The first scene in Walter Hill’s Undisputed is a fight. It takes place at a high-security, Oz-like panopticon prison called Sweetwater out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Two inmates go at it inside a huge cage, surrounded by other men who roar and thump their approval against the bars. The camera circles, rises, peers through the bars, seemingly unable to keep still. It’s all a fitting, if overwrought, metaphor, as the film concerns prisoners who fight to maintain their sense of individual honor, or at least to gain respect from the bar thumpers. Masculinity, integrity, brutality: Hill’s usual themes.
Then comes a little tweak in the predictability, in the “entertainment” staged between bouts (the prison administration apparently permits such proceedings to go on for some time). Hey, it’s Master P. He raps a little, gets the cons chanting “rock n’ roll,” the camera gaga and restless all around him. Then, before you can say “Unnhh,” he’s gone.
This has to be one of the oddest film roles in history. In a movie whose score is dominated by the Cash Money Millionaires (that is, not his own No Limit crew), Master P gets prominent mention in the credits (albeit as “Rapper 1”) and, with his head-rag and platinum teeth, he’s surely recognizable. He makes a second appearance late in the film, once again introduced by Ed Lover as the emcee, this time leading Rapper 2 and Rapper 3 (played by his real-life brothers, Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder, who is himself currently jailed awaiting a murder trial), and assorted cage-side cons in a hiphoppish version of the national anthem. In all his 80 seconds or so on screen, P has not a word of dialogue. And so, you might wonder, what is he doing here?
Or, you might not. In fact, this isn’t a question likely to occur to many viewers of Undisputed, perhaps only those who have taken note of the trailers, in which Master P’s name is invoked, as if he is a “star” in the film. Some won’t even register his existence, and others will attend to the film’s central action, namely, a much drawn-out battle between two mighty boxers, played by two charismatic and extremely hard-bodied performers. The trappings — the hackneyed plot, the stock characters, the references that might have been topical when the movie was shot and then shelved a couple of years ago — are as inconsequential as Master P’s brief appearance.
In its focus on its opposing forces, Undisputed is much like Hill’s other films (most like those he’s directed, like Hard Times or Trespass, though also related to the Alien series, which he’s produced and co-written). Inspired in part by the Mike Tyson saga — the pre-biting part, when he was convicted for the rape of Desiree Washington — the film begins when heavyweight champion Iceman Chambers (Ving Rhames, who’s reportedly been working out to play Sonny Liston, such that his usually imposing figure is extra-honed) comes to Sweetwater, choppered in rather than taking the usual long hot bus ride.
Many of the other inmates — and the white warden (Denis Arndt) and white head guard (Michael Rooker) — resent his black celebrity and are wholly unimpressed by his protestations of innocence, and the film includes repeated bits of a television interview by his victim Tawnee Rollins (Rose Rollins), in which she insists that she didn’t want to hurt him, only to assert her regular person’s rights (these images closely echo one of Desiree Washington’s interviews, plainly invoking whatever feelings you might have concerning the Tyson case). While she looks tremulous on tv, Tawnee announces she’s suing Iceman in civil court for $75 million. This brings on a cash flow crisis, of which Iceman is reminded repeatedly by his lawyers.
As Hill and co-writer-producer David Giler noticed, this story is intriguing — the complex cultural background and fallout of a major athlete’s rape conviction, the girl’s frustration at the hate mail she receives, media hysteria and community protests over the case. But that film has already been made: Barbara Koppel’s provocative documentary Fallen Champ considers the cultural production and use of the “monstrous” Mike Tyson, via the rape case: its conclusions are not clear-cut, but acutely critical of the systems (economic, professional sports, celebrity) that made Tyson who he is.
Hill and Giler’s movie takes quite another tack, using the conviction as a point of departure. Unlike Fallen Champ, Undisputed does not challenge the idea that a man’s “honor” can be attained and preserved by violence, whether organized as “sport” or let loose on the street. Undisputed is centered on guy stuff, which in this case means not too much introspection, less conversation, and lots of training montages. The political critique, such as it is, has to do with how marginalized, hard-time men make their own order and icons out of the leftover lot they’re dealt.
That doesn’t mean the guys in Undisputed don’t fall in lockstep with mainstream values, revering the strongest and the fastest, fearing the low-downest, resenting but also yearning to be the richest, etc. Iceman proves a useful target for much frustration because he likes himself too much, expecting everyone else to bow down when he shows up. For the most part, they do, including his cellmate Mingo (Wes Studi, who starred, magnificently, in Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend), who schools him, very gently, on how to get along inside.
One guy stands up to Iceman. Lifer Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes) has been winning Sweetwater bouts for ten years (despite the fact that his “trainer” is a weasel played by Fisher Stevens). An ex-California state boxing champion convicted for beating his wife’s lover to death with his bare fists (a moment of dire angst revealed in a black-and-white flashback, another device borrowed from Oz), he’s gen-pop’s beloved and undisputed champion: even the skinheads like him. Sullen and silent, Monroe survives, he says, by “living inside my head.” The movie translates this to his building bridges and pagodas out of toothpicks — images that make him look commendably, if eccentrically, abstemious. Rumor has it that he was so Zen-like in the film’s first cut that Miramax demanded new scenes to make Monroe — the hero, after all — more “likeable.” (For the record, Snipes objected to such additions.)
Once Monroe puts on his hooded robe and starts concentrating on his workouts, though, he mostly looks like Hurricane Carter by way of Denzel, now the prevailing representation of the Serious Black Man in Prison. Snipes is a taut, well-disciplined movie star, and brings some gnarly edge to Monroe, but he has precious little time on screen. The movie presents Monroe’s low-key-underclass heroism as a matter of faith: you identify with the prisoners, and since they like him, so do you. (Still, this assumption that you’ll take the inmates’ choice is interesting in itself, given mainstream culture’s customary inclination to hate on them.)
Unfortunately, Undisputed‘s climax — the big fight in the cage — reasserts a routine schematic opposition: Iceman is a convicted, wealthy, celebrity rapist who refuses to be responsible for anything; Monroe is a wouldabeen who’s accepted responsibility for what he’s done. The self-described “gladiator” Iceman (because “You play a sport like baseball, but you don’t play at boxing”) is set against the admirably ascetic Monroe (who tends not to explain himself).
The fight, as a literal event, is arranged by feisty Mafioso and boxing student/historian Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk), aided by ambitious Jesus (Jon Seda). The fight, as a symbolic event, needs to do too much: it’s the showdown between sort of good and sort of evil, the big action finish, and the moment of truth for the bodies that have been preparing for 90 minutes (and no namby-pamby slow motion stuff, just hard-charging, train-rush wallops and collisions, accompanied by harsh whooshes and crashing sounds, underlining the bloody, ugly spectacle of boxing, whether for “masses” or for bigwigs in evening wear). And oh yes, it’s the occasion for Master P’s return, about 20 seconds worth.