Director Todor Chapkanov’s latest feature-length affair, Boyka: Undisputed 4, isn’t exactly the kind that would get the big screen treatment in North America. Elsewhere? Perhaps. Not so much here though, and it’s a shame as it was still a hope of mine that I shared as a theatergoer, albeit understandable with a limited number of screens at the least considering how rare it is to see martial arts movies these days, and of the caliber they bare in talent and content.
I take this fact to mind in observing the career progression of martial arts star, actor Scott Adkins, once a stuntman and someone who has essentially woven himself into ample popularity as an action-capable actor, and with his biggest audience keen on major martial arts fanfare. It’s a succession that has not been easy – one plagued by the ever-continued proliferation of piracy that causes films like Adkins’s latest reprisal to remain stagnant for years before ever seeing the light of day, and it should not be that way if the fans wish to see more.
Alas, here we are, and in the fourteen years since Adkins primed himself as a rogue British SAS operative in Isaac Florentine’s Special Forces – three years prior to etching himself into genre history with anti-heroic infamy as “the most complete fighter in the world” in Florentine’s direct-to-video Undisputed sequel with fellow action star Michael Jai White, and to date, with award-winning acclaim as of this year’s Jackie Chan Action Week at the 20th Shanghai International Film Festival in June. David N. White’s screenplay lends Chapkanov’s treatment of the franchise MMA protagonist a much larger playing field in a film that could have gone in any direction after Florentine’s Undisputed 3: Redemption in 2010 with momentum building during its development and while one may continue pondering such alternatives, the trajectory offered here suffices wonderfully as a preamble to what ensues for the remainder of the film.
Adkins returns as Uri Boyka, an albeit free man living in Ukraine and fighting its underground circuit for a chance to compete as a legitmate and professional mainstream athlete. His semblance of a peaceful, altruistic life notwithstanding, his aspirations for growth and escalation – backed only by his self-sustenance as a divinely-gifted fighter with a driven sense of endowed purpose – blind him in a moment of conviction when he accidentally kills a man in the ring. Unable to forgive himself, he temporarily casts aside his golden ticket to Budapest to, instead, search for his victim’s widow, Alma, who lives in Russia where much to his chagrin, he is still a wanted man. Ultimately, it is also where his quest for penance will bring him face to face with the local mob boss, Zourab, and his line-up of foaming MMA hellhounds waiting to challenge our reluctant fighter who ultimately resolves to regain Alma’s freedom in one week at any cost.
The return of Adkins to the role that made him the martial arts film star that he is today, in nature, is a celebratory one, and considerably given the circumstances under which it was possible. Its execution under Chapkanov stands equal in measure with Florentine handing the mantle over after two direct-to-video films and serving alternatively as one of its producers. White’s script still cuts a few dramatic corners, but fewer here than the film’s predecessors and still surges with substance in other key moments.
London Has Fallen co-star Alon Abutbul distingushes on screen in a worthy villain role as Zourab, the eyes and ears of the very club that houses the ring in which Boyka competes per his deal. The Shepherd and Conan The Barbarian co-star, actress Teodora Duhovnikova allures on screen as Alma, the widow held captive by Zourab while stoically builds a manageable co-existence with Boyka as she slowly comes to terms with his intentions to redeem himself in the face of internal questions they both share on the subject of forgiveness. Theirs is a chemistry built on a cordial understanding – a bond formed on a bridge withered by pain, loss, grief and the will to survive. Adkins’s range stretches just a little more here in a few instances that show a performance level that has evolved a bit more from previous myopia, giving way for further credence and appreciation for an already-established action movie favorite.
Tim Man’s fight choreography – third in collaboration with Adkins after Ninja 2: Shadow Of A Tear and James Nunn’s Eliminators sets the fight-fueled narrative for an explosive array of sequencing for which one tends to run out of adjectives in the scheme of describing or even praising. The choreography here is a ballsy, daring show of almost painful and cringeworthy execution with moments that will have you yelling at the screen and asking yourself how these actors didn’t end up in the fucking hospital. The lot of these moves are dirty, deadly, rotten, and much to our delight, appropriately characteristic of our antagonists and the escalated threat level our champion faces from this roster.
The line-up here, partly comprised of stunt and action-acting notables like our fight choreographer himself, Man, as well as performers Emilien de Falco, Trayan Milenov-Troy, Andy Long and noted Ninja 2 lead stunt double, action actor Brahim Achabbakhe, lay the groundwork for the exciting fightwork on display; Bookending at the top and bottom of the film is U.K. actor and bodybuilder Martyn Ford who monstrously towers them all as Koshmar The Nightmare, whose fighting prowess instantly lives up to the infamy our hulking, tattooed antagonist bares. Your first glimpse of this is a meaty close up of his retracting left arm as it takes a life of its own in a barrage of blows to a guy’s head, setting the tone and fear factor requisitely per his initial entrance.
