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Thursday, August 29, 2002
'Undisputed' not far from 'Raging Bull'

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

With "Undisputed," director Walter Hill, of "Streets of Fire," "48 Hours" and "Alien" franchise fame, has delivered an eye-popping, soul-catching, neck-snapping knockout of a boxing film, a quick, square left hook to our collective heart of darkness.

 
Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes and Peter Falk helped.

Sam Peckinpah, too. Hill brings a Peckinpah-like, grim, bloody reality to the proceedings, even more so than he did 27 years ago, when as a youngish screenwriter who'd written Peckinpah's "The Getaway," Hill directed "Hard Times," a boxing movie starring Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland and Strother Martin.

"Hard Times" was, to me, the most underrated boxing moving narrative, up until now, when it has finally been topped by "Undisputed." Hill matched up with himself; the older craftsman won. Throughout the hurtling pace of "Undisputed," a sure and steady hand has control.

Why the two-fer, though?

"Well, boxing is a continuing interest of mine," Hill told me this week. "My father ... my father was a big fan; used to take me to fights at the Olympic, the Hollywood Legion, over at Southgate; and his father was a big fan -- he saw Stanley Ketchel fight once."

In "Undisputed," Hill and his fellow screenwriter and longtime collaborator David Giler move the action beyond even the pitted, Depression-era New Orleans backdrop that served Hill so well in "Hard Times." This time they go straight for the gusto. Prison.

Hill seems as interested in harsh, demanding, human worlds that make boxing necessary -- almost as much as in the boxing itself.

This makes him, knowingly or not -- probably the latter -- a shrewd storyteller. Prison, as envisioned by Hill, is an inferno, stripping a false veneer of civilization and fairy tale from boxing. No one wears a tux to a fight at Sweetwater max pen; probably shouldn't be wearing a tux to a fight anyway. This ain't no wedding here.

Wesley Snipes
Wesley Snipes plays the stoic Monroe Hutchen, a former California State boxing champion in prison for murder.
In "Undisputed," Wesley Snipes plays, and very well underplays, the role of the stoic Monroe Hutchen, a former California State boxing champion, a relatively undersized, 191-pound heavyweight, who finds himself in the penitentiary, for life, after committing a crime of passion, a murder; he finds his woman in flagrante delicto with an unfortunate lover at home in Oakland.

(This echoes Hill's tale of his grandfather seeing middleweight Stanley Ketchel, of whom it was written, I think by nonfiction writer John Lardner, son of Ring, that Ketchel, was "shot dead by the husband of the woman who was fixing him breakfast").

Monroe busts the poor fellow up; he dies; a professional boxer's hands are quite legitimate deadly weapons, and they don't often get great lawyer referrals, a bad combination; the Murder One beef should have been pled down to a manslaughter; there was no premeditation. But Monroe gets life, which he puts in uncomplainingly, his outlet being "abandon hope, all ye who put up your hands in front of me" in the inter-prison boxing program. In the joint, he is the undisputed champion, giving his passion over to boxing. In 10 years, he's never lost.

Enter Ving Rhames, as George "Iceman" Chambers, short, bald, undefeated heavyweight champion who gets an eight-year stretch for the rape of a young woman; Iceman is feral, lives by the code of the streets; he's a personification of Mike Tyson, right down to the sleeveless, collarless terrycloth gladiator's covering he wears into the ring. He's interviewed behind bars by boxing announcer Jim Lampley, who suggests an apology to the young woman and to boxing fans might be in order; Jim flinches convincingly when Rhames storms at the bars and plexiglass, calling him a "judgmental m-----------!"

The Iceman arrives at Sweetwater via helicopter, the "victim" of the wronged woman, a Desiree Washington-like "showgirl," whom the film posits as ambiguous, Sphinx-like; whatever her secret is, it remains secret, unknowable; her testimony (and society's revulsion for Iceman) got the pound of flesh of the man who ostensibly raped her, but she also sues in civil court for $75 million, citing her "doctor and lawyer bills," as the reason. There is a discomfort to all in her explanations and her protestations, and it is clear, in an obtuse, unproven way, that our sympathies are to lie elsewhere.

