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Asian Movie Review: Unbeatable (激戰, 2013)

Just got home from the HKIFF Summer International Film Festival's gala opening, featuring the premiere of the opening film "Unbeatable" (激戰) by director Dante Lam. 

The film is about MMA fighters and stars Nick Cheung and Eddie Peng.  The film got a lot of attention because of the transformative exercise the leads have done in preparation for this role.  40-something Cheung has been transformed from a typical slender HK man into a ripped and toned MMA monster in all the marketing materials… and that's not just photoshop, he looks that way in the film too!

From that introduction I was expecting this to be a typical sports / fighting movie -- a la Rocky…  lots of training montages and eventually he overcomes the mean opponent to win the championship.  And this movie delivers exactly that…  its quite like 'Rocky IV', the student (Pang) is defeated by a mean unbeatable opponent (played by Andy On) and the coach (Cheung), a washed up boxer who hasn't fought in decades comes back to

Onimal giving the Gipper a beat down! :-P So while this movie does in fact follow that basic sports storyline,  it is in fact much much more!  there's an award-worthy human drama in there too!  ...with interesting multi-dimensional characters, great performances and impressive cinematography.  When he's not training,  Cheung finds himself sharing a subdivided apartment in an old section of Macau with a charming young girl (10 year old Crystal Lee) and her mentally ill mother.

As I described to a friend after leaving the screening… its like they took a 'real' movie (i.e. a drama you'd see in a film festival) and grafted it on top of a typical shallow, predictable sports film.    It may be a bit painfully abrupt to switch from interpersonal drama to brain-bashing MMA action and vice versa,  but you find yourself engaging with both parts (well, if you don't like MMA or fighting films, you may not like both parts!) :-P

I want to highlight that the non-MMA scenes are really beautifully shot,  and the Macau scenery definitely helps add some character to the film.     Actually I should add that the MMA scenes, as far as action choreography and also cinematography go, are also well done…  there are some interesting 'POV-cam' shots that add to the excitement.  Of course its not going to be necessarily MMA,  but you don't watch 'Rocky' for realistic boxing, right? :-P  

I'm by no means saying the film is perfect though,  so meter your expectations!    The girl's mom is a little too crazy, Eddie Pang is better in this film than in 'Cold War' but he's still out of his league compared to Cheung Ka Fai (much less Leung Ka Fai!)   The girl is quite good albeit a bit saccharinly sweet at times.  The film has a few too many cliches and melodramatic scenes,  but for me at least it worked. 

Oh, and be prepared for a LOT (lot lot) of training montages. Definitely this film is going to get attention during awards season (its already won some at the Shanghai Film Festival apparently)  and I think its safe to say its going to be one of the top HK movies of the year.  

Strong 8/10 from Etchy! 

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