I have seen the future of low budget action filmmaking, and it is Undisputed III: Redemption.
You might scoff. God knows I did. I never saw the first two Undisputed films, and I had some very, very low expectations for the direct to DVD second sequel of a low-brow action series starring a bunch of people who are good at what they do but who are not really known outside of the B-action field. Thankfully director Isaac Florentine never bowed to low expectations and he set out to make Undisputed III something almost unheard of in the DTV action world: a real movie.
Let’s not get crazy here – this film isn’t winning any awards outside of ActionFest (where I served on the jury, and where we changed the jury rules so that this out of competition film could be recognized for its fight choreography and direction) – but it is a well made, solid and highly cinematic film. Shooting on the Red Camera, Florentine has actually made a DTV prison fight flick that looks great; some of the scenes are saturated in deep rich colors, while others convey perfectly the dank, tight corridors of a Russian superprison. But best of all, he shoots the fights well; Florentine’s background as a martial artist gives him insight into the fight scenes that other action directors might not have.
Fight choreographer Larnell Stovall said at a post-screening Q&A that he was tired of seeing American action films emulate their Asian counterparts and that he wanted to start competing with them, and Undisputed III does just that. Asian martial arts films have been moving to more and more highly choreographed fight scenes; when not shot right these look more like dances than brawls. Stovall and Florentine have created fights that are well choreographed and precise, but that also look and feel like real battles. The punches and kicks retain the brutal sense of contact that first wowed us in Thai cinema with films like Born to Fight and Ong-Bak. Florentine shoots his action scenes with clarity and style; while some might find his use of speed-ramping cliche, I thought the ratchets from slomo to regular speed really enhanced the appreciation of the skills of the fighters.
For the uninitiated (like me), the Undisputed series is sort of spun out from the Wesley Snipes prison boxing flick; the sequel saw Michael Jai White taking on the role that Ving Rhames (!) played in the first and getting tossed in a Russian prison. The bad guy of that film, hulking Russkie Boyka (played by Scott Adkins) was defeated by having his knee brutally destroyed. Undisputed III picks up some time after that, with Boyka slowly retraining his ruined knee. A new prison fight league has sprung up, and the winner gets to be freed from captivity. Nobody thinks that Boyka can compete, but when he wrecks the local champ he ends up being moved to Gorgon, the Russian Supermax.
There he meets seven other fighters from seven other nations; they’ll duke it out for their freedom. None of them know that the losers end up with a bullet in their heads, and none of them realize that Gorgon’s home fighter (who is, weirdly enough, Colombian), is getting all the advantages to guarantee his win. Boyka believes that he is the world’s ‘most complete fighter’ (no clue), and that God has given him a mission; when he slowly befriends the hippity hoppity black American fighter, Turbo, Boyka’s mission becomes clear.
Up and coming Chilean martial arts movie star Marko Zaror plays the Gorgon favorite, and I think it’s he who makes the film. Adkins is shockingly agile for a humongous, beefy guy, but his Boris Goodunuv accent and stony Slavic demeanor doesn’t really translate to ‘fun.’ Non-fighter Mykel Shannon Jenkins plays Turbo, and he brings a bit more fun and a surprising amount of humanity – the dude freaks out during an extended stay in Gorgon’s hole, and it’s hard to imagine a tough-guy fighter being willing to play a character who begins breaking when he realizes he has nowhere to shit – but it’s Zaror who brings the real fun. Zaror plays Dolor as a big, campy menace, throwing in little taunting dance moves during fights and lots of wacky bug eyed looks at his opponents. Zaror is interested in sampling every bit of scenery, but he’s not chewing it all up. He hits a nice middle ground between charmingly bad and over the top.
But as a fighter he’s incredible. Zaror has been slowly making a name for himself with Chilean films like Kiltro and Mirageman, and if you thought Adkins was surprisingly agile, Zaror is like giant-sized Spider-Man. He flips about seemingly without exertion, unaware that his six and a half foot frame simply shouldn’t be flying like that. It’s a showy little role in the non-fighting scenes, but in the ring he gets to play a grade A heel, flirting with the crowd, teasing his opponents and being a complete all-around jerk – something quite unlike his other roles. Zaror understands how to use his natural charisma to make a terrific egotistical villain.
There are eight main fighters, each with their own style. In a lot of ways Undisputed III is like an adaptation of a fighting game that doesn’t exist – watching a pugilist going mano a mano with a capoeira-inflected fighter makes you want to pound the X button. Each fighter has their own distinctive style and moves, but the movie doesn’t spend an excessive amount of time on each. Instead Florentine (and screenwriter David N. White) spend time building an actually credible relationship between Boyka and Turbo. Usually in a film like this the non-action scenes are slogs; Undisputed III isn’t presenting an utterly compelling drama, but it would be easy for you to make it through without reaching for the fast forward button.
The pity is that Undisputed III
will only be available on video – this is a crowd picture. The final fight between Boyka and Dolor is incredible and thrilling and brutal, and ends with a move that I guarantee will become a widely-spread .gif. I don’t know that the energy that pumped up my crowd will be as palpable at home, and I suspect I may have seen this film in the best possible scenario. Even so, Undisputed III is a damn solid fight film, and it’s heartily and easily recommended to people who like watching folks punch and kick each other. If you think that all of the best fights are coming from the Far East, Isaac Florentine and Larnell Stovall have something to show you.
7.5 out of 10