"Undisputed" puts us in the shoes of these unfortunate gladiators, Monroe and the Iceman, while also making the point that there are always bars or ropes between us and them. Most of the fight action is filmed outside the ropes, or between the ropes; outside the bars or between the bars. We peer in like the voyeurs we are. They who are about to die might not salute us, but they seem to provide us with the elemental conflict that invigorates and sustains our lives.

Walter Hill
Walter Hill, shown in "Last Man Standing," is as interested in harsh, demanding, human worlds almost as much as in the boxing.
Mendy Ripstein, a Hyman Roth-like mob character, a role chewed into small pieces by a roaring Peter Falk, is the real compass of the movie. Not a moral one, because boxing, like current accounting practices, has no real morals, other than the implacable truth of the ring: On that day, the better man will win. But even in the morass of boxing, inside the morass of prison, even in the thickets of war, there can be honor, nobility, there can be truth, and there can even be beauty. Falk's Ripstein pleasurably points this out throughout, explains the history of the science to us, with the help of footage of Louis, Marciano, etc. Falk is particularly good when he rants about "Freaking Palm Springs" or the IRS, the "bureaucratic assholes" who sent him to prison, and, he believes, helped wreck Joe Louis.

But despite his silence -- not to mention Rhames' tour de force as Iceman -- boxing, the potential of it, is personified by Monroe Hutchen, the near-silent man who must confront the power of a remorseless heavyweight boxing champion, and also his own potential. Monroe is a disciplined man who knows the terrible truth; the one time he wasn't, the one time he gave in, landed him in prison for life.

"Another director said to me, 'Your movies are all chapters in a book,' " Hill said. "So many movies about boxing are actually anti-boxing when they take on the subject; nobody in their right mind would applaud or support so much about the sport; and yet, the other side of the story often doesn't get told much; not just about the fighters themselves, but inherent drama and the purity and the nobility of the sport itself, the beauty and drama of the sport itself.

"The Peter Falk character understands the sport transcends individual foibles and faults of the characters; imperfect lives are capable of moments of grace, character and honor; makes them more interesting when they come from imperfect characters."

And yet, Ripstein himself, in setting up the inevitable fight between Monroe and Iceman, has to dicker with the warden, with Iceman and Monroe, and with his mob confreres on the outside, and with his Hispanic guardian angel, Jesus "Chuy" Campos, on the inside. When Monroe asks what his cut will be of the underground illegal betting, Ripstein says, "I'm taking all the risks."

This echoes "Hard Times." In that picture, Charles Bronson is a drifter, a loner named Chaney, living in the Depression, when a can of tuna fish could be a Thanksgiving feast. He arrives at night as a nameless hobo riding in an open boxcar to New Orleans, the most depressed of the depressed; almost by scent and instinct he locates an illegal smoker, a bare-knuckle prize fight conducted in the bowels of a warehouse. The Ripstein of this production is "Speed," a high-life gambler who sponsors "hitters." His hitter gets hit, hard and often. Chaney observes. Later, Speed consoles himself with a half-dozen oysters, contemptuously sprayed with juice from a lemon wedge. Chaney approaches him and asks him to set him up in a fight with the same opponent, whom Chaney had studied.

"I got six bucks," Chaney says, giving it to Speed to bet on him.

Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes
Ving Rhames, left, could have played either role, but Snipes got his pick of parts because of his star status.
Speed (James Coburn) takes the money, knowing that this man will fight like few others, purely on need alone. He doesn't know -- yet -- that Chaney has the skills not only to beat this opponent, but perhaps to help Speed put the sting to his nemesis, a wealthy dandy who has the premier local hitter on payroll. But in trying to get the best deal he can -- i.e., pay Chaney as little as possible for his services -- Speed says his deal is "standard," that "they all come to me for the do-re-mi," and when Chaney asks for a more reasonable cut of the proceeds, Speed says, "I'm taking all the risks." His statement is so wrong, so oblivious to the reality of the boxer, who faces possible death every time he goes in there. It is so wrong no reply is needed. So Chaney offers no reply; he just looks at Speed with the same stoicism which is later so chillingly evident in Monroe Hutchen.