It is opposite this buffet of gravity-defying, bone-crushing pain and brutality our dark hero demonstrably stares down in the name of penance, no less with his own fighting acumen combined with devout faith, and a sense of self-purpose. It’s a trait that gets explored in the third film as it does here, only now with a more rewarding iteration of our main character in his evolution and although it may feel somewhat repetitive to the apt viewer, it is nonetheless a fitting treatment.
In whole, you get what you ask for with Boyka: Undisputed 4. In accordance with a reigning star character with drama that manages to keep afloat, you get a raft of a screenfighting talent with the proficiency it takes to not only create fresh, cinematic fight fare for the screen, but to perform and execute it with quality filmmaking results. As such, you get to witness the near boundless, daring and gutwrenching moves our actors perform to controlled perfection – per their craft for sure, yet in a field that incidentally goes underappreciated by major award organizations like AMPAS. By and large as far as films go, generally, it is a tolerable setback for folks like these guys to keep doing what they love, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not to be overlooked in that regard is the nefariousness of internet access and the persistence of piracy, which is, attestably, a slap in the face for these people, which is enough to probably warrant this as the end of the Boyka franchise as we speak. For this, I’m sure that a good few of you out there and reading this are sitting there and asking me, in your minds, just what the hell it is I’m talking about, how I don’t work professionally in film and so I wouldn’t know a damn thing about the matter, and that another one would still come so stealing it makes it okay…
Well… no. It doesn’t.
Really, it’s shameful to do, and there may be plenty to hold accountable on both distributors as well as consumers as the cause for such an activity, we still risk defeating ourselves in the process. It’s when discipline goes out of the window for the sake of self-gratification that, much like Boyka in his initial moment of truth before the killing blow that takes him to back to Russia to risk imminent punity, blinds one from the truth and nature of independent financing and film production – the conditions in which film workers are employed and the income needed to support their families, and it is easy to not pay any mind to these issues when they are not in front of you. All things considered, however, and in the name of common sense and decency, in my opinion, those measures shouldn’t necessarily be.
For all my own enjoyment of Boyka: Undisputed, it would be a sad state not to see his character progress any further than this latest outing. Chapkanov, in my own first-hand experience of his craft, has the Boyka mythology down packed, erecting a continued, nourishing treatment of a role that has emerged with a signature personality that echoes impressions of charm, poise, and action movie excellence that has helped popularize it to date – a role the actor himself admittedly voiced in admiration in an interview with The Action Elite a few years ago:
“…I feel like I lucked upon something there. Nobody really knew what that character was gonna become. I love playing that guy and I can’t wait to play him again. Sometimes I have to apologize for being Scott Adkins and not Yuri Boyka. People get annoyed at me: ‘Why aren’t you Boyka in real life!!’”
I don’t know… Maybe we expect too much. Maybe we don’t deserve to be entertained as good as he and the people who worked on this film are. Maybe we deserve to watch more shitty, over-edited and equally overhyped action films with frenzied shakycam action and filmfighting rather than see Adkins and his ilk succeed, or the Stahelski/Leitch duo for that matter.
Maybe, just MAYBE, we owe Adkins an apology for undermining the independent film industry and setting back any chance of a fifth Undisputed film back by maybe ten years…six if we’re lucky? Heh.
Speaking of apologies, I share mine as well, as much as I wanted to talk solely about the movie at hand. When it comes to independently funded films where the purview of creative control resides a little more with the creators, it would be an injustice for me, as someone who was once an artist and one who has been supporting independent, low budget action films for the better part of his 34-year old life, not to say anything. In fairness, I think we all love the character too…just not as much as Adkins does. Thus, it is our actor’s choice at the end of the day, while if Boyka: Undisputed 4 were to be the last we see of the character on screen, it would be a disappointing loss to the genre. And in fairness, we can’t say we didn’t see this coming… we did.
Save for all else, I would have no regrets for that matter. Adkins has more than proved himself, as has the cast and crew of Boyka: Undisputed 4, and so I ask those of you who have not stolen this film and waited patiently to click here and order your Blu-Ray combo pack today, and at the very least, let’s finally learn to show our collective appreciation for what is offered to us by paying our way and supporting the great films that breath life into every kick Adkins throws in for the independent film industry.