It's rare that a DTV movie can impress as completely as Undisputed II - Last Man Standing did. Aside from being the best film Isaac Florentine had directed, it was arguably the single best martial arts flick released that year. The fact that it was filmed for under $10 million and managed to attain cult status without a theatrical release makes it even more impressive. Florentine followed this masterpiece up with the questionable The Shepherd: Border Patrol and Ninja, both of which were a decisive step back from the quality he had pioneered for the low budget market. Thus, it was with some apprehension that I awaited the release of "Redemption," fearing it wouldn't do the original justice...but I am happy to report that Florentine is back on par and delivers what is decisively the best straight karate flick of the year. Is it as good as its predecessor? Let's see...
The story: after his defeat by George Chambers, former prison fighting champion Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) is left unable to fight with a debilitating knee injury, but his warrior's spirit doesn't die. Rehabilitating himself, he earns both the renewed esteem of the warden (Mark Ivanir, Schindler's List) and entry to an international prison tournament where the prize is freedom. However, when the conditions are manipulated to favor an unstoppable Colombian powerhouse (Marko Zaror, Kiltro), he must accept an alliance from an American boxer (Mykel Jenkins, "The Bold and the Beautiful") if he hopes to taste freedom again.
Boyka is back to fighting within 10 minutes of the movie. At first, I was disappointed that it seemed the entire rehabilitation angle was fudged, but in fact his injured knee remains a focus throughout the film. It never really heals, and you know that at any moment it could give way or an opponent could catch on and take advantage. It's a good plot point in the story of Boyka's redemption - redemption I don't believe he truly attains, considering his deeds of the last movie, but it's interesting to see him become more of a human being than he was the first time around. Of course, this is made easier for him by Marko Zaror's apt portrayal of his darker half. Like Boyka, Dolor the Colombian is religious, and even spends time reading the works of Federico Garcia Lorca, but he's attained his physical greatness through drugs and his sadism knows fewer limits than even the old Boyka's. He makes a great villain, but the real bad guys are still the prison wardens, headed by veteran actor Vernon Dotcheff (The Name of the Rose), who have dark plans for everybody but Dolor. It's an old ploy to arouse sympathy for unsympathetic characters (the fighters), but an effective one.
Speaking of fighters, "Redemption" showcases plenty of excellent up-and-coming talent. In this field, it surpasses its prequel since that one only featured two real standout fighters - Adkins and Michael Jai White - while "Redemption" has four or five, depending on your standards. Adkins and Zaror are rightfully making names for themselves as solo stars but I was just as pleased by the casting of lesser-known athletes like Ilram Choi and Lateef Crowder. Mykel Jenkins isn't a martial artist but has a great build and convinces you of his proficiency in boxing. Fresh from a lackluster outing in Hellbinders, Esteban Cueto makes a decent brawler but only has a couple matches in the beginning of the film. There are plenty of better fights to see than his - fights so good that picking the best one is a real challenge, as almost all of the nine brawls seem to set a new standard for how fast I could jump out of my chair in amazement. Eventually, I give the nod to the much-anticipated showdown between Adkins and Crowder, the capoeira fighter who tore down the house with Tony Jaa in The Protector: their unprecedented agility and flexibility is complimented by extremely satisfying back-and-forth choreography and long, uninterrupted camera shots. No quick cuts or excess editing, here. Florentine is to be commended for putting so much effort into his craft. The only thing I can find fault with here is the choice of soundtrack that plays in the background: the hip-hop is very unfitting.
Production values are strong enough to have qualified for a theatrical release, with the exception of a few zoom-in closeups that are a trademark of Florentine's work. The acting content - always a gamble in the director's work - comes off as surprisingly strong. I was a bit disappointed that not a lot of authentic Russian is spoken, but the roles of the returning Scott Adkins and Mark Ivanir still feel legitimate. Mykel Jenkins' career should receive a boost following this film, for he proves himself a competent co-lead after ten years of supporting parts. In terms of realism, "Redemption" shies even further away from the realities of Russian prison life than "Undisputed II" did, but it's easier to forgive this time around.
Is "Redemption" a great martial arts movie? - absolutely. Is it as great as "Last Man Standing"? Well, the production quality is certainly matched and the fight scenes prove that Florentine can always outdo himself, but some of the oomph from the prequel is lost on this one. Having Boyka as an antagonist helped make the first film so strong, and despite my previous praise, I don't think his shoes were 100% filled by Dolor and the wardens. Michael Jai White's presence is missed, but Mykel Jenkins provides an interesting alternate angle on the role of an American boxer in a European prison, if not the same level of hand-to-hand action, but Zaror, Crowder, and Choi marvelously accept this duty. Regardless of any perceived flaws, this movie will be hard to beat in the DTV market. You really don't need to bother with Van Damme, Seagal, or Lundgren if this movie is within reach. Buy it!