Undisputed III: Redemption

Undisputed II: Last Man Standing was arguably one of the best martial art/action films I’ve come across in the last decade.  Although it went largely overlooked, the combination of Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins brought about a perfect storm of screen fighting that really hadn’t been seen before.  An up and coming Adkins really cut loose, and the film for all intensive purposes, was choreographed beautifully when it came to camera angles and very complex fight maneuvers.  This was largely due to two guys: action director Issac Florentine who is at the helm for part III as well, and who is the man behind the camera of many of Adkins’ martial art bonanzas–including Jean Claude Van Damme’s The Shepard: Border Patrol, and the virtually unknown Ninja.  Consequently, he just won an award for Undisputed III back in April at ActionFest as Best Director.  The other guy responsible for this crazy barrage of awesome action cinema is Larnell Stovall, the film’s stunt and action coordinator, who just so happened to take home the award for Best Action Choreography at ActionFest.  It was certainly an overdue tip of the hat to a man that’s been lending his skills to some of the best action the states have produced in decades, including Michael Jai White’s Blood and Bone and Black Dynamite, and he’s even dipping into the more popular arenas of television doing stunts on the critically acclaimed HBO show, Treme.

So when it comes to Undisputed III, we’re not only seeing the most seasoned guys from behind the camera, we’re seeing some of the best action actors ever caught on film.  The film offers major action, chalk full of mind-blowing stunts delivered through the ever famous plot vehicle of injustice and impossibility, leading to vengeance and of course, REDEMPTION. *manly fist pump*  However, this time around, we’re left without an awesome Michael Jai White–but never fear, Adkins and company deliver the goods just the same.  It seems a constant theme with the Undisputed series that the previous movie’s antagonist becomes the next movie’s hero and our previous hero disappears into the mist–George “Iceman” Chambers becomes the good guy in the second installment, and now we have Uri Boyka becoming the protagonist.  Not that it makes for a crappy movie, quite the contrary.  It’s actually refreshing to see a deviation from most movie sequels where it’s star continues to take on the same tasks against the same villains.

The movie opens up a lit bit after the second chapter, where we find Uri Boyka (Adkins) growing out the hair and beard, looking like somewhat of a hermit.  He now hobbles on a bum knee after it was broken by Chambers, making it a constant reminder that he was beaten in the ring.  He now works as the prison’s “toilet cleaner”, pushing sludge around with a padded stick.  After learning about a tournament that is being held for the world’s best prison fighters to compete for their freedom, Boyka begins his comeback as “the world’s most complete fighter.”  Strengthening his knee by rigging up a pulley attached to a huge bucket full of water, he makes his way back into the running for Gaga (Mark Ivanir from Undisputed II) to take him to the international competition.  Once there, Boyka is pitted against seven other fighters from seven other prisons around the world, including an loud-mouthed and unlikely pal named Turbo (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) as well as the movie’s juiced up villain, Dolor (Marko Zaror).  Set up as a tournament, a bracket of eight is created to decide who is the best in the world, giving the champion their freedom.  From here, you can pretty much guess where the plot goes, but what you can guess is how awesome the action gets from here on out.

The only problem I have with the film is the fact that Florentine decided to do a lot of the stunts in slow motion shots.  I don’t mind a little bit of speed alteration for action’s sake, but doing it as much as we see in the film kinda takes away from the pace of the fights.  The parts that are supposed to be quick and brutal end up taking longer and take the surprise away from the action.  However, I do appreciate the lack of visual aids, i.e. wires or CGI (except for one kick that couldn’t avoid its use) which really show how good of athletes these guys really are.

I can’t talk enough about how superb the action was in the film.  Some great actors signed on for this one, including the Brazilian capoeira master, Lateef Crowder, Korean Tae Kwon Do master, Ilram Choi, and Chilean martial arts sensation Marko Zaror.  Lateef first caught my eye with his fighting skills in Tony Jaa’s Tom Yum Goong (The Protector), and as part of the Zero Gravity Team, his skills are being called upon more and more, currently set to play the iconic role of Eddy Gordo in the upcoming Tekken movie.  Lateef gives the audience a lot to marvel at, keeping his movements practical, instead of the flashy dance elements of typical capoeira so that we believe he’s actually in a prison fight.  Ilram Choi as the Korean fighter gets the early match against Marko Zaror’s character where we see one of the more exciting aerial fight scenes in the movie.  Even though we only get to see him fight once, it’s quite a spectacle, plus we get to see more of Zaror.  I hadn’t heard much about this guy until now, but he’s evidently been making big waves as the newest action star from Chile in movies such as Mandrill, and he was also honored at ActionFest as an emerging star.  His moves were absolutely phenomenal and certainly rivaled the skills of anyone else in film.  Adkins and Zaror were definitely the two best high-fliers in this one, but we can’t forget about Mykel Shannon Jenkins, a man that I’ve never really heard of before this film either, but he fit the bill for his role nicely.  His boxing skills were well-tuned for his fights and Florentine made him look almost as good as Michael Jai White did in his boxing scenes for Undisputed II.

