Undisputed 3: Redemption (2010)

One of my favourite topics to ponder while watching the sort of movies we love here at the ISCFC is Bad Guy Economics. Like, how does this criminal enterprise run? Is it a sustainable long-term model? Or would they get themselves murdered by competitors on day two? And so it is we come to the third instalment in the excellent “Undisputed” series.

To briefly summarise the plot – Boyka (ISCFC Hall of Famer Scott Adkins), the villain of part 2, has been reduced to toilet cleaning duty due to his horrific leg injury sustained at the hands of Michael Jai White in the previous movie. He’s become a religious man in the meantime, and ignores money thrown at his feet by his former organised crime handler, but when he learns of a tournament to crown a prison champion, one who will go to another inter-prison tournament where the ultimate prize is freedom, he starts exercising his damaged knee again.

Of course he wins, and of course he goes off to Georgia for a tournament featuring 8 men from all round the world – North Korea, the USA, Brazil, Colombia, and a few generic Eastern European guys who lose in the first round so who cares. It’s starring Scott Adkins and is directed by Isaac Florentine, so you know it’s going to be decent even if the plot is somewhat on the generic side.

So it’s right here that this tournament, organised professionally enough that high-level criminals from all over the world are in attendance with their best prison fighters, begins to raise doubts. The competitors are all locked up in a Georgian prison and forced to do hard labour while the home-team fighter (the Colombian, for some reason) gets to relax and train as much as he likes. Also, the losing fighters are taken out into the woods and shot after their fights.

I know I mentioned this in part 2, but imagine you’re a big criminal who’s bet a lot of money on this fight, only to discover that the people who organised it are cheating to ensure their guy wins. Would you laugh off the loss of all your money or would you send a team of mean dudes round with shotguns and slaughter the prison warden and his entire family, in case anyone thought of messing with you ever again? If you were the handler of one of the fighters who was murdered after losing, would you enter again the next year or would you tell everyone you ever met to never do business with that Georgian psychopath; or hell, just organise your own tournament and not invite him?

To be fair to the movie, it makes a half-hearted attempt to circumvent part of the criticism, but I’m really not sure it works. I feel like I could be a really successful criminal just by being nice to other criminals, honestly.

I like the gradual redemption of the Boyka character, how he’s still a mean guy but one who understands, perhaps, the impact of his previous actions. And although it’s obvious as hell, I like the gradual building of his friendship with the American boxer, one “Turbo” (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, a former winner of a reality show where the prize was a gig on a soap opera). I also like the development of Gaga, the Russian mobster who’s Boyka’s handler and perhaps friend; as both characters are now more central, they’ve become more sympathetic and the movie works better as a result. Mark Ivanir, perhaps best known as a voice guy in computer games, is having a good time as Gaga, even given a curious character quirk (he’s been forced to become a vegetarian to combat his high cholesterol).

I think the budget is a little lower than part 2, not just because of the relative lack of star power. The extraordinarily filthy prison is barely glimpsed, and the new prison feels like a repurposed industrial facility and all the scenes are filmed in some decaying part of eastern Europe or other. Still, at least they’re not pretending it’s the USA!

A quick note about the fighting in all three “Undisputed” sequels – it’s supposed to be MMA, but it’s more like the martial arts that are being mixed together are high-flying ones from movies, not effective ones from real life. People fly through the air and do complicated spin-kicks, when if that was tried in a “real” fight, the opponent would probably do something short (like a punch or simple kick) that landed while the other guy was still half-way through his spinning thing. Listen at me, pretending to be an expert on fighting styles! What does come across a little in part 3, though, is that it feels like an 80s classic, where people of radically different fighting styles get together to see who’s best, the sort of thing that the early UFC bouts finished off forever. Let it be said that Scott Adkins is absolutely superb, though, and the benefit that’s gained by being able to shoot him in long, continuous takes of multiple moves is a huge boon for the entire series.

As well as colourful styles, we get some colourful characters, too. My favourites were the two prison guards, who were so specifically odd-looking that I wondered if they were archetypes from some Eastern European tradition I was unaware of. I also liked how ludicrously camp the main Colombian villain was, reading magic realism underneath a parasol while watching the other prisoners break rocks.

