Review: UNBEATABLE Goes For The Gut, But Not The Face
Dante Lam forgoes his penchant for high octane pyrotechnics to deliver this character-focused drama about a pair of MMA fighters that boasts strong performances but sparse action in a by-the-numbers story of redemption.
After an excellent run of form over the past five years, Dante Lam has firmly established himself as the most exciting and innovative action director working in Hong Kong today. In films like Beast Stalker, Fire of Conscience and The Stool Pigeon, Lam crafted thrilling narratives around strongly drawn antiheroes, that probed the male psyche as effectively as they delivered impressive action.
Unbeatable is a notable change of pace for the director, foregoing the explosive set-pieces and epic scale that threatened to consume his last film, The Viral Factor, instead focusing on the personal lives of two different mixed martial artists and what drives them to get into the ring and pummel the crap out of other liked-minded men.
Si-Qi (Eddie Peng - Jump Ashin!, Cold War) is coasting through life without any particular focus, but when his father loses his fortune in a bad real estate deal, they leave Beijing for Macau, where Si-Qi gets wind of an MMA tournament with a generous purse. A trained boxer, but lacking the breadth of knowledge to succeed in this kind of no-holds-barred competition, Si-Qi heads to the nearest gym looking for a trainer.
Ching Fai (Nick Cheung - Beast Stalker, The Stool Pigeon) is a disgraced former fighter who did time for throwing fights for the triads, and now works in Hong Kong as a taxi driver. When his gambling debts get out of control, Fai flees to Macau, where he rents a room from single mom Gwen (Mei Ting) and her precocious daughter, Dani (Crystal Lee). Getting a job at his old buddy's boxing gym, it is not long before he is approached by Si-Qi, who asks Fai to train him.
While Si-Qi is eyeing the big cash prize, as a way of helping his father out of debt and proving he can in fact make something of himself, Fai becomes increasingly involved with the dysfunctional family he lodges with. After Dani's father ran off with another woman, Gwen turned to drink, which tragically led to the accidental death of her infant son. She is now borderline certifiable and relies almost entirely on her hard-nosed 10-year-old daughter to take care of her.
Despite his shady past and current situation, Fai soon convinces them he has a good heart and a strong relationship begins to form between him and these two women in his life, and Dani in particular. As he helps them reintegrate into society, so too do they offer Fai a glimmer of redemption and the promise of a better, more responsible life.
If all this sounds somewhat cliched and predictable, that's because it is. There are few surprises in Unbeatable's screenplay, penned by Lam, Jack Ng and first-timer Fung Chi Fung, but the film takes its time to develop the characters and nurture the relationships between them. Fai sees his own cocksure younger self in Si-Qi and is determined to guide him responsibly through the competition and ensure he doesn't make the same mistakes he did. Dani is at first suspicious of this new man in their lives, but slowly warms to Fai and is ultimately willing to embrace him as the father she never had. Gwen, meanwhile, has deeper seated, internalised issues with which she must grapple, and Unbeatable even makes time to see her battle her demons and mental health problems.
There is so much drama in Unbeatable that the film is often in danger of losing its core audience - namely those who came to see sweaty men in shorts pummel each other for cash - and it is really only in the film's second half that the MMA bouts materialise. But even when they do, they prove somewhat underwhelming.
If Dante Lam proves anything in Unbeatable it's that he really knows how to make a training montage. The film includes at least two extended sequences of ripped men pumping weights, shadow boxing, lifting enormous tires and sprinting around the city that put anything in the Rocky films to shame. However, when it comes to the bouts themselves, they lack that visceral sense of realism that one would hope for in a Hong Kong film.
The best fight is undoubtedly between Si-Qi and Andy On's villainous Li - a character that is sadly underwritten to the point of being nothing but growls and glares. Their pivotal contest, that ultimately galvanises Fai into third act action, boasts the best mix of real fighting techniques, while packing the biggest emotional wallop, and stands head and shoulders above any other action sequence in the film.
It's a rare moment of excitement, however, in a film clearly more interested in the domestic struggles of its characters than in how they perform on the canvas. Lam has made a conscious decision here to explore new territory - for him at least - and the end product may well leave his core fan base, and certainly MMA aficionados, wanting. That said, as a character-based drama, Unbeatable certainly delivers an emotional punch.
Nick Cheung gives an impressively nuanced performance as the troubled yet determined former bad guy, whose physical dedication is more than matched by his acting, which will likely be rewarded again following his win in Shanghai back in June. Similarly, 10-year-old Crystal Lee more than holds her own on screen opposite Cheung, and it will be interesting to see how her career develops going forward, should she choose to continue acting.
Eddie Peng's portrayal of Si-Qi could easily have been eclipsed by Fai's story, were Peng not such an attractive screen presence. He is incredibly likable as the determined young fighter looking to overcome his daddy issues, and Si-Qi's discipline and modesty make a refreshing change from what would normally be portrayed as an arrogant hothead. The relationship that grows between Si-Qi and Fai is also handled extremely well - there is never a glimmer of envy or resentment, but rather a teacher-pupil dynamic that blossoms into genuine friendship the way Hong Kong movies do best.
For some, Unbeatable will be seen as a disappointment, a slow, overly melodramatic indulgence that at times feels almost reluctant to step into the ring and be all it can be. However, once accepted on its own terms - for what it is rather than what we hoped it would be - Unbeatable proves consistently entertaining, beautifully put together and boasts a trio of genuinely impressive performances on which to stand. While films like Gavin O'Connor's Warrior and Ryu Seung-wan's Crying Fist are better examples of the same kind of film, Unbeatable proves, if nothing else, that Dante Lam is still punching harder than almost any of his hometown contemporaries.