Starting with 2008ís The Beast Stalker, Dante Lam kicked off a career comeback with a string of action films that emphasized drama over brainless action. Lamís formula has never been better applied than in sport drama Unbeatable. Words like ďinspiringĒ and ďupliftingĒ are not commonly used to describe Lamís films, but they certainly apply to Unbeatable, the action auteurís best film since Beast and possibly his most purely enjoyable film to date.
Unbeatableís selling point is mixed martial arts, but itís really a character-driven drama about three troubled souls in Macau. Former boxer Ching Fai (Nick Cheung), downtrodden young man Lin Si-Qi (Eddie Peng) and single mother Ming-Jun (Mei Ting). Ching Fai flees Hong Kong when his debtors start closing in, Si-Qi is forced to work as a day laborer after his father (Jack Kao) loses the family fortune on real estate speculation and Ming-Jun become mentally unstable after a serious family tragedy.
Thanks to old friend Tai-Sui (Philip Keung), Ching Fai finds a job as an assistant trainer at a local gym and sublets a room in the same apartment as Ming-Jun and her ten-year-old daughter Pui-Dan (Crystal Lee, also in Lamís The Viral Factor). Meanwhile, Si-Qi decides to join a high-profile MMA tournament to encourage his father to stand up again. With only two months to go, he starts training in Ching Faiís gym. After he discovers Faiís past as a boxer, he asks Fai to become his trainer.
Unbeatableís Chinese title roughly translates to ďFierce War,Ē echoing the storyís theme of conquering lifeís hardships as a battle. That theme and the mentor-student story are nothing new for the genre, but Unbeatable shines when it relies on the chemistry between Nick Cheung and Eddie Peng. Though the media has been focusing on their physical training for the fight scenes, their camaraderie in the film is really the key to the filmís success. The two share some genuinely funny moments, and the film is weaker when the MMA tournament keeps them apart in the second half.
Nevertheless, the MMA serves as one of the other main attractions of the film. The liberal use of kicks and holds make the fight scenes more intense than the average boxing film, especially in the bouts featuring Andy On as an arrogant fighter. Noses and shoulders are dislocated, and the script constantly reminds us that people can die in MMA matches. While itís the drama and the characters that lift Unbeatable beyond an average action film, action fans should be pleased by the filmís brutal MMA fights.
Given the tricky task of playing a dramatic character with comedic beats, Cheung gives one of the best performances of his career as Fai. After two heavy dramatic roles under Lam, Cheung proves himself to be an actor who can strike the precarious balance between humor and drama when the material calls for it. While Peng is very likable (and very buff) as Si-Qi, he is ultimately overshadowed by Cheung and the young Crystal Lee, who is simply wonderful as a young girl who has seen more hardships than any girl her age should have. Fai and Pui-Danís relationship easily drives the film as much as the one between Fai and Si-Qi, and itís all because of the actors.
While Unbeatable has its share of melodrama (e.g., the relationship between Si-Qi and his father, Ming-Junís past and her mental illness), the script co-written by Lam, frequent collaborator Jack Ng and Fung Chi-Fung never lets those elements weigh down the film. The excessive amount of plot strands causes the film to overstay its welcome at just over two hours, but Lam and his editor keep the film consistently engaging. Cinematographer Kenny Tseís camera is always on the move, providing one of the best visual portraits of Macau in recent memory and giving the action scenes an intensity and constant sense of urgency. Unbeatable doesnít reinvent its genre, but itís top-notch entertainment that shows Dante Lam is still working at the top of his game. I think weíre ready to forgive The Viral Factor over here.
(Kevin Ma, reviewed at the 2013 Shanghai International Film Festival, 6/2013)