It's difficult to make yourself care who wins the big fight in the prison boxing B-movie "Undisputed." Should you root for Wesley Snipes as the former pro pug who beat his girlfriend's "other man" to death with his bare hands? Or should you root for Ving Rhames as the arrogant, angry world heavyweight champion, freshly stripped of his title and locked up after being convicted of rape?
The whole movie is little more than a slow build-up to their cage-match-style bout behind bars and razor wire in the last 10 minutes, so pick a horse -- if you can. Snipes spends most of the picture off-screen, locked in solitary confinement, gluing together a popsicle stick pagoda. So all we know about him is that he says he always keeps his cool (except, of course, for that one time he killed a man) and that he's been the champ of the underground big house boxing league (run by inmate mafioso Peter Falk) since he was sent up for life 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, new arrival Rhames spends the movie blustering around the prison yard, bullying everyone from the cell block sissy to prison gang leaders to the spineless warden.
It's not entirely unintentional that neither of these guys is hero material. Co-writer and director Walter Hill ("48 Hrs," "Supernova") premeditates this moral and culpable ambiguity, daring the audience to accept these convicts on prison terms, under which it's taboo to ask "What are you in for?" I admire Hill for not wanting his characters to be clear-cut and easily pigeon-holed.
But this vagueness also has the unintended effect of leaving Snipes and Rhames little to do beyond talking smack in tough-guy whispers and acting with their sullen jowls and meaty shoulders.
Overly stylized with lots of flash black-and-white freeze frames reminiscent of a pseudo-hip luxury car commercial, "Undisputed" is at its best when there's talk of boxing (Falk chews scenery in amusing rants about "the old days" of Lewis and Marciano). But the film is at its worst when it's actually inside the ring. Hundreds of combinations are landed in every bout, yet there's never any blood, and there are only two sound effects to chose from for every single punch, no matter how hard they're thrown or where they land on either man's body.
Worse yet, fights are poorly photographed. The camera never gets close enough to see a single blow truly connect. It seems as if half the time the fighter with the advantage has his back to the screen, and the cinematographer spends the other half up in the prison gym stands, watching the slugfest from a distance through the thick bars around the ring.
The talents of Snipes, Rhames and Hill aren't entirely wasted on "Undisputed," but none of them seems to have invested much of themselves in making this movie memorable -- and, well, it's not.