Writer: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
Dante Lam's films, boxing films and wrestling films
"Unbeatable" serves to assert that director Dante Lam gives his best work when he is paired up with Nick Cheung, after "The Beast Stalker" and "The Stool Pigeon". The latter can be debatable amongst critics, but it is miles better than Lam's preceding film, "The Viral Factor". However, aside from the fact that Cheung is in all of those films; there are hardly any similarities between "Unbeatable" and Lam's previous works.
Firstly, "Unbeatable" is a departure from Lam's police thrillers by focusing on the theme of mixed martial arts. The film opens by showing how the three different people hit rock bottom - Wealthy 30-year-old Lin Si-Qi (Eddie Peng) is on a holiday when he reads that his tycoon father has gone bankrupt overnight, former boxing champion Chin Fai (Nick Cheung) is on the run from debtors and Dani (Crystal Lee) loses both her mother and brother in a domestic tragedy.
The trio's paths converge when Fai goes to Macau to work at a mixed martial arts school run by his old friend Tai-sui (Philip Keung) and sublets a room in Dani's rundown apartment. Si-Qi, who has also come to Macau, barely scrapes by with construction work, learns of the world-famous MMA championship, the Golden Rumble, and enrolls in Tai-sui's school, where he eventually persuades Fai to be his personal coach.
Secondly, Lam guides the film with generous dollops of endearing moments and offbeat humour amid the brutality of the MMA fighting sequences. As the narrative chugs on, we see that Fai is not a bad person at heart; he is just person who has made bad choices in life. When he decides to take on the inept but determined Si-Qi as his protege and Dani and her mother Gwen (Mei Ting) as his surrogate family, we can't help but smile. The film is also not all machismo and testosterone, as Lam throws in scenes of the two men playfully kissing while in practicing "lock techniques" as well as Dani, Gwen and Fai painting the apartment and play-acting.
Although the film runs along the well-worn tracks of the underdogs getting their shot at fame in the MMA tournament (an example being Hollywood's Gavin O'Connor's "Warrior"), and ultimately, their redemption, Lam manages to make the drama and his protagonists interesting enough for us to want to take the ride. Much has been written about Cheung's eye-opening physical transformation to fit the role of an MMA fighter, but it is his turn as the "Scumbag" Fai that catches the eye. Cheung plays Fai in a way that is natural yet sincere, which is reminiscent of Andy Lau's old roles such as Fatso in "Love On A Diet" before he became the contrived poseur we saw in "Switch". The other cast members such as Eddie Peng and Malaysian child actress Crystal Lee also give excellent performances as the greenhorn MMA fighter and tough-as-nails young girl. The two have an easy chemistry with Cheung that makes for compelling drama outside of the ring.
Thirdly, as mentioned previously, action director Ling Chi-wah incorporates plenty of realistic MMA training techniques like Si-Qi lifting tractor tires, as well as MMA moves like the "lock technique". The cinematography also does not shy away from the action - the camera stalks the fighters to catch their swift movements and oftentimes, the film resorts to first-person close up shots to put us into the shoes of the fighters and allow us to feel their punishing pain. Granted, there are some techniques that are not allowed in real-life MMA tournaments such as neck-breaking, but the detailed attention to the fighting strategies alone differentiates the film from the many cheap action fare out there.
Outside of the ring, the cinematography is equally impressive. Macau looks romantic with its bustling markets, rain-slicked streets and cobbled streets. Like "Rocky", "Unbeatable" also has its own training montage, which stood out for its use of Gwen's headphones as a motif to play out the sequence to Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds Of Silence", and makes it resonate.
"Unbeatable" is definitely one of Lam's better films despite the pugilist movie cliches and proves that Lam is one of the few Hong Kong film auteurs that are a cut above the rest. Not only has its stars (Cheung and Lee) won acting awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival for their powerhouse performances, but the film boasts overall splendid cast performances, a tight grip on the action choreography, beautiful cinematography as well as oodles of charm. The result is one of the films out this year that should not be missed.Cinema Online, 15 August 2013