are better boxing films out there, and watching ‘Homeboy’ provides an interesting look at the career of Mickey Rourke back in ‘88, and that above all, here was a man who wanted to make a sincere film about a sport he loved. The sincerity isn’t in doubt, but this film doesn’t hit you hard like a good liver shot. It’s a swing and a miss, and before you know it a phlegmy gum shield rolls around on the canvas as the exhausted body falls with a dull thud.

– RJW
5/10

Homeboy on IMDB
Buy Homeboy [2007] [DVD]