In "Undisputed," Monroe merely demands his 40 percent.

"Undisputed" moves at a breakneck pace toward the inevitable confrontation, though there are moments of violent confrontation beforehand inside the prison walls. The street code is expressed by Rhames' Iceman, who cuffs first Monroe, then the leadership of various prison faction groups about, but with open-handed slaps, "bitch slaps," I'm pretty sure they're called; if they come to heel, that's it; but if they take it personal, and want to protest the order, then Iceman balls his fist, turning it into a killing mace, and lets the chips fall where they may; Monroe lands in solitary confinement after his cafeteria confrontation with Iceman; he doesn't have the juice that Iceman does on the outside. Monroe seems not to care either way; he points out it is unfair, but in the matter-of-fact manner that a boy points out that a cloud resembles a lion, a tiger, or a bear.

Iceman corners himself bit by bit, until the full prison population is behind Monroe. Ving Rhames could have played either role, but the movie would not have been made with only him, in spite of his chops. In the accounting of Hollywood, a bankable star is needed to open a picture. Snipes is the champ there. Hill went to Snipes with a treatment, offering either of the two roles to Blade himself.

"We took the project to Wesley, obviously he's a big star; if we could get Wesley to say yes, we could get the movie made; simple as that," Hill says. "We didn't even a script yet; had a treatment; Wesley and I had lunch, we talked about it; I said, 'The one part (Iceman) is going to be the bigger, flashier part, but it ends the way it ends -- so you've gotta chose the way you wanna go here.'

"My greatest ambition was to make it look like two knowledgeable professional fighters, champions, building into a war, this beautiful inspirational war that gives fulfillment. Now, that can be your ambition, but it doesn't mean much, unless you've got actors capable of bringing it off.

"Ving trained for about a year-and-a-half. We hooked up Wesley with Emanuel Steward; they both worked hard. They sell it."

***** ***** *****

"My favorite film?" Walter Hill repeats. "The next one."

Peter Falk, Ving Rhames
Peter Falk's Mendy Ripstein, as Hill says, "understands (boxing) transcends individual foibles and faults of the characters."
As the contestants said on "Family Feud:" "Good answer!"

"Undisputed" makes the Top 10 Best Boxing Movies, better than the sleeping beauty of "Hard Times," better than Kubrick's "The Killing," better than "Body and Soul" with John Garfield and Canada Lee, better than "Somebody Up There Likes Me," with Paul Newman, better than "Golden Boy," better than all save one.

If "Undisputed" is not quite "Raging Bull," it is not all that far away, either; it contains a similar effect -- the superior cinematic attempt to draw a picture of man, flawed man, at his social worst and at his combative and possibly redemptive best; man attempting to extract a thin line of nobility from his own spilled blood. Nobility? Yes. Oh, emphatically, yes. It all depends on what is needed in life, for it to continue on. If Monroe Hutchen or the Iceman had played Mel Gibson's brother in "Signs," there would have been no need for a baseball bat, and Father Mel would think them noble indeed.

Plus, it would've made "Signs" more compelling and realistic.

The quality of hurt, of realism, is accentuated by Hill's highly stylized, documentary style direction. "Guilty," Hill says, "on all counts." In his "Undisputed," there is this quality of hurt, pain and of desperation to hold on to humanity, by any means necessary.

But also, as Mendy Ripstein says, once his blood lust and artistic demands are quenched, this fight is, and represents, "a thing of beauty." Boxing in "Undisputed" is amorphous and uncatchable, like all things of real horror, and true beauty; but boxing is also something real, tangible, necessary, intrinsic in human beings, such as we are currently constructed. It is a true fable. If you are willing, and interested in a sports movies revealing both the low underside and high potential of human character, in a pitiless, authentic way, "Undisputed" is 90-odd minutes well spent.

"And the new ...!"

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."