on August 23, 2002 by Paul Clinton
   Walter Hill's pulpy, stylized boxing melodrama "Undisputed" nearly overcomes its questionable in-the-ring match-up with solid fight choreography and gritty prison authenticity. And even though Hill uses veteran camerawork to try to cloak the mismatch, pitting Wesley Snipes, who weighs 178 pounds, against the 220-lb. Ving Rhames is hard to swallow.

   Rhames plays heavyweight George "Iceman" Chambers, who pulverizes most of his opponents before a rape conviction sends him to jail. Waiting for him at California's Sweetwater Prison is Monroe Hutchen (Snipes), a one-time contender who has become "the champ" on the prison fight circuit. Hutchen has racked up a 67-0 record--even though he has been behind bars 10 years and says he fights only once every six months--and wants to test himself against the heavyweight champ. Hill and co-writer David Giler build tension between the two men prior to the big fight with a string of confrontations in the prison's exercise yard, cafeteria and, yes, communal shower.

   In some ways, Hill returns to his roots; he tackled a gritty boxing tale in his 1975 debut "Hard Times" with Charles Bronson. While the earlier movie followed a drifter who hooks up with a gambler and fight promoter, "Undisputed" was clearly inspired by the Mike Tyson story, which is mirrored in intercuts of Chambers' earlier fights and a weepy tell-all interview with his accuser.

   Rhames infuses Chambers with a ferocity that gives the entire movie the threatening atmosphere of a punch about to be thrown. Rhames explodes during an early jailhouse interview after boxing commentator Jim Lampley (playing himself) asks him to apologize for the crime.

   Even if Snipes doesn't quite mesh with the movie's view of Hutchen as a fearsome pugilist, he certainly looks the part of a fighter, with his toned, muscular physique. The actor spent time with trainer Emanuel Steward, who coached Tommy Hearns and current heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, to prepare for the role.

   Peter Falk plays Mendy Ripstein, a vinegary gambler who organizes the fight with the help of obsequious assistant John Seda. Michael Rooker, Fisher Stevens, Ed Lover ("Yo! MTV Raps") and rapper Master P populate the prison landscape. Starring Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames and Peter Falk. Directed by Walter Hill. Written by David Giler and Walter Hill. Produced by David Giler, Walter Hill, Brad Krevoy and Andrew Sugerman. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for strong language. Running time: 91 min

Tags: Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames, Peter Falk, Directed by Walter Hill, Written by David Giler, Walter Hill, Produced by David Giler, Brad Krevoy, Andrew Sugerman, A Miramax release, Drama, fearsome, fighter, threatening, atmosphere, jailhouse, confrontations

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