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by Jay Seaver

"A winner."
4 stars

There's not a whole lot in "Unbeatable" that's new; this very combination of a raw young fighter, a coach who has seen better days, and a kid who doesn't take any guff has probably shown up on screen a time or three. It may be somewhat formulaic, but director Dante Lam is a guy who can do something with a good formula, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have Nick Cheung as one of the ingredients.

It starts out in all corners of China: Lin Si-Qi (Eddie Peng Yu-tan) is visiting a friend in Beijing when he learns that his father has vanished after his investments collapsed; Ching "Scumbag" Fai (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) is driving a taxi in Hong Kong until some gangsters come to collect his gambling debts; and single mother "Gwen" Wong Ming-kwun (Mei Ting) is tragically stretched too thin in Macau. That's where the other two end up, with Fai sharing an apartment with the unstable Gwen and her take-charge ten-year-old Dani (Crystal Lee Hing-hau) and taking a job at the gym where he used to train, where Si-Qi convinces the former boxing champion to train him for an open mixed martial arts tournament.

Right away, it's clear that Lam and his team know that they are playing with somewhat familiar pieces, and they do the audience the huge favor of hitting the ground running, setting the characters and their backgrounds up in quick but not perfunctory ways in the pre-title sequences and then jumping forward a few months to when Si-Qi has found his father (Jack Kao Hou-hsin), Fai has cleaned his act up enough to be embarrassed by his nickname, and Social Services have reunited Gwen and Dani. And while that's skipping over some potentially good material without much explanation in some cases, it also gets the story to the point where the characters' paths are crossing without needing much in the way of side-stories or characters who would have little to do from the middle on. It's efficient storytelling on the part of Lam and his co-writers.

Efficient and energetic; the writers give the cast banter that is often worth a chuckle without seeming jokey, even when it's coming from the little girl who is probably the most responsible person in the apartment. Lam and company find and photograph locations that establish the seeing in interesting ways, whether it be a mental hospital whose rounded architecture tells the audience that (in this story at least) it's a place meant to help or an arena whose neon pops and establishes it as the center of what's happening on fight night. He and editor Azrael Chung Wai-chiu go in for a fair number of montages - this is a fight movie with training to do, after all! - but they feel pretty informative as opposed to just being expected moments or bits that can't stand on their own.

And while the movie coming from Hong Kong means that the action is probably in fairly safe hands, it's good to see that Lam and company can shoot the heck out of a fight. I suspect that MMA is probably some of the most difficult action to translate to the movies; the octagonal arena isn't that big, but backing up means shooting through a chain-link fence and tall, opaque posts. Lam and company not only do a good job of capturing what's going on, but using action as a storytelling tool - the audience is always aware of a character's physical and emotional state and the limits of their skill, and though the fights generally run full-speed, what's happening and how it calls back to the rest of the story is quite clear (although maybe cuts to the commentators are used a bit too much). There's also a clear difference between an MMA match and a fight where people are trying to do each other actual harm, although the time spent watching the former does give the audience a little bit more of a leg up in keeping track of the later than usual.

The cast does get to act with more than their fists, too. Nick Cheung is in the center of the movie, and he carries it very well; aside from having the right sort of lean, experienced look for the part, he's got what it takes to bring Fai from loser to curmudgeon to guy worth rooting for with just the right sort of shift in body language or tone of voice. He's also got great chemistry with Crystal Lee, who seems to be a great cold actress. She's able to hold her own as the smart one in a scene without the adult having to play the fool, but it's never surprising when she stats to cry like a kid in way over her head. It does kind of leave Mei Ting to play a character that is maybe a little less capable than the audience might really believe, although she does fairly well with the broad strokes used to draw the character. Eddie Peng is not quite in the same boat; he's plenty charismatic, enough for Si-Qi to not seem like an afterthought in Fai's movie, but he doesn't get as much to do as the opening suggests.

Maybe if he did, this would be a great, transcends-its-genre fighting sports underdog movie. "Unbeatable" is not quite that, but it's a darn good one with a cast of characters that's very easy to get behind and a director in Dante Lam who is one of the best at pouring together crowd-pleasing entertainment that Hong Kong has right now. Whether you're a fan of mixed martial arts or not, that's not a bad way to spend an evening.

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originally posted: 06/14/14 12:35:35
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Directed by
  Dante Lam

Written by
  Dante Lam
  Chi-Fung Fung
  Wai Lun Ng

  Nick Cheung
  Eddie Peng
  Ting Mei
  Crystal Lee

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