One interesting thing that my wife pointed out to me as a positive is that there are no women in this movie. Not a one, none on camera anywhere as far as I can tell (there might be one in a crowd shot somewhere?) To have a story which doesn’t resort to cheap unearned sex, or the exploitation of nude ladies, is something of a relief honestly. And, you know, a movie about prison-fighting men doesn’t perhaps need any women in it – obviously, that lack of female representation is its own problem, but just telling a story simply and reasonably is a win in my book.

This is a surprisingly decent movie. There’s a good central friendship between Boyka and Turbo, lots of great, well-filmed action, and while the Bad Guy Economics once again let us all down, you’ll have a fine time with this one.

Rating: thumbs up

Advertisements

Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing (2006)

After a sadly flawed first part to the franchise, the major studio financing went away but, not wanting to abandon a potential profitable name, Miramax farmed it out to Eastern Europe and the low-budget, unashamedly old-school action factory out there. Luckily for us, the director they hired was Isaac Florentine, the future ISCFC Hall of Famer who’s given us such gems as “Bridge of Dragons”, “The Shepherd” and both “Ninja” movies.

In one of the more curious pieces of continuity you’ll see, Michael Jai White, this movie’s star, plays the same character as Ving Rhames from part 1 – George “Iceman” Chambers. Only they don’t make any reference to him having previously been in prison, or the rape (that part 1 certainly seems to think he did) that landed him in prison, or even bother to have White play the part remotely the same way Rhames did. There’s also the curious visual of having White, 8 years younger than Rhames, play the older version of the character.

But we don’t really care about that! What we do care about is how much fun this movie is, how it’s tightly plotted, well directed, with plenty of exciting fight scenes that avoid a problem from part 1 – that boxing is sort of dull visually – by pivoting to mixed martial arts; a couple of great central performances; and by filmimg in one of the most legitimately filthy-looking prisons in movie history.

Chambers has been reduced, thanks to the downturn of his boxing career, to selling vodka in cheesy ads in some unspecified Eastern European country, and he’s angry / contemptuous of it, But he doesn’t have to put up with it for very long, as he has some drugs planted in his own personal Bible and, thanks to the legendarily corrupt legal systems in that part of the world, sent straight to prison.

We know he’s going to have some company there, as we’ve already met Boyka (the amazing Scott Adkins, Florentine’s muse), who dominates the underground fight league in prison with high-power, high-speed mixed martial arts, along with some way-too-flashy-to-be-effective-in-real-life spinning high kicks and stuff like that. He’s such a good screen fighter, and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work here – he even did it after bulking up considerably, as his normal walking-around weight would look too small next to the massive Michael Jai White. We also have fight choreographer JJ “Loco” Perry to thank for these fights, and it’s clear Hollywood recognised the talent as he’s now doing stuff like the most recent “Fast and Furious” movie.

One of the other problems of part 1 that I mentioned previously is how I didn’t buy the motivation of either of the main characters, or why I should be remotely interested in the outcome of their fight. One was a murderer, the other a rapist. Here, Chambers is an asshole, but one who’s been imprisoned under false pretences, and he has an arc! He refuses to fight and stands up to the guards, then agrees when his manager negotiates a deal with the Russian mobster who runs the fight league to let him out if he takes part. He earns the respect of the other inmates for his attitude during and after the first fight, and this seems transformative for him. If you can buy he’s just a wrongly convicted guy with a bad attitude at the beginning, he becomes a decent person at the end of it. His transformation is also mirrored by him having to learn a new style to combat his far more rounded opponent (handily, White is also a top-level on-screen fighter in all styles).

Things are similar for Boyka. He’s undoubtedly a psychopath, who kills fellow inmates, beats his opponents half to death and uses fear to get what he wants; but he’s honest about his fighting skills, wanting to prove that his mixed style is the ultimate evolution of fighting against the world’s best. He also has an odd hobby (stamp collecting) to tie into the Wesley Snipes character and his model-building from part 1.

