In the movie industry, it’s rare to come across a sequel that’s better than the original. Yet that’s exactly what happened with the Undisputed saga. The first film began with Wesley Snipes facing off against Ving Rhames in a prison that hosted a series of underground boxing matches, but it wasn’t until the release of Undisputed II: Last Man Standing that the franchise really struck a chord with audiences.
Directed by karateka/judoka Isaac Florentine, the second movie switched from boxing to no-holds-barred fighting. It pitted Michael Jai White—in real life, a practitioner of shotokan, kyokushin, goju-ryu, tang soo do and taekwondo—against Scott Adkins—a Brit who’s trained extensively in kickboxing, taekwondo, judo and jujutsu. It succeeded to such a degree that Isaac Florentine was asked to team up with Scott Adkins again to make a third installment. But before that could happen, Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins had another martial arts project to finish.
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Enter the Ninja
In Undisputed II, Scott Adkins portrayed a bad guy named Boyka. The nemesis of Michael Jai White’s character, he was subjected to a serious beatdown during the film’s climactic fight scene. In 2009’s Ninja, however, Scott Adkins got to play the good guy.
In some ways, the first 13 minutes of Ninja are reminiscent of Chuck Norris’ 1980 hit The Octagon. In a nutshell: Caucasian boy is adopted by ninja master; during training, Caucasian boy competes against Asian boy; as they mature, intensity of the competition increases; when they’re adults, Asian man commits appalling act, causing master to expel him; outcast ninja returns to confront Caucasian ninja.
At that point, Ninja diverges from The Octagon, in ways that are for the most part pleasing. But even when the plot parallels the original, the action is executed with Isaac Florentine’s trademark style, which seeks to showcase the traditional martial arts in all their bloody glory. His background gave Scott Adkins everything he needed techniquewise to carry the action, and he demonstrated that his acting skills are more than adequate for the dramatic scenes.
“The last trained ninjutsu master, Fujita Seiko, passed away in 1966, so I said to myself, ‘OK, if this man were alive today and running a ninja academy, what would it look like?’ ” Isaac Florentine says about the movie’s setting. “I based it on the old katori shinto-ryu school that was founded in 1387 and still exists today. That school was never a ninja school, but elements of what we perceive as ninjutsu are still taught there.”
Overall, the film looks and feels like a comic book or video game, Isaac Florentine says. “That has its pluses and minuses: The story is a bit weak compared to Undisputed II and Undisputed III, but the action is really cool and very satisfying.”
Boyka: The Undisputed Hero
The last time audiences saw Scott Adkins as Boyka, he was screaming in pain with a shattered leg courtesy of Michael Jai White’s character in Undisputed II. Times have changed, and in Undisputed III: Redemption, the once-cocky king of the fight circuit is barely recognizable. He’s working in the deepest, darkest bowels of the prison until a chance encounter with his former underworld boss re-sparks the fire in his heart, which leads him back to the ring.
This time, Boyka gets involved in an international tournament that assembles a motley crew of fighting inmates from the world’s most notorious prisons. They battle until only one man is left, while gamblers from around the world bet on the outcomes. But Boyka soon learns that the matches are just part of the game he’s being forced to play.
“One of the complaints about Undisputed II was that the end fight was too short,” Florentine says. “Well, in Undisputed III, it runs about 10 minutes. I don’t think people will be disappointed. There is double the amount of fights in Undisputed III, and they’re longer and rich with styles and ideas.”
Issac Florentine: The Man Behind the Camera
Isaac Florentine has been making martial arts movies for years, and as such, he’s built a loyal following. He consistently delivers more bang for the buck than almost any action director today, and while his love for the genre is apparent from the care he gives to his action sequences, he doesn’t undersell the drama, which gives the story and the characters the beats they need to tell the story.
In the martial arts community, Isaac Florentine is perhaps best-known for his work on the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and WMAC Masters TV series. From the beginning, he’s applied his knowledge of karate—specifically, kyokushin and shito-ryu—in his directing and choreographing.
“I started training in 1971 and then became a teacher,” he said in a 2007 interview. “That had an important impact on me. I later found similarities between filmmaking and the martial arts, starting with being comfortable commanding people and pushing them to achieve goals. More important, martial arts training develops what I call the ‘kata factor’; the whole film should resemble a well-performed kata.”
Scott Adkins: The Man in Front of the Camera
Although Scott Adkins had plenty of experience before Boyka, it was that role that established him as an action star because it gave him a chance to showcase his fighting skills. What people seem to forget, though, is that to make the character believable, Adkins had to give two very different performances—first as the heavy and then as the … not-so-heavy.
In Undisputed III, Boyka is no longer the merciless thug seen in the previous film—he’s looking for redemption, as the title suggests—but it’s not as if he’s offering to help little old ladies cross the street. He’d still just as soon kill you as chat with you, but thanks to Isaac Florentine’s direction and Scott Adkins’ performance, you get to see the transition of his character.
That transition is shown in the pseudo-friendship that develops between Boyka and the character called Turbo. It grows slowly, almost begrudgingly at first, until a real brotherhood is formed. It could easily veer into oversentimentality, but Scott Adkins keeps it real and makes the journey a believable one.
On the physical side of things, Scott Adkins delivers plenty of incredible techniques in Undisputed III, and it’s gratifying to see that the writers have kept true to the story line—the injury Boyka suffered in the second movie results in physical limitations that influence the way he fights in the third.
All told, Ninja and Undisputed III: Redemption deliver everything a martial artist could want from a fight flick: There’s blood, bumps and bruises, as well as lots of flying fists, feet and swords—and even some mixed martial arts combat. The movies have fans everywhere looking forward to seeing what Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins do next.
(Mike Leeder is a Hong Kong-based writer, producer and casting director.)