How many movie franchises can you think of where the first movie is the worst? There aren’t any, are there? Maybe Harry Potter? Nope? There are none, basically – we have had this debate in the office and there are none.
Apart from Undisputed. There are four Undisputed films, and the worst one is the first one, and get this – this is how good the rest of them are – the first one stars Wesley Snipes AND Ving Rhames.
Chances are you haven’t heard of the Undisputed franchise, and I’ll forgive you for that – only the first entry was released theatrically, the rest going straight to DVD – but what I won’t forgive you for, is not checking them out after reading this fawning diatribe of praise.
As previously mentioned, the worst (still good), Walter Hill-directed first installment follows a famous boxer called George ‘Iceman’ Chambers as he’s sentenced to prison (for a crime he may or may not have committed), and gets involved in an illegal underground fighting tournament. Obviously, once inside he goes up against the current prison champ – Monroe Hutchens, played by Wesley Snipes – and, *trailer voice* FACES GET PUNCHED.
This is a perfectly serviceable boxing movie, and were it not for what followed, it would stand out as a nice little B-flick. But really, if we’re being honest with each other here, you can probably skip it. It’s from number two onwards that my knickers start to inflate.
For the sequel, Ving Rhames nipped out, and Michael Jai White filled The Iceman’s giant Lonsdale boots instead. Obviously he’s back in prison again, and therefore fighting on the illegal circuit, only this time he’s going up against a giant scary bloke called Yuri Boyka, played by the one and only Scott Adkins, aka my favourite actor of all time.
This is where the series is no longer about boxing – it is now a martial arts film. Scott Adkins is a jaw-dropping martial artist in real life and nobody kicks arse like him – he is currently unlike anybody else in American movies (which makes it all the better that he’s from Sutton Coldfield, clearly).
Now that Adkins is involved, the focus is on ridiculously complex choreographed fight scenes with more flabbergastingly bum-clenching flips and tricks than you can shake a copy of Martial Arts Illustrated at. Add the physical prowess of Michael Jai White and you’ve got a brawl-jamboree, served extremely well done.
Seriously, for a straight to DVD movie, this is top quality film-making – Isaac Florentine (STV cinema’s greatest auteur) makes his movie look way more expensive than it actually is. His sweeping, swooping camera captures every single throw-down in crystal clear detail – there’s real effort and dedication behind this film, way more than is afforded most non-theatrical action movies.
That’s the modus operandi behind these films – getting proper, skilled fighters to face each other in the ring, by way of a dazzling, highly unrealistic barrage of stupidly pleasing fight scenes. And boy-o-bizzy-boy, are these fight scenes up at the top of the pile – like, when compared to anything. I’m holding them in the same high regard as your Hong Kong kung-fu flicks, here – this is seriously impressive stuff.
For Undisputed III: Redemption, they introduce even more top-quality martial artists into the mix, including Marko Zaror (Killtro) and Lateef Crowder (Warrior King), albeit with Michael Jai White unfortunately absent (don’t worry though, he’s doing stellar work with the Never Back Down sequels). Now the film focuses solely on the breakout star of the last one: Yuri Boyka.
This small, low-budget sequel to a Wesley Snipes film that nobody really saw, contained a character that somehow happened to expertly capture the hearts, minds and loins of a legion of STV action movie fans. Who knew? The Facebook page for this entirely fictional character currently has 5,747,842 likes. To put that in perspective, Indiana Jones, the internationally famous movie legend, beloved to so many, only has 4,353,633 likes. Boyka > Jones, basically.
I can sort of understand why this has happened. Look back to the ‘80s, where action stars were born and made, first and foremost, on their physical ability (your Seagals, your Van Dammes) – well, Scott Adkins is the closest we’ve got to that nowadays. Of course, up in the big leagues you’ve got The Rock, Jason Statham et al, but Adkins seems purer – he exists on a more specific plane, he is entirely action star. You wouldn’t catch him doing a Tooth Fairy type kiddie flick (at least I hope not, anyway).
Post Undisputed II, he truly is the star of the show, with the second sequel focusing entirely on him and his entry into a massive international prison fighting tournament (these definitely exist in real life, yeah), and further delving into his character’s backstory. Plus, yes, he gets to fight even more people, both in and outside of the ring. We’re evolving, here.
This only continues into the fourth movie – Boyka: Undisputed (which has just become available on UK Netflix, should you be needing something to watch this week), and pushes further into dramatic territory. Adkins actually gets to showcase a bit of that old “acting” they go on about, as his emotions are explored more heavily – he accidentally kills someone in the ring, and sets off to find the dead man’s wife, so it’s got a pinch of melodrama thrown in for good measure. Either way, this is pretty heavy stuff for a straight-to-DVD movie that is ostensibly about a man who is just really, really good at kicking people’s mouthguards out.
But that’s what makes the series so different – it’s not just people doing backflips, there’s a little bit more there, too. Yes, at least three of these films are 100% low-budget, un-glossy, often cringeworthy B-movies, but there’s a passion there that just isn’t present in most of your common-or-garden STV stuff – Bruce Willis, I’m looking at you.
Adkins and co. put everything into these films, and he, in particular, is incredibly outspoken about it, too. The way the movie industry is heading, it makes it harder and harder to make films like this – if people aren’t seeing films in the cinema, then they’re downloading them for free. This is not how it should work, guys: if the films don’t make money, they can’t make any more. It’s been a particularly long road to getting the latest installment made (seven years since part III), but the incredible fan support enabled it to happen.
As such, this franchise is not really like anything else that I know of. A film series that the casual movie fan hasn’t heard of, but that has such a noticeably gigantic and feverish fanbase sitting just on the periphery of the mainstream. Maybe the recent Universal Soldier STV sequels (one of which also stars Adkins) have come close to this level of acclaim, but even they don’t have the undying love that Boyka et al have.
I am fully in that camp, too – I love these movies with all my heart, and have never downloaded any of them (gold star please), I even own Undisputed III on DVD twice, for some reason. I also make it my life’s work to spread the word, specifically in this format: if you like action and martial arts movies, you’re doing yourself an extreme disservice by not checking these out.
God, just look at this and tell me you don’t want to watch three films worth of it:
Exactly, you're frothing at the eye sockets to wrap your lenses around it, aren't you. I certainly am, and I've seen them approximately 3,456 times each.
(Image: Allstar Movies)