‘Unbeatable’ is the name of the new film by director Dante Lam, a departure from his thrilleresque ways and into the well established ‘underdog-in-a-tournament’ martial arts sub-genre. Specifically, an MMA contest, this time around. You know the drill: a wannabe (or a has-been) is pushed to face the impossible odds of winning a dangerous tournament into which he manages to enter despite his lackluster (or washed out) pro fighting record, with a lady (or a kid) in distress, three main fights and a couple of training montages. Well, not in this case, though; ‘Unbeatable’ is set to break your expectations and brings to you a wannabe and a has-been, a lady and a kid in distress, four main fights and, at least (I actually lost count), and tree training montages chopped not to an up-beat tempo tune but to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘the sound of silence’, no less. That’s innovating, I can’t say otherwise. If film-making was only a question of quantity, this movie would be truly unbeatable… but it isn’t a game of numbers. Just cranking up the volume isn’t the way to tune up an instrument.
In fact, there are some numbers you don’t want too high in a film; the writers’ section in the credits roll is a case in point. Four names signed the authorship of ‘Unbeatable’, and that’s three too many in most cases (except for well oiled, battle tested, perfectly synchronized writing couples). So many pens scribbling in the same page do rein in the wackiness any single writer can bring… as much as they attenuate the originality a singular point of view can offer. Thinking out of the box is hard, but it’s way harder to think out of four boxes and into consensus, as risk-taking is replaced by bargaining.
And that’s probably the one and only problem this movie has; a kind of desperate attempt to touch every single chord a fighting film can, from Peng‘s tragic quest for his broken down father’s approval to Cheung‘s trip back from cynicism and disenchantment, leaded by the fierce will to live of a little girl who has to be her mentally lost mother’s mother. No melodramatic stone is left unturned. It’s not that direction and performances aren’t up to par, because they are, it’s just that so many emotional ‘whats’ are stuffed in too little ‘when’.
In every other aspect (that is, most of them), ‘Unbeatable’ is a quite good piece of film-making. Even the MMA fights, with all their complexity and confusion for the (shrinking by the day) MMA-iliterate audience are played out with a pretty fine balance between realism, epic struggle and story-line parallelism and symbolism (a somewhat spoilerish example until the end of the paragraph, beware: the use of an old injury, a handicap in principle, as a way out of harm’s way in the moment of truth. Scars can be powerful).
These achievements are always hard to reach, but specially so when one of your leading roles is a 46 years old Cheung that, although ripped as a dehydrated vegan, had no specific grappling experience. Almost all the cast does a terrific job, including little girl Crystal Lee, who stands out as a real, brave and inspiring kid, not just a victim that justifies (and leaves no choice but) the hero’s action. All the technical dimensions of the film (lighting, camera placement, edition, music…) fulfill their missions the best way possible: without you even noticing it. ‘Unbeatable’ is a fairly solid filmic experience that even the excessive emotional pile-up doesn’t get to ruin.