Upon first reading the set up for Underground, a gritty British martial arts action flick, I was hooked. In the spirit of Enter the Dragon and Kickboxer the backdrop is an underground tournament featuring twelve fighters competing for a cash prize. The acting, character development and plot take a back seat and the director serves up a violent feast of one-on-one face offs.
There is no laborious introduction and instead we get a profile view of each fighter as a group of wealthy backers put up the prize money and compete with each other for victory. The plot and indeed the presentation of each fight are reminiscent of the classic videogame Street Fighter II. Twelve must become one and we are treated to a series of well choreographed no holds barred fights. Each fighter has a different style and their clashes are intense and bloody.
In between the fights there are interludes featuring the protagonists, mostly narrated montages that paint a simple picture. We also follow the action in the backers den where the wealthy gamblers leer at each other and the organiser explains the rules of each round. Underground distances itself from traditional action films. There is no central character to root for. The events that unfold are stubbornly gritty and uncompromising and the winner of each bout consistently confounded my expectations.
The direction from Chee Keong Cheung creates a decent atmosphere considering the low budget. He uses various techniques to inject a sense of urgency or tension which is lacking in the simple script. His obvious strength is directing the fights themselves and he captures some terrific moves.
The cast are a mixed bunch and the majority were obviously chosen for their fighting ability. Their martial prowess is clearly evident and while they struggle to build the meagre lines they are given into rounded characters they certainly convince in the arena. The pick of the fighters for me were Mark Strange, who plays the Homeless, Leon Sua, who plays the Triad, Liang Yang, who plays the Foreigner and Scott Houston who plays the Kid. Joey Ansah and Nathan Lewis also appear.
The non fighting cast consists of the host, Fidel Nanton, who explains the events as they unfold. There was also a welcome appearance from Danny John-Jules (the cat from Red Dwarf) and I was impressed by Leonard Fenton although my wife somewhat spoiled it by exclaiming "there's Doctor Legg" (he was in Eastenders).
Underground can't be recommended for everyone. The strength of the film is also its greatest weakness. The focus on unpredictable hand to hand combat with integrity dictates a thin script and weak actors. There simply isn't enough going on here to interest casual viewers. This is strictly for fans of martial arts action. People who fall into that category will find this a highly enjoyable romp and it is refreshing to see a British film in this genre.