- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

"Undisputed" reunites a vintage partnership, writer-director Walter Hill and writer-producer David Giler, on a prizefighting fable of redemption that recalls certain aspects of the first movie Mr. Hill directed, "Hard Times" with Charles Bronson in 1975. Mr. Bronson played a Depression-era street fighter determined to outwit mobster patrons in New Orleans.

Set in the present, "Undisputed" uses a maximum-security penitentiary, Sweetwater, supposedly in California's Mojave Desert, as the improbable site for a heavyweight championship fight between undefeated opponents.

Wesley Snipes plays a long-term inmate, Monroe Hutchen, a former contender who ruined his life and career 10 years earlier with an impulsive act of murder. Nevertheless, he has remained a boxing legend in the state prison system.

The newcomer is the reigning, notorious heavyweight champ, Ving Rhames as George "Iceman" Chambers, sentenced to six to eight years on a rape charge that obviously derives from the Mike Tyson case.

Convinced that physical intimidation is his best defense at Sweetwater, Chambers slaps around or insults representatives of every faction that approaches him. He is persuaded that a grudge match with the soft-spoken and pensive Monroe, promoted by an aging mobster inmate named Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk, accentuating foul-mouthed codger attributes), could be the means to engineering an early parole or a retrial.

So against all likelihood, the bout is on, staged behind an iron cage and eccentrically revamped by 19th-century rules, which require small gloves and a fight to the finish without set rounds.

A slight structural problem emerges for the filmmakers: The buildup is more entertaining and adept than the payoff. Mr. Rhames as an explosive brawler and Mr. Falk as a foxy grandpa carry the early episodes through obligatory housekeeping and logic-defying chores. There's a preliminary bout to establish Mr. Snipes' credentials and a solid foundation of belligerent overconfidence from Mr. Rhames.

The fight itself is a cliched festival of bogus haymakers and thunderous sound effects. The cost-cutting resourcefulness of keeping his clash of the titans in an isolated setting tends to backfire on Mr. Hill, in part because Sweetwater never seems that far from Las Vegas. As a matter of fact, the authentic prison setting was outside Vegas.

You begin to wonder if it would have been more entertaining to embrace the outside world and create a rivalry inside the prison that could be resolved with a "legitimate" championship fight when the opponents are released on one pretext or another. It certainly would have been more expensive to stage a conventional championship, but the filmmakers go to an awful lot of effort to rationalize an alternative that fails to resemble a genuinely decisive showdown.

Mr. Snipes is also out of the loop during the first half of the plot, in part because Monroe is a strong and silent type, but also because he spends a great deal of time in solitary, constructing a model pagoda out of balsa. As a result, Mr. Rhames gets all the forceful interplay around the prison community.

It's not as if our identification with Monroe were as intimate and irresistible as our ties to Toshiro Mifune as the crafty lone wolf of Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo."

Curiously, Mr. Hill made the mistake of trying to adapt "Yojimbo" as a Dust Bowl gangster melodrama in "Last Man Standing." His new movie also is an attempt to recover professional traction that slipped away during the 1990s.

There are enough incidental touches of humor and dynamism in "Undisputed" to justify confidence in Mr. Hill as a specialist in heroic yarns about strong and dauntless men, but his new movie is not equipped to go the distance.

It would be gratifying to see Mr. Hill back in the game as effectively as he was when directing "The Warriors" or "The Long Riders" two decades ago or even "Geronimo" a decade ago. "Undisputed" cannot shake the impression that it's more tune-up bout than main event.

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