Review: UNBEATABLE 激战 (2013) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Review: UNBEATABLE 激战 (2013)

UNBEATABLE is overlong and full of clichés, but the story is heartfelt enough while Nick Cheung and Crystal Lee deliver their career-best performances.

A refreshing departure from his usual crime dramas, writer-director Dante Lam attempts his first foray into sports drama in UNBEATABLE (which was previously known as MMA). The result is a compelling, if bumpy character-driven drama set in the backdrop of MMA (mixed martial arts) with great performances all around.


UNBEATABLE begins with Lin Si-Qi (Eddie Peng), who returns to Beijing from a biking trip in Yunnan province, China and gradually discovers his wealthy businessman-father (Jack Kao) has filed bankruptcy due to stock-market collapse. Meanwhile, Hong Kong taxi driver Ching Fai a.k.a. "Scumbag Fai" (Nick Cheung), a former two-time MMA champion and ex-con with gambling debts of HK$200,000, flees to Macau and lands a small-time job at the gym of an old friend Tai-Sui (Philip Keung). He stays in the room of a flat belongs to Gwen (Mei Ting), a single mother who suffers from severe depression following a family tragedy. Fai slowly attached to Gwen as well as making unlikely acquaintance with Gwen's 10-year-old daughter Dani (Crystal Lee).

Si-Qi, who is now penniless, wanders around in Macau while his depressed father often drowned his sorrow at a local bar. He manages to find work as a manual laborer until one day he stumbles upon a forthcoming Golden Rumble MMA Championship that can earn a great amount of money for the winner. With a few experience in taekwondo, he enrolls at the same gym where Fai happens to work there and learns MMA. One night when Fai helps out Si-Qi recovering his wound after being attacked violently by his drunken father, Fai agrees to teach Si-Qi as his personal coach en route to the Golden Rumble MMA Championship in just 10 weeks away.

The acting here is top-notch. Nick Cheung is a startling revelation in this movie as Fai. First and foremost, you have to applaud his sheer transformation from a medium-build actor we always come to know him to a spectacular six-pack muscular body. His acting performance is particularly captivating as he manages to make Fai both dramatic, moving and funny at the same time. Equally great is the 10-year-old, Malaysian-Chinese Crystal Lee who gives a lively yet emotionally heartfelt performance as Dani. Her chemistry with Nick Cheung is especially poignant and wonderful that it's difficult not to root for their genuine relationship. Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng, who also underwent physical transformation to stunning effect, is also excellent as the naïve but strong-willed Si-Qi. Both he and Cheung share amazing rapport for their mentor-and-protégé relationship. The rest of the supporting actors (including Mei Ting and Philip Keung) are mostly competent.

Likewise, Dante Lam's direction brings the same level of emotional and physical intensity he has honed his skill all this while in UNBEATABLE. Not only that, he brings a welcome dose of genuine warmth and offbeat humor to his otherwise doom-and-gloom storytelling method often seen in his gritty crime dramas of late. As for the MMA scenes, Lam and cinematographer Kenny Tse brilliantly incorporate a stunning mix of medium shot and tight closeups of the fighters to give viewers a sense of watching a live TV coverage. Not to forget also is Tse's stylistic choice of using yellow-tinged hues to showcase Macau in an exceptionally beautiful setting.

The poetic, yet lyrical montage of Fai performs a series of MMA training exercises scored to Kina Grannis' beautiful cover version of Simon & Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence; and the bone-crunching MMA finale between Fai and Andy On.

At two hours, UNBEATABLE tends to feel bloated and overlong. Despite being aggressively promoted for its realistic depiction of MMA sport, the subject matter feels somewhat secondary and could have been expanded more to balance up its heavy drama approach. As the main MMA opponent who squares off against Si-Qi and Fai on separate occasions, Andy On may have brought his usual athleticism but it's quite a shame that his character is reduced to a role who just shows up and fight while barely spoken a word.


Despite some of its flaws, UNBEATABLE remains one of Dante Lam's best directing efforts and definitely one of the best Hong Kong movies of the year.

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