The Undisputed franchise holds a special place in my heart. U2 was my gateway drug into the crazy world of low budget, high action, MMA fueled DTV fight flicks. It is, in my opinion, the perfect example of the genre.
For a quarter of the budget of the Hollywood original, the first sequel takes the basic prison boxing competition story, strips it to the muscle, and give it a clever twist. It brought back the original antagonist (Michael Jai White, replacing Ving Rhames) and turned him into the hero.
Undisputed 3 repeats the process, putting us in the corner of defeated Russian baddie, Yuri Boyka. The trend ends with the fourth movie (sorry, Marko Zaror) because Adkin’s Boyka is too fantastic to lose.
Many people look at professional martial artists who segue into movies as athletes first, actors second (or third, or not at all, in some cases). Admittedly, Adkin’s early rolls were, apart from his outstanding physical performance, a little bland.
Then came Boyka.
He could easily have been another raging, boss level thug in the hero’s way, but Adkins infused the Russian murderer with a sense of honor and single-minded devotion that shone through all the prison tattoos. Even though he was a million miles from his real-life smiling British charm, on screen, Adkins was Boyka.
U3 allowed Adkins to fully flesh out the character, and Part 4 continues the evolution while maintaining the core of what makes Boyka so interesting, to begin with.
Boyka picks up a few months after U3. After winning a (wink, wink) pardon, Boyka has traded in the dank world of illegal underground prison fighting tournaments for the glitzy world of semi-legal underground non-prison fighting tournaments.
He’s a rising star but treats the fame, fortune, and freedom as barely more than distractions on his path to become the world’s most complete fighter. Most of his winnings are donated to the church, he keeps his bedroom spartan enough to be a cell and focuses all his attention on the next fight. He sees no contradiction between his piety and his violent profession. His fighting skill is a gift from God, and it would be a sin to waste that gift.
The rationalization is harder to sustain when he accidentally kills an opponent in the ring. In his typical, single-minded fashion, Boyka puts aside his upcoming career-making fight to find the fallen fighter’s widow and make amends. Naturally, the widow, Alma, lives in the one place where he is still a wanted man.
While Undisputed 3 expanded the action to include corrupt businessmen, government betrayals, and hit squads, Boyka brings in a spy movie angle. To find Alma, Boyka must sneak back into Russia incognito and navigate a town controlled by a ruthless crime boss named Zorab.
Seeing someone as blunt and guileless as Boyka in a James Bond style scenario is priceless. It would be less conspicuous to literally put a bull in a china shop. He doesn’t even have a cover story when he walks into the casino where Alma works, he just goes to one of Zorab’s goons and says he needs to talk to her.
I’m surprised he doesn’t come out and say, “I’m Yuri Boyka, world’s most complete fighter. Technically, I have escaped felon, so don’t tell the police.”
The addition of Alma brings a sorely needed female presence to the series. While she is certainly in distress, being in debt to Zorab, Alma is hardly a damsel. Duhovnikova balances grim Russian pragmatism with unyielding conviction.
She agrees to work as a cocktail waitress for Zorab, but forcefully rebuts his sexual advances. She refuses to run away because she is determined to help the town’s children make something of their lives. She doesn’t want Boyka’s money, or his help, although she softens up to him in time.
They were smart enough not to make her the love interest, though. Falling for the guy who killed your husband less than a week ago would be hard to swallow, even in Russia.
Zorab is your classic mid-level Bond villain. He would have been taken out halfway through one of those movies, but in the simpler world of Undisputed, he gets the top spot. He instantly recognizes Boyka, and the opportunities the high-profile fighter could bring to his business. In exchange for forgiving Alma’s debts, Boyka agrees to headline three fights held in the casino.
It’s a clever trick, allowing the movie to stick with the series’ tournament based fight structure while widening the scope—and absurdity—of the story. The fights get progressively more outlandish and challenging (one pits Boyka against two opponents at once). It culminates with a match against the reigning prison fighter, Koshmar the Nightmare (Martyn Ford), a monster who is brought in chained, muzzled, and wrangled by four guards with poles, as if he were a rabid bear.
The best part is that Boyka is constantly checking the time because he is trying to squeeze this all in before flying across the country to his legitimate, high publicity fight. It’s like running a triathlon on your way to the Tour de France. Boyka is nothing if not ambitious.
Crazy plot aside, the highlight of the film is obviously the action. Physically, Adkins in a phenomenon. He’s like a combination of ballet dancer and hurricane. In my opinion, he gives the most impressive physical fight performance of anyone out there.
There is no telling when one of his spin kicks will land because he frequently feigns the first kick and surprises you with the next. At one point in this film, he feigns two kicks in a row, then punches the guy, all while still in the air. There is a reason Marvel Studios brought him in for Doctor Strange. The man has an almost magical ability to defy gravity.
Though I miss having long time Adkins collaborator Isaac Florentine in the director’s chair for this installment, Todor Chapkanov does an excellent job in his stead. The fight choreography is intricate and fluid, thanks to Tim Man, and beautifully captured by cinematographer Ivan Vatsov.
Naturally, I’d love to see the continuing adventures of Yuri Boyka, but if this was to be the last Undisputed, the film ends with an elegant symmetry. Scott Adkins shows no signs of slowing down in the slightest, having appeared in over a half-dozen films since this one, and soon to be seen in the Olympic dream team of martial artists, Triple Threat.
I guess Boyka comes by his single-minded determination honestly.
Review by Chris Chaka