Undisputed

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Undisputed

Pity poor Walter Hill. As a producer on all four Alien movies, he's watched the franchise's directors (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) go on to make loads of cash and wow critics while his own career has witnessed more valleys than peaks. The tough-guy auteur's career hit a nadir with 2000's abysmal Supernova, which lingered on a shelf for ages while other directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, attempted to salvage it. Undisputed boasts a similarly messy backstory—it also had a stint on the studio shelf, as executives reportedly requested re-shoots to make Wesley Snipes' character more likable—but the end result hardly reflects it. One of America's most distinctive action directors, Hill specializes in moral ambiguity: In his bleak universe, the divide isn't good-vs.-bad so much as bad-vs.-worse. Hill's 1979 classic The Warriors featured a street gang as its heroes, while Undisputed pits murderer Wesley Snipes against rapist Ving Rhames. In a story ripped from yesterday's headlines, Rhames stars as a belligerent heavyweight boxing champ who is convicted of rape and sentenced to a maximum-security prison that puts on boxing matches, often pitting its champ against boxers from other prisons. Snipes co-stars as Rhames' rival, a philosophical, once-promising fighter serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. Snipes reigns as the undisputed champion of the prison boxing league, but once inside, Rhames sets out to take his crown, much to the delight of Peter Falk, who plays a boxing-loving Jewish mobster whose body is in prison but whose mind is stuck somewhere in '50s Havana. Through his intermediaries, Falk helps set up a climactic bout between the two champs, with millions of dollars and the prison's pride on the line. A triumph of craft and narrative economy, the darkly funny Undisputed is as lean, mean, and skillful as its competing heavyweights. Snipes' tough-guy minimalism has seldom been put to better use, while Rhames turns in a mesmerizing performance that matches his Emmy-winning turn as Don King. Falk, meanwhile, comes close to stealing the film with a hilariously profane rant in which he condenses a career's worth of obscenity into one inspired monologue. Considering the promise Snipes has shown as a dramatic actor, it's a shame that he's chosen to focus so heavily on big, dumb action movies. With this year's Undisputed and Blade 2, however, he's at least chosen crackerjack action worthy of his talent.

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