Director: Isaac Florentine
Producer: Boaz Davidson
Cast: Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Ben Cross, Eli Danker, Mark Ivanir, Ken Lerner, Daisy Lang, Silvio Simac, Ivaylo Geraskov, Valentin Ganev, Atanas Srebrev, Michail Elenor, Velizar Binev, George Zlatarev
Running Time: 98 min.
By Paul Bramhall
I confess I’m late to the party with Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, 12 years late to be precise. But in my defence, I have my reasons, the biggest one being I’m simply not a fan of the whole underground tournament genre. However back in 2010, even I found myself caught up in the hype for Undisputed 3: Redemption, and dutifully found myself checking it out as soon as it was released. Let’s be clear, the fight action was amazing, but (and it’s a big but), the plot felt very perfunctory – it was moving us from one fight in the ring to the next. It seemed the only prior knowledge needed to enjoy Undisputed 3 was that Boyka, the iconic character played by Scott Adkins, gets his knee broken by Michael Jai White in the finale of the sequel. So it was, I never felt the urge to hunt down Undisputed 2, after all, why would I when I already knew the ending!?
It wasn’t until the release of Accident Man, which features a stellar throwdown between Adkins and Jai White, that my curiosity was finally piqued. In many ways Undisputed 2 is one of those movies thats reputation precedes it. Made at a time when the American martial arts B-movie was all but dead (Seagal and Van Damme released trash like Attack Force and The Hard Corps the same year), there’s no argument it was the production responsible for putting its stars and director firmly on the map for action fans. Isaac Florentine’s 8th movie, up until this point he’d largely been considered an unremarkable director of DTV action flicks, however in the movie he made prior, Special Forces, he discovered the talents of British martial artist Scott Adkins. While Adkins was used sparingly in their previous collaboration, here he was thrust into co-star status.
Until Undisputed 2 Adkins had been honing his action talents with the best Hong Kong had to offer, taking minor but high impact roles in the likes of The Accidental Spy, Extreme Challenge, Black Mask 2: City of Masks, The Medallion, and Unleashed. However he was still paying the bills by featuring in local British TV drama series, such as Holly Oaks and Holby City. Undisputed 2 put an end to his British TV career, and started his rise to be the king of DTV action. He’s never looked back since. Likewise for Michael Jai White, while his post-2000 filmography had seen him facing off against the likes of Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds, and Michelle Yeoh in Silver Hawk (don’t mention Kill Bill), it was Undisputed 2 that really let him loose. I would daresay that without Undisputed 2, there would be no Black Dynamite. A shudder worthy thought if ever there was one.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Undisputed 2 though, is that it’s surely the first time in history that a DTV sequel has surpassed in popularity its A-list original, a 2002 boxing movie directed by none other than Walter Hill, which starred Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames. While many point out that the sequel can be enjoyed as a standalone story, it’s also worth pointing out that it is a continuation of Hill’s production. Much like Undisputed 3 would make the sequels antagonist the protagonist, so Undisputed 2 pulled the same trick first, by having Jai White play the role that Rhames played 4 years earlier.
This time around Jai White takes the character of George ‘The Iceman’ Chambers, and plays him as a disgraced former heavyweight champion who we meet in Russia, reduced to appearing in local TV commercials for a brand of vodka (if only he could pronounce his Russian correctly). When the local mob boss learns Jai White is in town, he decides to have him framed for drug possession, so that he can force him to partake in an illegal fighting tournament run out of a mob owned prison. The champion of the prison, which sees Adkins in the role of Boyka, has been itching for a worthy opponent to prove his belief that he’s “the most complete fighter in the world”, and so the pair are set on a collision course with each other.
While it seems almost a cliché to say that Adkins nails the role of Boyka, as someone that skipped straight to Undisputed 3 in which his confidence is in tatters, seeing his performance in Undisputed 2 was something of a revelation. Adkins plays Boyka as a palpable ball of rage, where the threat of violence seems only one wrong stare away, and he cuts a physically imposing figure. Intentionally bulking up for the role once he heard he’d be squaring off against Jai White, at one point a character describes him as “an upside down pyramid”, which I don’t think I could improve upon as a visual of his physical stature. Smashing through wooden benches, killing hapless lackeys with a punch to the throat, and armed with a vocabulary as violent as his fists, he’s as much of a presence outside of the ring as he is in it.
Florentine seems to know he has something special on his hands in the casting of Adkins as Boyka, with the opening scenes focusing more on his preparation and execution of a fight, than on our protagonist. Jai White puts in an equally intense performance, and while his boxer may have fallen from grace, he’s still quick to anger and has a tendency to act like a diva. With a pig headed attitude and refusal to show respect towards Boyka or the prison authorities, the combination of having 2 tightly coiled leads in such a confined setting serves to ramp up the tension levels admirably. As such Undisputed 2 feels like much more of a rounded movie than its sequel, with the story coming first, and events between the action not just feeling like filler between fights.
Of course when the action does come, it delivers. Choreographed by J.J. Perry, the lion’s share of the ring fights go to Adkins, who even makes his first entrance into the square circle a memorable one. While Jai White remains resistant to fight for a large portion of the runtime, he does get some chances to show off his stuff in a couple of scuffles outside of the ring. These occurrences are distinctly different from the action in the ring, reminding us of Florentines history of working on the Power Rangers franchise, with Jai White’s blows sending their recipients flying through the air. I liked the contrast, allowing for a strong sense of impact to be conveyed with his fists as a boxer, in comparison to Adkins airborne decimations. Speaking of contrast, slow motion is used far less gratuitously here than it would be in future sequels, so when it is applied the moves really stand out.
After confronting each other in the prison dinner hall and yard, the spite that develops between Adkins and Jai White eventually boils over into not one but two in the ring fights, which don’t disappoint. One of the factors I really appreciated is that neither of them is portrayed as the underdog, which is unusual in this scenario, but works perfectly, making the question of who’ll win seem anything like a foregone conclusion. Both Adkins and Jai White are impressively bulked up, and look like they could punch through a wall, which allow for their confrontations to be suitably hard hitting. After Undisputed 3 and Boyka: Undisputed some may feel that the length of the finale is a tad short, but its 3 round structure crams a lot in, with an intense level of choreography that sees not a single movement wasted (or wire in sight for that matter).
Overall I feel confident in saying that Undisputed 2 represents Florentine’s best work as a director. His love of both westerns and kung fu movies are given subtle nods throughout (my favorite of which has Jai White learning MMA moves from an old crippled master in a wheelchair), and the strong supporting cast featuring the likes of Ben Cross and Eli Danker add an unexpectedly welcome layer of drama to proceedings. While some of my pet hates are still present, the main culprit being the rap metal played over fight scenes, here it’s used more sparingly than in future instalments, to the point of being forgivable. In the Behind the Scenes featurette for Undisputed 2, when Adkins is asked about working with Florentine he responds “I’m really happy to be doing my 2nd film with him, and I hope it won’t be the last.” It wouldn’t be, and for that, we’re all really happy.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10