We learn an important thing about Boyka during the course of the movie, too. Spoilers, I guess, but it’s an important spoiler! (Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to read it). Boyka’s backers are worried that Chambers might actually win, so they persuade Chambers’ ring second / cellmate Parker (Ben Cross, who’s one of British TV’s premier “that guy” actors) to give him drugged water by threatening to withhold his heroin supply. He comes out for the second round staggering round, barely able to keep his eyes open or stay on his feet, and Boyka wins very quickly and easily. But when he finds out what happened, he’s disgusted, loudly denouncing the Mafia backers and demanding a straight rematch to prove his superiority. This is an interesting character beat and sets him up for parts 3 and 4, where he’s the central character.

But, there’s a crucial and rather unfortunate plot hole here. Imagine you’re a villain, and bet on a fight, only to discover that the promoter drugged one of the fighters to make sure he lost. Would you go “oh well, easy come easy go” and bet just as much on the rematch, or would you find that promoter and tear his fingernails out? Luckily, this movie assumes answer two, although I think in real life the response would be slightly different.

While I didn’t hate part 1, this is just better in every way. According to those in the know, part 3 is even better, so I look forward to sharing my opinions on that with you soon.

Rating: thumbs up

Bridge of Dragons (1999)

Bridge_of_Dragons

Nu Image make the sort of films I love, pretty much. Starting with low budget sci fi and action (Cyborg Cop, Project Shadowchaser) in the early 90s then, in recent years, lucrative deals with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Butler (the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen), they’ve got a good thing going and clearly learned well from their old bosses at Cannon. They’re one of the main companies operating out of Sofia, Bulgaria, where aging stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and this film’s own Dolph Lundgren make action movies just like they used to at their height.

Then there’s director Isaac Florentine, one of the kings of this new straight-to-video world. He’s made a few films with Scott Adkins, like the amazing “Ninja”, and, weirdly, quite a lot of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes. This is from relatively early in his directing career, and is also the first film that Nu Image made in Sofia before buying a studio there a few years later. So what’s it all about?

After a good old traditional “soldiers storm the rebel base” scene to kick us off, we’re introduced into the film’s world, and it does something simple and clever that more low-budget films ought to do – sets the action in a fictional country, so you don’t have to worry about landmarks and trying to make a normal town square look like *famous city*. It’s a place with princesses and evil generals, where high-tech military equipment rubs shoulders with horse-driven carts; and Dolph is “Warbird”, one of General Ruechang’s top mercenaries. Ruechang has seized de facto power after the death of the old king, and is about to marry Princess Halo to make the power “legal”. Only problem is, she doesn’t want to, so escapes, and Dolph’s a good guy so after a bit of tracking her down, goes over to her side, and that of the rebels.

968full-bridge-of-dragons-screenshot

Because of the location, there’s lots of really great scenery and set-pieces. They film in what I assume is the grounds of the old Communist government’s headquarters, and there’s palaces and so on that would be way out of their price range if they filmed in Britain or the US. It’s an interesting visual style and even when the action’s not very active, there’s usually something to look at. It is a bit weird how all the evil empire’s vehicles have a large “666” written on them though.

The problem is, surprisingly, the action. Florentine makes some weirdly goofy choices when it comes to how to film – Lundgren looks awful running in slow-motion, for one; and some people are very obviously yanked out of shot in a weird, awkward way when an explosion happens. I’m guessing budgetary constraints stopped the use of squibs, so people just seem to fall over when guns are fired in their general direction too. Perhaps it’s a problem with HD as opposed to the viewing method of choice for low-budget action, a crappy VHS tape, as sometimes all you notice are the extras holding guns in the background who’ve clearly got no idea what to do.

The actual one-on-one fights are decent, though, with Lundgren (who’d apparently just qualified for his third-degree black belt in karate before filming started) acquitting himself well. The General, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who you’ll have seen in hundreds of similar movies, is great too, and there’s a surprisingly good bit of fighting from Dolph’s sidekick, Gary Hudson (a fine “That Guy” actor).

