Underground (2007)

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Take twelve of the top martial arts fighters from the United Kingdom, a one million dollar prize, and add a little bit of what Bruce Lee called “emotional content” and you have this entertaining martial arts drama from newcomer director Chee Keong-Cheung.

The film takes place in a world where underground fighting has become extremely popular with gamblers taking high stakes at betting against each other while the best of the best fighters are hand picked to compete for a prize of $1 million. In addition, the fights are broadcasted and streamed on the Internet and only a select group are able to enjoy the entertainment right in front of their eyes.

Fidel is the organizer of the latest Underground Tournament. A select group of six gamblers is on board to make their wagers with two fighters each as to whom they can bet on. The gamblers include Lamont Gaines, a man whose only interest is winning; Terry Page, a once mild-mannered man whose life changed when his son was killed in an underground tournament; Carson Lau, a restaurateur who has a passion for watching martial arts fighting; Kari Meadows, a socialite who gets off on money and the rich lifestyle; Brandon Glover, a self-centered stockbroker; and Murray Burnett, a former boxer with a gambling addiction.

The twelve chosen fighters of the tournament have all been selected and each fighter has a different agenda. Mark is a homeless man who has been released from prison after a battery charge. He enters the tournament in order to start a better life for himself and make amends with his family. Nathan is an ex-convict who has found God and hopes to make a better life for his new family. Joey is a self-centered model who competes to prove himself with more than just looks. Liang is a foreigner from Hong Kong who wants to help his parents out. Leon is a Triad gangster who owes money to his uncle. Beau is a former delinquent who hopes to make a better life for him and his girlfriend.

Zara is a teacher who is in financial debt. Sgt. Steyn is a cop whose mother is dying of cancer and he plans to pay her medical bills with the prize money. Father Salvage is a priest who plans to use the money to build a homeless shelter. William is a taekwondo instructor who hopes to make a better life for his family. Corporal Smith is a soldier who loves to fight. Finally, Scott is the youngest fighter of the tournament, competing to prove himself.

As the tournament begins, the best advance and for the gamblers, if their fighters are eliminated, they too will be eliminated from Fidel’s office. Friendships form and in one case, possibly a romance. However, when it comes to the tournament, it is every person for their self for the prize money. Who will win and what will happen when egos on the parts of both the fighters and the gamblers reach an all-time high?

When it comes to tournament films, a lot of times the films tends to emphasize on the action and not enough about the fighters who are competing. There are some rare exceptions such as Bloodsport, where we learn about Frank Dux, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. However, what newcomer director Chee Keong-Cheung and co-writer Oliver Morran hoped to achieve was to display an equal amount of gritty drama with martial arts action and here, they have succeeded.

While ultimately, there is only one winner, one can’t help but root for their favorite fighter. The reason is because while watching the film, the viewer gets to understand the situation of each fighter and what he or she has been through as they are seen in flashback sequences. A stellar cast of some of the United Kingdom’s top martial arts talent headline the film as the fighters of the tournament. There is no true villain of the film, unless you may count the organizer Fidel himself, who seems to have a “scumbag”-like quality.

The fighters truly have respect for each other and in the case of few, they become good friends. One such friendship forms between the delinquent Beau and the foreigner Liang. When there is a chance they may have to face each other, they must take their friendship and toss it out of the window as the prize money means much for both competitors. When Joey the model viciously pummels his first opponent, he ends up feeling sorrow and heads to the hospital room to visit his opponent and begins to cry with the opponent forgiving him as after all, this is a tournament.

The character of Mark, played by Mark Strange (who also served as the film’s producer), is perhaps the most tortured soul-like character of the group. As a man who was released after beating his cheating wife, the only person he finds solace with is his daughter. He doesn’t show much remorse for anyone else in the tournament yet he has a level of respect for his fellow fighters.

Perhaps, the one most obvious scene that shows the respect of the fighters is when one of the competitors is accidentally killed, all of the fighters attend the funeral. This scene alone shows that despite all the brutality they must endure and cause, there is nothing more than respect between fighters. In fact, it is truly a wonder why many other “tournament” films aren’t at an emotional level as this film.

The fight sequences are show in a gritty form, with cuts of a camera like lens as if the viewer is watching the tournament on the Internet. Under the eye of Dave Forman, a stuntman who was the Leonardo fight double in the original live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and has worked as a stuntman on other films including Batman Begins, the fighters are skilled in various forms of martial arts. There are elements of kickboxing, traditional karate, Shaolin kung fu, wushu, capoeira, and mixed martial arts that are well edited and in a way that brings back memories of PM Entertainment’s triple angle, slow motion impact shot, devastating impact shots in the film are shown as a freeze frame in black-and-white. This helps show the brutality of the fights and thankfully, there are no computer assistance or wirework needed. The director only needed one thing to work here, natural talent, and succeeds.

In retrospect, Underground is definitely a worthy “tournament” film. Very rarely do you see a martial arts tournament where no matter how brutal the fights are, the fighters have a sense of respect for each other and as for director of Chee Keong-Cheung, this is definitely a worthy debut film. If you’re in the mood for a tournament movie with emotional content, then Underground is definitely a film worth seeing.

WFG RATING: B+

Radius Pictures presents an Intense Productions Ltd. Production in association with Park Entertainment. Director: Chee Keong Cheung. Producers: Chee Keong Cheung, Oliver Morran, and Mark Strange. Writers: Chee Keong Cheung and Oliver Morran. Cinematography: Jake Corbett and Simon Dennis. Editing: Mark Towns.

Cast: Fiden Nanton, Danny John-Jules, Leonard Fenton, Dave Wong, Sophia Linfield, Gordon Alexander, Gary Webster, Mark Strange, Nathan Lewis, Joey Ansah, Liang Yang, Beau Fowler, Zara Phythian, Chris Smith, Shane Steyn, William Mickleburgh, Leon Sua, Glenn Salvage, Scott Houston, Chris Smith.

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