This is the Sweetwater Prison in California, a maximum security establishment where the most dangerous criminals are sent. They have a boxing programme there to give the inmates something to aspire to and entertain them, and one man, Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes), has emerged as the stellar fighter in their inter-prison contests, beating all comers and becoming something of a hero to his fellow inmates. He does have the advantage of being a professional boxer before he was incarcerated for murder, and there are many who believe he could have made it to the top had he not been put behind bars ten years before, but now the actual World Heavyweight is on his way, convicted of a rape charge...
You know, like Mike Tyson was. Yes, this was a film that took a real life event, in this instance the imprisonment of actual champion Tyson on a sentence for sexual assault, and turned it into fiction, much like an episode of Law & Order or one of those embellished straight to video serial killer efforts. Here it asked us to wonder what would happen if Iron Mike, who at the point this was made had not enjoyed his rehabilitation in the public eye from a brutal criminal to an "in on the joke" tough guy funnyman, had been brought into a boxing match while inside, and asked us to think on whether we would have liked to have seen him beaten or not. The screenplay certainly kept us guessing in that respect.
This was down to Snipes ensuring his character was not necessarily more sympathetic in comparison: we were well aware of Monroe's terrible past and director and co-writer (with David S. Goyer) Walter Hill pointedly placed a flashback halfway through where we witnessed him murder someone just so we got the message. The Tyson character was called George Chambers, but everyone refers to him as The Iceman because of his habit of "icing" his opponents in the ring, and interestingly they left it ambiguous as to whether his conviction was justified or not, with inserts of the victim saying what he had done to her on a TV interview, while he complains that he may have had sex with her, but she was not complaining when he did.
Pushing this any further and the film could have found itself mired in very murky waters, but Hill pulled back from moral questions of that variety and the dilemmas that resulted and was more keen to ask if we wanted to see The Iceman get his ass kicked by Monroe, or vice versa. This mystery was sustained since we were none too sure which way they wanted to go, although the ending had an eventual have its cake and eat it too development to it that was kind of cheeky, to be honest, and not quite in keeping with the serious mood of what had played out before, though there were a few scattered moments of humour to lighten the glowering demeanour of both leading men. They were trained by professionals, which contributed to the grand finale when they went at each other in front of the baying crowd of convicts: they certainly looked the part.
This was no two-hander, mind you, as Hill filled out his cast with recognisable faces, from Wes Studi as The Iceman's cellmate and sole assistant to Jon Seda as the mobsters' representative's right hand man. That mobster was interesting as among the last roles Peter Falk ever played, looking frail but bringing a humour and irascibility to the character of the diehard boxing fan who may be going senile, but is compos mentis enough to know a potential million dollar deal when he sees one as the two boxers must be persuaded to get into the match together. You did notice that until the fight started, not a lot happened in Undisputed aside from macho posturing, and that meant over an hour of men squaring off against one another, but Hill knew this landscape and managed to render it compelling enough to have us eager to discover the outcome of the bout. Snipes essayed a more reserved style which contrasted nicely with Rhames more upfront bastardry, and if you were a fan of real life boxing this fictional version could well meet with your approval, providing you were not into nitpicking sporting movies. Music by Stanley Clarke.