HBO // 2003 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // April 23rd, 2004
A winner always knows where he's going. A champion never forgets where he's from.
John Leguizamo makes his directorial debut in this original feature for HBO. Undefeated chronicles the career of Lex Vargas (Leguizamo), a super-talented welterweight boxer, intent on making it huge and freeing himself from the cyclical monotony of his family's simple shopkeeper history.
To accomplish this, he is intent on doing whatever it takes, and allying himself with whoever can lead him to his destiny. And if this includes alienating those who have been with him when he grew up...well, certain sacrifices have to be made. But more on that later.
While making a name for himself in local matches, Vargas feels himself being sucked down into the day-to-day grind of working in a family-owned convenience store with his brother. In fact, they are the last of the family to carry on with the business. But to Lex's bro, he's got chance to become the most noteworthy Vargas in the history of Vargases. Tragically, big brother never gets to see his junior realize his dreams, when he gets fatally plugged by Anonymous Gun-Toting Thief™.
Now with no more family ties, and his friends the only relationships he can count on, Lex decides to throw his full determination into rising to the top. He connects with Mack (Omar Benson Millar), the resident "do-everything" guy who introduces Lex to the big leaguers.
Now on the fast track to stardom, Lex bags fight after fight, earning him instant fame and wealth. Gone is his cramped apartment. Now, he and his cronies kick it in a sprawling mansion, and Lex is confronted with a life he has never known. But what is the price?
It is this theme Leguizamo seeks to explore -- as elucidated from his director's commentary and bonus featurettes -- the question of if a man changes when he goes from everything to nothing faster than globules of blood fly out of a mouth after a haymaker.
Vargas is ultimately faced with potential alienation from his friends, and a twist from his Golden Goose fight promoters, on whether he will retain his "undefeated" moniker.
I like Leguizamo, and the movie is tightly paced, but I wish there was something original here. I've lost count of how many rags-to-riches flicks I've watched, and they seem to all deal with the exact same thing: how the person changes in the face of wealth and power. Sure that's an idea worth exploring, but it takes some real moves to blaze an original trail in a genre landscape that has long been developed and redeveloped and slashed and burned and developed again.
It's certainly evident that something uncool will happen between Lex and his boys, and the formula plays it through as you'd expect. It's really all there: the guy and his new money springing for all his expensive toys; the exotic, bodacious girl drawn to him and his newfound machismo; the onslaught of whores he gets to fornicate with; the alienated best friend; the shady dudes of power; the betrayals and back-stabbings. I wish I could say that all this is new territory, but you've see it all before. Then again, if you like these rising from the ghetto stories, you should be satisfied with this entry.
The last thing I'll mention is the boxing. The boxing scenes are plentiful, and decent enough, but overall, they kind of "fall a little flat" (nudge, nudge) in the entertainment category. They're just not pulled off with enough flair. I don't know if that's Leguizamo's greenness as a rookie director, or the fact I've been spoiled by the kinetic -- though ludicrously unrealistic -- sparring in the Rocky movies.
HBO packages the disc with a great selection of extras. For anyone seeking enlightenment into how this movie was made, consider yourself enlightened. Leguizamo gives an interview where he details the story he wanted to tell; couple this with his commentary, there is no shortage of info to be had. Then a behind-the-scenes documentary with the remaining cast fills in the gaps (though it is more of a promo reel than anything else).
As usual, HBO brings us a sharp video and audio presentation, with a transfer that only slightly loses its footing during the darker scenes. The 5.1 mix seemed a bit underused, especially with all the fight footage the film has to offer.
All in all, a nice disc and a mediocre movie. Ruling: TKO.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track by Director John Leguizamo
* Interview with John Leguizamo
* Behind-the-Scenes Documentary