1330407241_2

It’s a curious one. For all the interesting choices it makes, it’s hampered by a hundred little things, niggles that you’ll notice in pretty much every scene. Florentine certainly improved, but Dolph seems like he had stopped caring a few years previously, and realised that just scowling and kicking ass were all he needed to do. Shame. I think this also qualifies for our misleading title award – no bridges, no dragons, nothing you could metaphorically call a “bridge” either.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Ninja (2009)

Before we get started, you might like to read this article. While some of it, from the excellent Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, is slightly OTT clickbait-style journalism (of course, I would never CHRISTINA HENDRICKS NUDE PICS do that) there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about the modern world of direct-to-video action films.

Ninja2009film

Sofia in Bulgaria is the central city to this new world, and it’s one where people like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme continue to make the same sort of films they used to back in the 80s and early 90s, and where action films are treated as serious business, not as a faintly embarrassing joke of the recent past, “Expendables” style. It even has its big names – directors like Isaac Florentine, and stars like Scott Adkins, who went from martial artist to bit part player in British soaps to “bad guy 3” in some fairly big films (he was in The Expendables 2, as JCVD’s sidekick) to starring in his own films. We reviewed his surprisingly good Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning some time ago.

Adkins and Florentine have worked together on six films now, “Ninja” being the fourth. It must make certain things easier, knowing your leading man’s strengths and weaknesses, and it shows here. Adkins is Casey Bowman, an orphan who was raised in a dojo in Japan. He becomes one of the best martial artists there, even if according to my wife it looks like he spent a bit too much time on his muscles, with his main rival for the soon-to-retire Sensei’s position is Masazuka. The two of them are strong, but in different areas, and in classic kung-fu film style, the ultimate victor will be the one who learns most from the other.

There’s a huge MacGuffin in this film, the Yoroi Bitsu, a big case containing all the best martial arts kit. Or something. It’s really not important. Masazuka is thrown out of the dojo for losing his temper, goes away and trains as a ninja, becoming a hired assassin for a group of shadowy businessmen at Temple Industries. They hire him to steal the Yoroi Bitsu, but the sensei sends it with Casey and his daughter Namiko to New York to hide, and that’s where the majority of the film takes place. Temple’s thugs, known as “The Ring”, pursue Casey, and after Masazuka kills the sensei he joins in too.

First and foremost, this film is exciting. If you’re a fan of action movies at all, you’ll remember that moment, whether it was “Commando”, “Kickboxer”, “Cobra” or “Die Hard”, where some sequence had you completely fixated, where the artistry of the fighting and the staging of it had you cheering at the end (even if you were only cheering in your head). “Ninja” has tons of those moments, including the increasingly-famous subway fight scene and a few other set pieces that are just brilliant. Considering the extremely low budget (the New York city street is very obviously a set, and the subway trains are old Russian ones), the quality of the fight scenes is even more impressive.

A lot is made in reviews of action cinema about a sense of place, knowing where people are in relation to each other and how that affects the way the scene unfolds. It’s one of those things you don’t really notice until it’s done well, as Florentine has undoubtedly done here – there’s no shaky cam, no people suddenly beaming across large rooms to get involved in fights they were nowhere near. With a lead guy like Adkins, who can do pretty much everything asked of him in terms of stunts and fighting, it makes it a lot easier too. Heck, he can even act! He’s unlikely to win any Oscars, but so what? He does what is needed.

ninja-new-pics-3

The plot is pretty paper-thin though, if we’re being honest. From the reason Adkins was left in a Japanese dojo, to the evil plan of the Temple Corporation, to the rather crowbarred-in nature of some of the fight scenes; it exists mostly to hang the action on. The romantic subplot, while necessary to give Casey something to worry about in the amazing final fight, is a bit underdeveloped, and Masazuka’s expression is pure evil from the start, leaving his betrayal as less than a surprise. But if you watch a film called “Ninja”, starring a guy like Scott Adkins, and are worried about the romance element, then I suggest you’re doing it wrong. There’s an argument to be made that low-budget martial arts films are more highlight reel than actual movie; I choose to look at it a different way. Hollywood action movies are about marvelling at the amount of money spent on a scene, or getting a headache at the shaky-cam usage – the action has become secondary. A simple plot isn’t necessarily a bad plot.

“Ninja” is great, dramatic, exciting in a way few films are these days, and if you’ve got love for old-school action films at all, you’ll enjoy this one.