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

Advertisements

Demolition Man (1993)

demolition_man_1993_3-1

In the run-up to review 500, I’ve been taking requests from friends and readers, and the most recent one was merely “a Sandra Bullock movie!” I thought about “Miss Congeniality” but realised she’d done a movie which fit into the ISCFC’s wheelhouse perfectly – a weirdly comedic, near-future action movie which was misunderstood on release, a bit.

 

Joel Silver is one of the more intriguing fellows in Hollywood. Along with the Simpson / Bruckheimer crew, he’s responsible almost single-handedly for what you probably think of if you think of Hollywood in the late 80s-90s. I was going to list his movies but it’d take up most of this review – suffice to say, he’s had an enormous amount of success with big-budget action movies, with a strong element of humour in them, spectacular set pieces and OTT endings. There was a brief moment in the early 90s when the action stayed the same, but the comedy was ramped way up – an era that audiences rejected soundly and are a byword for unchecked hubris from their stars. The thing is, looking back on them now they’ve aged pretty well, and had it not been for their box office failure meaning it was open season on mockery, they’d be a lot more fondly remembered.

wesley-snipes-demolition-man-560

The king of these OTT action comedies is “Hudson Hawk” (another Silver production), without a doubt; but the other main offenders are “The Last Action Hero” and this. One each for Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone, before they all decided to stick to action, or comedy, but never the twain shall meet. There are other, lesser examples, like “Double Dragon” and “Street Fighter”, but they’re both based on computer games so I don’t think they had the same pressure on them. This, on the other hand, only feels like it was based on a computer game.

 

Evidently, Joel Silver thought the world would fall apart, hard, in the next few years. Stallone is John Spartan, the baddest cop in the hellscape that is 1996 LA, and he’s after the world’s most evil criminal, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). After a pretty ridiculous action sequence, involving bungee jumping from a helicopter and blowing up a building, and the way the cops believe the super-criminal over their best cop, both men are put in cryogenic jail. Phoenix is woken up in 2032 and escapes – clearly with the help of someone powerful – and finds a very different world.

1139_xxl_2

The world of 2032 is a fun idea, if you don’t think about it. No fossil fuel, barely any crime, no guns, everyone seems happy, and the city of San Angeles seems like a decent place to live. But it goes silly quickly – you’ll be fined for swearing ; everything bad for you (including salt, caffeine and alcohol) has been banned, and for some reason people use multiple words where one would do. For instance – murder is now known as “MurderDeathKill”, time is “tick-tocks”, and so on. The cops haven’t seen a murder in almost 20 years and are completely unprepared for the wildness of Phoenix, so guess who they have to thaw out?

 

Spartan teams up with 20th century obsessed cop Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), plus there’s Dennis Leary as the leader of the people who’ve chosen to live underground rather than submit to The Man, and endless funny little moments as one of our guys from the past interacts with a bit of 2032.

 

The satire is very strong in places. Watching it from 2015, where the world is meaner, the gap between rich and poor is even wider, and the political right is destroying all manner of social programs, San Angeles seems nicer than I suspect the filmmakers meant it to. But then you have Dennis Leary, via a monologue which feels lifted straight from his standup of the time, making the case for…the world we live in today, pretty much…and his nonsense is never corrected. I don’t think it’s as simple as “I should be allowed to do whatever I want” versus “all things that are bad for you are banned” – there’s billions of dollars of advertising spent to convince you that fast food X isn’t nutrition-free garbage and our “freedom of choice” is just freedom to be exploited by the wealthiest corporations. The loudest shouters for “freedom of speech” just want freedom from consequences, or freedom from having to listen to viewpoints different to their own.

demo-02

I’m drifting from the topic of this fine movie quite a bit, though. A lot of the jokes rely on you not thinking about them too much – the most popular radio station plays old advertising jingles, but there appears to be no actual music; people have no idea at all about the past, yet what happened to all the books and movies and so on? Where did all the guns go? 35 years (or however long they were in cryo-jail) just isn’t long enough for everyone to have forgotten the past so completely, which makes you wonder why they decided on that as the time…

 

Spartan had a wife who apparently died in a gigantic earthquake in 2010, and a daughter, but the movie tells us nothing about her other than she’s still alive. I would bet £20 that Sandra Bullock was originally going to be the daughter (love of violence is in her blood!) but they changed it at the very last minute to be a love interest. The problem is, it’s such a weird hole in things that it leaves their relationship feeling a little creepy – it’s not on the screen at all, just reading between the lines. IMDB’s trivia backs me up, so I’d guess there’s an alternate ending on a cutting room floor somewhere.