Overall, a show-stopper as an action movie with fights galore as well as a story which is pretty decent even if the premise is a bit hackneyed.  There’s a fresh perspective here to the genre while Florentine and his crew are carving out their own new niche in the action cinema kingdom.  Surprisingly, these films are actually starting to rival the production value of the typically superior Hong Kong actioner.  Hong Kong has long upheld their reputation as I’ve discussed recently with new pictures like Ip Man 2, etc, but it’s finally nice to see some effort going into productions throughout the world, while supporting these extremely talented actors and choreographers.  Just like what Tony Jaa is doing for Thailand’s action scene or what Johnny Nguyen is doing for Vietnamese cinema, we find actors like Scott Adkins actually getting westerners excited again by making movies of this caliber.  Give these guys a generous Hollywood budget already–you won’t regret it.



Ip Man 2

If you saw the first Ip Man, chances are you were interested in seeing the sequel.  For me, the trailers certainly provided enough evidence of an awesome follow-up, boasting the returns of both director Wilson Yip and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who also gains a starring role this time around.  Martial art movie fans alike were thrilled to learn of the return of Sammo and his first on-screen duel with Donnie Yen since 2005’s Sha Po Lang (S.P.L.). After finally getting a chance to catch a viewing of Ip Man 2, I can safely say that while it definitely has an exciting cast and a good amount of fight scenes, it doesn’t quite hold up to either the hype or the original.

— Note: Next 4 Paragraphs contain SPOILERS —

Taking place several years after the first film, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) and his family move to Hong Kong in hopes of Ip establishing a Wing Chun school.  Times are tough of course–his wife, Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) is pregnant and his son needs money for his school tuition.  Ip gets help from an old friend, Leung Kan (Pierre Ngo), a newspaper editor who finds a rooftop spot for Ip to teach. Business eventually picks up after meeting his first student, Wong Lueng (Huang Xiao Ming) who doesn’t believe Ip’s hype at first and who then brings more guys to the school after a quick, but thorough ass kicking.  We also learn that Chow Ching-chuen (Simon Yam), the man who helped Ip and his family escape the Japanese occupation in the first film, suffered brain damage from a gunshot wound, which left him crazy and unable to remember anyone, even Ip.

Later on, Leung is tacking up posters for Ip’s Wing Chun school when he’s accosted by Cheng Wai-kei (To Yu-Hang) who’s the head student of the Hung Quan school.  Although Leung clearly beats Cheng, his gang beat up on Leung and take him captive.  Ip is told to pay for Leung’s release, but instead fights with what seems to be most of the town, armed with knives and staffs.  Ip makes it to the outside of the market where he meets up with Jin Shanzhao (Fan Sui-wong), the reformed bully from the first Ip Man, who now wants to help Ip.  In struts Hung Chun-nam (Sammo) who is the head of the Hung Quan school and the apparent martial arts master in town.  After a quick explanation, Hung explains that in order for Ip to be recognized as a Wing Chun master/teacher, he has to meet with all the masters in town for a challenge.  Ip, Jin, and Leung are all subsequently arrested when a Chinese police officer named Fatso (Kent Cheng) says they’re causing a ruckus.  We also learn that Hung and Fatso are close friends as nothing happens to Hung after the altercation.

Ip shows up at the hall where all the masters are and begins to fight them one at a time on a round table surrounded by stools laid upside down *gasp*.  It’s obvious he’s better than everyone there, swiftly Wing Chun-ing everyone in their face.  Hung doesn’t appreciate this and finally challenges Ip.  After a draw, there seems to be an admiration from both fighters and a show of mutual respect that there is no clear winner (but you, the viewer can obviously see Hung is exhausted and had the fight gone any longer, Ip would’ve prevailed).  Hung accepts his Wing Chun but tells him he has to pay for his school’s protection. When Ip refuses to pay the so-called neighborhood association fees, Hung sends his pupils to once again cause trouble, prompting Ip to close the school due to neighborhood complaints.

