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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The Tournament (2009)

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The 90s are back! If you remember the days of wisecracking psychopaths, ultraviolence and pointlessly twisty plots, then…well, you’ll have probably seen this years ago, as we here at the ISCFC may do many things, but reviewing movies in a timely fashion is not one of them. Bearing extreme similarities to 90s comic “Button Man”, and vaguer ones to movies “The Condemned”, “Mean Guns”, “Battle Royale” and “Series 7: The Contenders”, it feels like a script which was left on the shelf for 10 years, or perhaps just written, directed and paid for by emotionally stunted man-children.

 

Every 7 years, there’s a big tournament to decide who’s the best assassin around, and 30 of them are assembled in some unsuspecting town and set loose, with nothing but an implanted tracker and a case full of weapons. CCTV cameras are taken over, emergency phone lines are diverted, and the world’s wealthiest people come to gamble on the outcome because, you know, normal entertainment just doesn’t cut it any more when you have a lot of money. Apart from a brief flashback to the previous tournament, the entirety of this movie takes place in the small northern town of Middlesbrough, which may well be the first time it’s ever appeared on the big screen.

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The cast is the thing which will have you maybe wondering if you should pay attention to it or not. The champion of the previous tournament, returning as one of the other assassins killed his wife, is Ving Rhames as “Joshua Harlow”; then you’ve got Kelly Hu as “Lai Lai Zhen”, Ian Somerhalder as “Miles Slade”, and Scott Adkins (“Ninja”, “The Expendables 2”) as “Yuri Petrov”. “Powers”, the fellow organising the whole shebang, is Game Of Thrones’ very own Liam Cunningham, and one of his assistants, “Tech Eddie”, is Andy Nyman, last seen by us in the classic “Severance”. Rounding out the cast, playing a local Vicar who gets rather unfortunately caught up in events, is Robert Carlyle! Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a hell of a cast for a movie I’d never heard of before this morning; no huge names, but a lot of people who individually could headline any B-movie, or provide solid back-up in a big-budget one.

 

There’s not a ton of plot, really, as you might expect, with the tension coming from Rhames’ attempt to figure out who killed his wife and why. When the French parkour assassin removes his tracker and gets the Vicar to accidentally swallow it, that puts him on the “leader board”, and Hu is forced to protect him while he waits for the tracker to work its way out of his system. The big twist in this tournament is, if more than two assassins are left alive at the end of the 24 hour time limit, they both get blown up thanks to the trackers having an explosive in them.

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They really want you to know how violent it would be if 30 assassins were all set loose on each other in a normal town. Somerhalder (who, spoiler alert, kills a dog, if that’s the sort of thing which puts you off a movie) is the most gleeful of the murderers, but everyone blows up at least one person, or gets blown up themselves, shotguns are fired into heads at point blank range, and folks get run over by trucks and buses, with gore being liberally flung round the screen. While it’s not especially graphic, it might turn a stomach or two.

 

They also really want you to know exactly what you’re supposed to think at every moment. It’s got the extremely annoying habit of cutting to Powers, then to Tech Eddie, every time something interesting or violent is about to happen, with Powers telling the assembled gamblers what they can clearly see on the hundred monitors in front of them, then Tech Eddie and his mate giving a dumb running commentary – like when you see someone get kicked in the balls and then you’ll cut to some bloke saying “that had to hurt”, as if you the viewer would be unable to tell on your own, yes, a kick to the balls would probably hurt quite a lot. It has absolutely zero faith in its audience, and as much as I like Andy Nyman, by the tenth time of him making some off-colour joke about the violent murder of a human being, I was ready to shoot him myself.

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Now, time to go a little deeper, in case my snarky tone didn’t let you know I had some problems with it. The assassins are a mixed bunch, with some of them being ex-soldiers doing it because they like killing, and so on. But at least one (Kelly Hu) and probably others, are doing it because they were forced into the lifestyle, or because they were born and brought up that way. There’s a sense it’s just a job to them, and they’re not all particularly horrible people. The real villains, of course, are the people who organise the event and those who are gambling on others’ lives, and aside from one rather inevitable final death, everyone just walks away scot-free. The film doesn’t really have a moral view on any of them, they’re just props to look happy or sad when one of their bets succeeds or fails.

 

Even leaving aside such plot holes as “how did Ving Rhames know that the trackers were explosives?” and matters extending from that; how he carried on fighting after being shot in both arms; how the trackers apparently work on body heat yet stop working the instant you die; why every assassin doesn’t just cut out their tracker; why so many of them, in the middle of a 24-hour fight to the death, decided to go to a strip club; or the extraordinary cheesiness of the leaderboard, the betting odds and all that, it’s still a pretty weak movie. The fight scenes and special effects are occasionally great (Hu’s fight with Scott Adkins, for example) but it’s too often “cool” for its own sake. There’s only so many times you can see a man in the middle of a room, grinning as millions of bullets fly everywhere, his only protection that he’s a main cast member and he has to get killed in a cool way later on, before you get a bit bored. The parkour guy, for the absolutely zero characterisation they give him, is on screen a heck of a lot too; perhaps they paid him a lot of money and were just getting a decent amount of use out of him.

