A friend of mine has a hand-drawn chart featuring cut outs of this year's Apprentice candidates, with the apprentices given Alan Sugar’s famous “You’re Fired!” treatment crossed off. I mention this because director Chee Keong Chung’s debut film Underground is the cinematic equivalent of that wall chart – a ramshackle countdown list of caricatures from which there can be only one winner. What the wall chart has in spades that Underground lacks, though, is charm. Oh, and a point for existing.

Underground opens with what seems like a trailer for a better film, a montage cut together from shots of tower blocks, fighting, and cue cards setting the scene in the dystopian future-past Britain, a big brother society gone wrong where illegal fighting leagues are the only way to a better life. The next 90 minutes, however, are stuck in a cinematic rut – fight, fighting talk, flashback, insert subplot, repeat. The whole plot can be summarised as 12 people go head-to-head until one is left to take the £500,000 prize, while shady businessmen (including Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules) place high stakes bets on them. That’s it. Sure, the writers try to shoehorn in a mess of subplots and expositional flashbacks explaining why the fighters are fighting, but these in themselves feel inconsequential to the narrative arc.

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It lacks characters, too, offering nothing more than archetypal roles for the actors to fit into: there’s the Ex-Convict (Nathan Lewis), the Triad (Leon Sua), the Delinquent (Beau Fowler), and the Soldier (Chris Smith). Admittedly there are some archetypes that don’t necessarily fit the role of a fighter – The Priest (Glenn Salvage), The Teacher (Zara Phythian) – but their own motivations are just as hackneyed. To criticise the actors/martial artists/stunt people would be churlish, as they do a respectable job with their poorly conceived characters – it’s not the actor’s faults that their characters have less depth than Ryu and Ken from the 2D beat em’ up game Street Fighter 2 (on a side note, the spectators in Underground are as inanimate as the pixelated spectators in SF2).

All this wouldn’t be so bad if the fights weren’t so dull, even with trained fighters. Perhaps some blame belongs to the fight co-ordinator from Batman Begins and like with Begins, the fighting is quick but dull. The filmmakers try to compensate for it with synthesised generic fight music, attempting to stir in atmosphere where there simply is none, and by editing scenes to within an inch of their life.

While we’re on the subject dumb editorial decisions, just whose bright idea was it to include fly on the wall cameras with on-screen graphics – needless to say, it is grating to view and cuts into what little flow there is in momentum. In the interest of presenting a balanced viewpoint I’ll note that the art department and location scout at least get the visuals of dystopian Britain right, a place with all the beauty of Milton Keynes.

Underground’s worst fault is its lack of a likeable protagonist, an omission which leaves a voyeuristic feeling – and I think it would give the filmmakers too much credit to say that this was intentional – to the viewing experience. Just how much pleasure can be gained from watching unpleasant characters beat on each other? Answer: Not much, if there was I would hang around a high street on a Friday night watching drunks fight.

Don’t get me wrong, cinema and fighting can be a fantastic combination but Underground isn’t an insane martial arts spectacle like Ong-Bak or a visceral social commentary like Fight Club. Underground isn’t even as good as the film adaptation of the video game Mortal Kombat. It’s just a dull and nasty waste of time. I’d rather be smacked in the head than watch Underground again.

Reviewed on: 13 Jul 2009
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Underground packshot
Twelve fighters compete to win £500,000 in an underground fighting competition.
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Director: Chee Keong Cheung

Writer: Chee Keong Cheung, Oliver Morran

Starring: Mark Strange, Nathan Lewis, Joey Ansah, Leon Sua, Glenn Salvage, Beau Fowler, Shane Steyn, Liang Yang, Zara Phythian, William Mickleburgh, Scott Houston, Chris Smith, Fidel Nanton, Danny John-Jules, Gary Webster

Year: 2007

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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