Ip meets up with Hung at his dojo, and explains that he’s still not going to pay the fees.  Hung explains that it’s not just about fees, but for protection and money to the foreigners  (aka the British).  They scuffle a little before Hung almost kicks his lollipop-holding son in the face–Ip of course averts tragedy and stops right as Hung’s entire family comes in.  It’s a key scene where they both come to a mutual understanding about the importance of family, and Hung let’s Ip know that there won’t be any more trouble.  Hung then invites Ip and his students to a boxing tournament being held against the British and their champion, Twister (Darren Shahlavi). Of course racial tension builds up and the British ridicule Chinese boxing as inferior, causing Hung to fight Twister in hopes of restoring their honor.  But alas, Hung is beaten to death after a couple of rounds and it’s now up to Ip to take down the British Empire…you guessed it, just like with the Japanese in the first film!

End of Spoiler

All right, so the movie wasn’t terrible. The best fight of the movie was easily between Donnie and Sammo, showcasing some vintage Sammo (circa 1985) and Donnie’s ridiculous speed.  It was part classic-Sammo fight choreography  and part wuxia wire fu, which was a nice blend and a good homage to period films before it.  I can’t believe how Donnie seems to be getting quicker in front of the camera since his re-introduction to Hong Kong cinema–movies like SPL, Seven Swords, Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point, and Ip Man have really showcased a much more versatile Donnie Yen.  I’m  thrilled with Donnie’s movies since he stopped being the small, underdeveloped character in American movies–remember Highlander: Endgame? Blade II? Shanghai Knights? Yeah, me neither. As a leading actor in Hong Kong now, I think he’s really found a niche and if Sammo’s career is any indication, I think Donnie’s got a lot of years left to make some excellent martial art films. Sammo was still doing his thing as both actor and action choreographer–his movements were still so sharp and you could tell where he lent his wisdom to the action direction and to the other actors.  He brought out a lot of different martial art styles from the period to showcase and it was fun to watch.

Unfortunately, a majority of the problems laid with the English actors and their overall delivery.  Superintendent Wallace (Charlie Mayer) was a convincing bad guy, who you love to hate throughout the second half of the film, but his delivery felt too contrived. It’s either the villain who can fight or the one who can’t, and he’s the latter.  As for the former, I’m still torn over Darren Shahlavi’s performance as Twister.  On the one hand, I was so pumped to see him as the silly villain type he’s famous for (get Bloodmoon on NetFlix if you haven’t seen it!)–he had the cocky demeanor and it was quite clear he showed up in shape to fight.  But just like his character in Bloodmoon, his acting and delivery were almost laughable when he’s not throwing a punch. His on-screen fighting is top drawer with Sammo and Donnie, but his overacting is evident when he’s outside of the ring.  For a hokey movie, it might have been better received, but this was supposed to be a serious biopic. Knowing I’m never going to see a Bloodmoon sequel, I was okay just watching him duke it out with Sammo and Donnie.  I would’ve also liked to see the kickboxing skills, but I knew they had to stay relevant to the history–however, if they’d taken so many liberties with Ip Man’s life, it wouldn’t have been blasphemy to see Shahlavi throw in some Bloodmoon kicks.

Finally we come to the overall tone of the movie.  This sequel  wanted so desperately to be a story about Ip and teaching Bruce Lee, but there were problems gaining the rights from the Lee family.  So instead, they choose to go the hackneyed route and rehash the theme of the first movie where instead of a Japanese occupation in Foshan, the British are now occupying Hong Kong.  The first Ip Man did an outstanding job of displaying this sentiment while its predecessor wasn’t as convincing.  Ip Man in the movie was also a different man–in the first film, after seeing his fellow Chinese brethren being killed by the Japanese, he unleashes a brutal barrage on ten men at once.  Although outlandish, it was one of the finer points in the film and showed a ferocity that made you want more.  Here, we see an older, maybe wiser Ip, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing. The final fight in the original was amazing and showcased a spectacular bout between Chinese and Japanese martial arts, but this one left you feeling a little unfulfilled.  I’m not saying I wanted Ip to be as brutal to the British as he was to Japanese, but after Hung was killed, I was expecting some  of the same intensity from Donnie’s character in the first film.

Overall, it was a pretty entertaining film.  You’re going to notice that the second half of the film bares a striking resemblance to a movie like Fearless, but nevertheless, I don’t think it takes anything away from it.  At the end of the film, they decide to tease you with the entrance of a young Bruce Lee, who asks Ip for some lessons.  It was a cute added scene where they clearly wanted to make room for a third installment about Bruce training with Ip in his teenage years.  I’d be interested to see where they go with it, but Donnie has already spoken about the possibly of Ip in a third film by saying that Ip’s story has basically already been told. With that little bit, I doubt we’ll see Donnie in the role again, but I think it’s a good choice because you don’t want to beat a dead horse too many times.

If you haven’t already, check out the first Ip Man that’s due out on blu-ray July 27th.  Ip Man 2 website