404

Bullock is great though, playing her part with enthusiasm but a weird sort of naivete which comes across as charming. Stallone is Stallone, but Snipes (and most of the rest of the cast) have a whale of a time chewing scenery and there’s a strong sense that this was a fun movie to make. It’s certainly a fun one to watch, even if it’s so packed with stuff that any satirical intent is sort of choked by weird references to how they have sex in the future, or the way they use the toilet.

 

But…it tries to say something, unlike virtually all other action films (and comedies) of the time. I’m not sure how much say director Marco Brambilia (a video artist) had over Stallone and Silver, but it’s a great looking, odd, funny, action-packed movie.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Reel Baseball – Major League (1989)

MPW-36633

 

Adding to the long list of series the ISCFC will never finish, baseball movies! After years of not really being bothered by sport, I find myself a huge fan of the St Louis Cardinals in particular and baseball in general. So, what better way to combine my love of film and baseball than to do a series on baseball films? There’s going to be comedies and dramas (mostly dramas) and documentaries and insane Japanese horror films, so strap in! Also, anyone who can think of a good name for this series of reviews will win a prize. Best so far – “Reel Baseball” (which I think I subconsciously ripped off from somewhere else).

If you saw “Major League” when you were a kid, as I did, and then watched it now, I guarantee your hazy memories of the film will be wrong. The knockabout comedy about the scrappy misfits who go all the way is actually a drama about Tom Berenger, a washed up former player who has a chance to make one last run at the big leagues, desperately trying to rekindle the relationship with the woman he loved but treated badly; the comedy seems to be a bit of an afterthought, like they hired Charlie Sheen at the last minute and did some 11th hour rewrites to add some laughs.

The Cleveland Indians are a terrible baseball team, and their new owner, a former Vegas showgirl who married into money, has an idea. If the team tanks and their season’s attendance drops below 800,000, she can cancel their contract with Cleveland and move the team to Miami, which has a climate more to her liking. To this end, she lets all the good players go, hires a bunch of has-beens, never-weres and raw rookies (along with a gruff coach who was working in a garage while managing some minor-league team part time), and waits for the blissful time ahead in Miami.

Major-League-1989-sports-movies-23260672-1280-720

And that’s it, a nicely simple premise for a film. The personalities – “That Guy” legend Chelcie Ross as (very) old veteran Eddie Harris; Dennis Haysbert as voodoo-practising Cerrano; Wesley Snipes as super-cocky Willie Mays Hayes; Corbin Bernsen as wealthy underachiever Roger Dorn; and Charlie Sheen as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, bounce off each other and make most of the laughs in the film. It works, too! They seem like real characters, and the only reason they feel a bit over the top is the corporate behemoth baseball has become in the last 25 years, with personalities being ground into the dirt. These guys would have been the most normal player on any team of the 1970s.

Add in Berenger as the dramatic lead and sport legend Bob Uecker as the commentator, and you’ve got yourself a sport movie. As the team starts coming together and winning matches, Berenger and former girlfriend Rene Russo’s relationship begins thawing. To be fair, as this is starting to read like a love-in for this movie, we never really see any evidence of him reforming his philandering ways, and he attempts to even play down the bad things he did, which indicates they’ll be having the same old problems a few minutes after this film finishes. But as we all know, women are prizes for being good at your job or being really brave! Oh Rene Russo, you beautiful beautiful plot device!

vlcsnap2010120115h12m01

It’s a great film, really, and nails the beats of the classic sport movie well. It’s also weird seeing Cleveland in its industrial prime, given what a horrible mess the city apparently is now, with jobs leaving the city in droves…but here’s the boring film reviewer bit where I talk about why it doesn’t work. Never take your eyes off the main cast members, because when the coach is giving his rousing speech, the extras playing the other members of the team don’t respond at all. At least smile or cheer or something, you guys! It’s really quite off-putting at times. As I’ve alluded to above, the addition of flat-out comedy to the gentle drama is a bit odd, but once you get used to it, it’s fine. A sort of mix you don’t really get too much these days, like with the buddy-buddy cop drama now being the preserve of straight comedies like “The Other Guys” and “21 Jump Street”.

There are two more films in the “Major League” franchise to look forward to – a sequel five years later, then a Sheen-less part 3 a few years after that. And so much more! Stay with us, ISCFC readers.

Rating: thumbs up