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Director Scott Mann made TV before this (and probably should have stuck there), and nothing afterwards, until “Heist” in 2015, starring Robert DeNiro, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Gina Carano. Perhaps he pays well, because they’re not working for him based on any skill at directing movies. Ripping off the plot of other, better movies are scriptwriters Gary Young (“Harry Brown”, amazingly), Jonathan Frank (nothing else, although he’s got some credit on “Heist” too), and Nick Rowntree (also nothing else). A film which is sort of fun while it’s on, but which becomes increasingly annoying the more you think about it.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Zombie Apocalypse (2011)

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Well, it’s better than “Zombie Night”, I’ll give them that. Although, that line could apply to about 99.9% of all movies ever made, so I ought to elaborate a bit. It’s yet another SyFy Channel / Asylum production; it doesn’t appear to be one of their mockbusters, although it shares a star (Ving Rhames) and a few vague plot details with 2004’s “Dawn Of The Dead”. I also remembered, about halfway through, that I’ve seen this before – it was one of the last movies I watched before starting to write for the ISCFC, a little over three years ago. But this isn’t a blog! You want the hard hitting movie analysis!

 

It’s 6 months after initial contact with the VM virus, which has spread throughout the world and resulted in the deaths of the vast majority of the world’s population, and then their resurrection as zombies. Humanity is done as an organised species, it would seem, but into this world come three people – Ramona, Billy and Kevin. And we’ve got the return of a long dormant ISCFC feature – GERALD WEBB ASYLUM WATCH! He’s our favourite member of the Asylum’s repertory cast of players, but sadly we don’t get much chance to get used to him on screen before he’s eaten. These three have apparently been living in a cabin since the outbreak, and are thus completely unprepared for what they see; you’d think this would make one of them the audience’s POV character, but I’m guessing someone realised that the ostensible leader of the three, Ramona (Taryn Manning) wasn’t exactly the most charismatic actress in the world, and turned it into an ensemble piece. Or maybe it’s just shoddily made, like every other Asylum movie?

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Their first encounter with the undead is a disaster, but luckily round a corner are group 2, a friendly gang which includes Henry (Rhames, who’s just effortlessly brilliant), Cassie (Leslie Ann Brandt), and a few bits of cannon fodder. I am being mean – the characterisation and acting is pretty decent in “Zombie Apocalypse”, with everyone apart from the long –haired woman (who I kept forgetting was in the movie) given a decent amount to play with. They stroll along for a while, encountering lots of arrows sticking out of zombies, which they say is a group they’ve been following since at least Kansas City. The plan is to get to LA and then to the docks, where organised humanity is still okay on Catalina Island (they cleared out the zombies from there early on) and sends a boat to pick up survivors every week.

 

Eventually they run into group 3 (the archers) and…everyone’s fine with each other. No particular conflict, no betrayals, the only thing that happens is Henry and Cassie get separated from the main group for a bit (and they end up using a huge machine gun on an alley full of zombies, which is pretty cool). Will they make it to Catalina? Who’ll make the dramatic sacrifice to save their friends?

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Let’s try and be positive for a minute. Think of it like a fun thought experiment – what would someone potentially enjoy about “Zombie Apocalypse”? Like’s been said, the acting is mostly strong. The way they explain no-one having any tech to help them out shows someone at least put a bit of thought into things. The zombie makeup is okay too. Ramona has sort of an arc, which is so rare as to be worth mentioning in an Asylum review.

 

But boy oh boy, is it way easier to point out all the dumb stuff. They talk about a battle outside Pittsburgh, which is a reference to “Dawn Of The Dead”; and they crowbar in a story about a guy called Kirkman, clearly a reference to the creator of “The Walking Dead”. When you mention the titans of the genre like that, it might be an idea to learn from them; but “learning” gets in the way of profit for our old friends at the Asylum. The “secret bite”, the laziest zombie trope of all time, is a fine example of this – it’s that thing where someone gets bitten but doesn’t tell their friends til it’s too late.

 

Halfway through the movie, we get a zombie dog, which is just to get the idea of zombie animals in our heads so the finale, and the rather larger zombie, doesn’t come out of nowhere. The problem is, zombie dogs would wipe out the human race overnight, as even the best trained people would let their guard down for a dog after months of not seeing anyone. Why not zombie birds? It’s a Pandora’s box of plot problems that should probably have been kept closed.

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One more, and this is ignoring the little stuff like why everyone seems to have an unlimited supply of the ammunition of their choice, and how many conversations are that thing where two people stare off into space and monologue at each other. Shouting! We’re told, right off the bat, that noise is bad, and it attracts zombies. So what do they do every single bloody time they set foot in a new building? “Hello, are there any humans in here?” What, do you think it’s just bangs and explosions that zombies can hear? Or did the writer forget he’d put that bit in earlier?

 

On the plus side, it rips along at a fair pace, and Ving Rhames is great as always. One the minus side, it’s a bit stupid. But…it’s worth a go, I reckon.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle