Sunday, May 19, 2013

"U" is for Undefeatable

 Undefeatable falls into a category I like to call "good ass acting": you might be familiar with this, the most admired of acting styles from its many appearances in the non-sex scenes in porno. It's the kind of acting that originates from someone whose primary training came in another field - let's say, the martial arts - but who is called upon to deliver lines and carry the dramatic weight of a film, whether they can or not. Or maybe it's whether they should or not. Either way, the end result is often entertaining.

 (just for clarification, when I say "good ass acting," I do not mean "good ASS acting," like you'd see in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective)

 I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most of the "good ass acting" in Undefeatable is a direct result of the fact that most (if not all) of the cast are or were primarily known for their fighting skills in 1993, with the notable exception of Cynthia Rothrock (China O'Brien), who was already a star in Hong Kong action cinema and had a string of B-movie hits in the U.S. I don't mean to insult her by saying she's probably the most naturalistic actor in the film, but it's really between her and Donna Jason (Abducted II: The Reunion).

  Everybody else falls somewhere between the "wooden line delivery" and "wait, is he acting?" spectrum. It's not on the same level as, say, a Miami Connection, but I'm not exaggerating when I say the most believable scenes are when characters are fighting or practicing. Everybody in this movie, be they underground fighters, college students, or psychologists, seem to have at least rudimentary martial arts skills.

 Rothrock plays Kristie Jones, a waitress who also gets in street fights for money. But it's not just because she likes beating people up - Kristie is putting her sister Karen (Sunny David) through college! When Kristie is busted by Sgt. Nick DiMarco (John Miller), Karen has to bail her out, but the sergeant takes a shining to her "hard luck story."

 At first, it was hard to tell what the hell Undefeatable was going to be about, because before we get to Kristie and Karen's story, it seemed to be a domestic drama about a woman named Anna (Emille Davazac) and her abusive husband "Ray" (Don Niam), who moonlights (?) as a brutal "death match" fighter. At the advice of Dr. Jennifer Simmons (Jason), Anna considers leaving Ray, and ultimately decides to after he rapes her while dinner is cooking.

 I hate to give a movie credit for something like this, but Undefeatable really does a great job of making a rape scene feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible, both for the victim and the audience. Yes, it SHOULD do that, because it's, well, rape, but not since Irreversible have I felt such a strong desire to fast forward to get this scene over with. Not only is it unbearably drawn out, but Ray keeps flashing back to beating a guy to death while calling Anna "Mommy." Perhaps it's a sign of how often it misses other narrative or cinematic benchmarks, but Undefeatable certainly makes you glad that only one of the many rapes that occur in the film is on-screen.

 Well, with that out of the way, luckily, Anna decides to leave Ray, never to appear in the film again. Ray doesn't take to Anna leaving him so well, even though she made him dinner (salad, steak, and wine!) so he spraypaints his hair red, but that only lasts for a few scenes. Fortunately, there's also childhood trauma flashbacks, unimpressive dining room trashing, and menacing shots of checking his mail to look forward to.

Oh, and Ray begins kidnapping any woman wearing a floral print dress, whether or not they look anything like Anna, because that's how he copes. In what is arguably the silliest example this, Ray (SPOILER) kidnaps Karen while a woman who looks more like Anna than she does is hitting on him outside of a grocery store. But, he politely turns down her offer to "come to my place for a drink" so he can (DOUBLE SPOILER) kill Kristie's sister. How else would our divergent plot lines come together?

 In another, mostly silly twist, Dr. Jennifer Simmons is not only Anna's psychologist but also Karen's professor, which is how Kristie gets tied up into the whole shebang. Wait, no, Ray killed her sister completely at random. THAT'S how she got tied up into it. Well, dramatic irony, I guess.

 Just so we're not hanging out with uncomfortable rape man the entire time (did I mention that his name is actually "Stingray"?), Kristie takes the law into her own hands and starts beating up any underground fighter who has a style similar to the way Karen was killed. This leads to a fight on top of barrels an one using improvised construction equipment. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the fighting, but director Godfrey Ho (Bionic Ninja) - under the pseudonym "Godfrey Hall" - has a bad habit of using slow motion for parts that aren't that impressive and cutting away from the cool moves.

 As fight choreography goes, there seems to be some impressive action on display, and because these are martial artists first (acting a distant second), everybody is doing their own stunts. But the shot composition and editing make many of the fight scenes look amateurish and laughable. I think I was supposed to be impressed, not chuckling.

 Oh well, Undefeatable is entertaining, even if not often for its intended purpose. While line deliveries are often so wooden that I couldn't believe that was the best available take, there's a certain "can do" attitude to the film that fights hard to keep you engaged. Most of the time, it's at the very least a compliment to the awkward construction of almost every dialogue scene, which makes it kind of like the kung fu equivalent of porn. If the porn was also shot poorly with the wrong parts accentuated. Anyway, it's not often you see a cop's partner shot in the neck and his only advice to his dying friend is "breathe, dammit!"

 If you've never heard of Cynthia Rothrock, and I guess I could understand how that's possible, Undefeatable probably isn't your best entry point into her filmography, but it's one you can work your way towards over a drunken weekend. Might I suggest pairing it with Tiger Claws II, featuring Expect No Mercy's Jalal Merhi?

 Up next: the beginning of the end for John Carpenter...

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