Undefeated

UNDEFEATED. 2003

Director: John Leguizamo

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



I hugely admire John Leguizamo as an actor whether serious or comic, so it was such a disappointment to see his directorial debut a by-the-numbers boxing story that never rises above medicority & stereotypes. John's acting is okay, but from him I expected great, even if it is only an HBO cable movie.

In the DVD interview & on his commentary track, it's obvious John's goal was to avoid the usual cliches of boxing films, but he seems to have thought the only cliche was the eternally victorious underdog of Rocky. Rocky typifies shmaltz. It is much more common boxing movies, including John's, are about boxers who screw up, who trust the wrong people, who are injured whether physically or emotionally by the corruption within the system or by their own folly. It can be great stuff, too, but by starting with John's sense that the cliche is Rocky & all he needs to say is "it ain't that simple," he just didn't have enough of a story.

John plays a Jackson Heights welterweight fighter whose rise from amateur to champion is meteoric, or at least synoptic & hasty in film terms. Indeed just about everything is synoptic in this movie -- synoptic friendships in the old neighborhood never come to life; badly played & highly synoptic hold-up murder of his brother & its emotional aftermath; synoptic love interest; synoptic connections with shady fight organizers; synoptic realization that things aren't going to turn out like he dreamed.

He loses "real" friends along the way not that we ever get a real sense that he ever had any real friends; & he trusts new people who manipulate his ability for their own gain. Not until near the end when he is told to throw a fight does he realize that he is alone.

The film ends very effectively before that final fight, so we never get to find out for sure if he throws the fight like an obedient boxer he is supposed to be, or if he bucks a corrupt system & is thereafter undermined by the same powers that manipulated the system to make him a champ in the first place. The no-win situation is a powerful climax & we really didn't need to see which of two career-destroying choices he will make. If we'd seen some of the fight but not its conclusion, it might've been even stronger, but even with this startlingly truncated ending, if the whole film had had half as much power as the last few minutes, it might've been a great little movie.

Unfortunately nothing was developed well, & those parts of the movie that were about character were very thin. John does not create a dynamic central character, & the support cast (especially his so-called friends from the neighborhood) are shadowy figures of virtually no consequence. His girlfriend is never deeply characterized either, & to great extent the film falters on the ego of its director-star-cowriter who did not want anything approaching a shared spotlight.

Nester Serrano as the boxing coach did a great job with what little he was given to do, but most of the cast was given way too little to even make the effort. Clifton Collins Jr. as the boxer's closest friend is the only character from the neighborhood given much to do. Everyone else exists as background noise for John's performance, but he could not carry this film alone, & he would've looked much better in a more repertoiry-company context of every actor permitted to shine. The writing & direction was simply too selfish to be any good. A good boxing match is never a one man show.

The strengths of the film are themselves kind of dull one drama-wise. John looks rather convincing as a boxer, even if a bit long in the tooth for someone just starting out. His partners in the ring, who really were boxers, tended to look tougher & better, & when they fall in the ring, it's not invariably believable, like it was never really believable that Erroll Flynn could defeat Basil Rathbone (a fencing champion) in a swordfight merley because the script demanded Basil lose.

It looks like more attention was given to the film's ring-time than to a dramatic story, with fight choreography as simple & realistic as it could be orchestrated. Yet when something ungraceful occurs in the ring, it's John who is awkward, & some of the bits would probably have been re-shot if the HBO budget & time schedule had permitted. Even at that, John looks pretty good, not embarrassing.

Unfortunate, the ability to emulate a real fight isn't enough for a film's overall quality. These fights could never have been as real as an authentic match, so for movie-boxing there is supposed to be a dramatic component which mere fight-impersonations lack. The drama & pain of such great boxing movies as Raging Bull or Requiem for a Heavyweight is just not seen in these encounters, & John as actor, director, & co-author should've been paying a lot more attention to what constitutes effective drama in fiction-boxing. The only fight that has that kind of drama is the last one which we don't get to see, the match he can't win whether he throws it or not. That was drama. But it was too little too late.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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